The NFL has had plenty of P.R. problems in recent years. Decades ago, however, the league laid the foundation for one of the great P.R. maneuvers of all time: Making new players believe it’s an honor to not be able to pick their first employer.
Great high-school players get to pick their colleges. Great college players don’t get to pick their first NFL teams. Their NFL teams pick them, as the final, well-hyped, three-day act of a four-month job interview during which the players jockey for the privilege of being chosen.
Players have become conditioned to regard being drafted in any round as an honor, even if many of the players taken in the final round on Saturday would have been much better off to not be drafted at all. Often, players selected in the seventh round find themselves facing an uphill climb to make the 53-man roster due to the stockpiling of players at one position; in those cases, it’s better for the player to pick (through undrafted free agency) a team, a roster, and a scheme that maximizes the player’s chance of making it.
The fact that plenty of fans and former players (including one very loyal company man) react so strongly when anyone tries to peck at the outermost layer of this particular onion confirms the impact of Big Shield’s long-term Jedi mind trick regarding the idea that there’s something good and honorable about a highly-skilled worker in a specific, narrow industry having no freedom of choice to select his first professional city, workplace, supervisor, or coworkers.
The system of allowing separately-owned sports teams to calls dibs one at a time on the incoming workforce would be regarded as unfair at best, illegal at worst in any other American industry. Every year, for example, thousands of law students emerge into the workforce, with the best of them landing jobs at major law firms in large cities throughout the country (you know, the same cities where NFL teams are located). The law firms don’t get together on a national (or even local) basis and decide which lawyer goes where; each lawyer decides where he or she will live and work.
Is it an honor to be regarded as good enough to work for a major law firm that pays out a very healthy starting salary? Absolutely. Would it be an honor to be subject to a system that compels the employee to work in a city in which the employee may have no relatives, no friends, and/or no desire to live or work? No.
The fact that some of you are getting a little upset while reading this proves that the NFL has successfully conditioned everyone (well, almost everyone) to think it’s good to be drafted. But it’s critical to separate being regarded as good enough to play in the NFL from being stripped of any choice as to where those football skills will be demonstrated.
Five years ago, the antitrust lawsuit filed after the NFL Player Association disbanded and the NFL locked out the players challenged all anti-competitive aspects of the league’s rules, including the draft. Once people realized that the end result of an NFL without a unionized workforce would be no draft at all, folks lost their minds a little bit. (Including me; I guess my opinion has evolved.)
Before assuming that the NFL without a draft would create chaos (and fewer opportunities for organized booing), consider what the alternative would be. Teams would compete with each other to sign the best players — and the ability of one team to corner the market on all the best young players would be constrained by a rookie salary cap, which would limit the total amount that could be given to new players. The broader salary cap also would limit the ability of teams to stockpile high-priced players.
Instead of three days of a draft, the NFL would have a second free-agency frenzy — one that could be even more compelling than the veteran version the NFL stages every March. (Remember, the NFL once resisted tooth-and-nail the notion that players should become eligible at any point in their careers to choose their teams.) A true rookie free agency process would be much different from Big Shield’s current preference for Schadenfreude TV, but letting the teams scramble for players could ultimately be better.
The fact that it would be different freaks out everyone who either likes/loves the draft or who directly or indirectly benefits from it financially. As a result, the fact that it would be the fair and just way to truly honor the best college football players in America gets overlooked.
Especially since the NFL (and everyone else) has managed to convince kids who have been exploited for the past three or four years in college that they aren’t being exploited one last time.