The draft has become the crown jewel of the NFL’s offseason experience. It’s an event crafted out of thin air. It’s the ultimate reality show’s ultimate reality show.
It’s a TV event that has been carefully cultivated over the course of decades. It’s now a traveling circus over which cities compete almost as zealously as they pursue Super Bowls for hosting. Hundreds of thousands will show up to witness a show about nothing.
Obviously, it’s not about nothing. But it’s not a real sporting event. It’s a series of official announcements made from a podium, the sanctity of which the NFL tries to protect every year by squeezing its broadcast partners to instruct their reporters to not report on the identity of the picks before the Commissioner communicates them to the world. (Every year, I consider rebelling against this edict; I go along with it only because the audience truly doesn’t want the drama of each first-round selection to be spoiled by Twitter.)
As explained in Playmakers and elsewhere, a draft is un-American. But for the presence of a multi-employer bargaining unit, the draft would be a blatant antitrust violation. No matter how loudly the many social-media Matlocks out there would argue otherwise, the NFL’s 32 teams constitute independent businesses for antitrust purposes. Without an exemption from the antitrust requirements, collective business decisions and rules violate the law.
The draft allows 32 distinct companies to dictate terms of employment to incoming players. The player doesn’t pick his team; the team picks him. Even with the many examples of a player’s career being derailed if not destroyed by landing in a pit of dysfunction to start his career, fans and media rally around the league’s time-honored approach to figuring out who plays where.
The incoming players go along with it, because what other option do they have? Not nearly enough have taken a stand (that’s also addressed in Playmakers), and most have been brainwashed to accept the uncertainty as to their destination as part of the broader “honor and privilege” of being drafted.
Few want to even entertain the argument, because they don’t want the draft to go away. A a result, plenty of straw men get tossed around in order to protect the three-day sorting-hat extravaganza.
The biggest flawed argument is that the absence of a draft would create a baseball-type environment, with a handful of high-end contenders and everyone else. That ignores the presence of a salary cap. Yes, it can be manipulated, but it can’t be ignored. It has helped the league ensure parity unlike anything else in recent years.
Think back to the days before free movement of veteran players. There was little or no parity, but yet there still was a draft. So how much, then, does a draft contribute to actual NFL parity? While getting high picks can help completely turn a team around (like Joe Burrow in Cincinnati), that’s not parity. It’s a bad team making the most of the ability to snag the best player; the bad teams screw up those high picks as often as they don’t.
The next argument is that teams like the Cowboys would pounce on all the best new players. Beyond the broader salary cap, the league could address that dynamic by creating a finite spending allocation for incoming players based on where teams finished in the prior year. (There already is one, tied to total draft picks and the slots in which they were selected.) With only so many dollars available — and with the best teams having fewer of them to spend on rookies — the bad teams would have an advantage when it comes to recruiting incoming players.
Besides, which players are going to willfully sign with a team that would put them on the bench for multiple years? (Jordan Love, for example, would have told the Packers to get lost.) Football players want to play football. The best young quarterbacks won’t sign with a team that has a franchise quarterback in his prime.
There’s also a chance that teams, if left to their own scouting devices, will pursue the wrong players. In 2016, the Cowboys wanted Paxton Lynch, not Dak Prescott. The draft saved them from what would have been a gigantic blunder.
So, please, spare me the “having no draft would ruin the league” nonsense. Veteran free agency didn’t ruin the league. Rookie free agency wouldn’t ruin the league, either.
It could actually help the league. Instead of rewarding dysfunction by giving out dibs on the best players, bad teams would be compelled to get better. They’d need to sell themselves to rookies the same way they sell themselves to veterans.
There also would be no talk of tanking, and none of the tentacles that topic has created — such as the lingering scandal in Miami regarding claims that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered former Dolphins coach Brian Flores $100,000 for each game lost in 2019, in the hopes of drafting higher in 2020.
The biggest difference to a no-draft approach would be that the NFL’s primary offseason tentpole would disappear. In its place would be a series of press conferences where the best players would announce their intentions to sign with given teams. It wouldn’t be anything close to what the NFL now does.
Put simply, the draft itself is too big to die. Even if it would be more fair to the players and even if the incoming prospects could be distributed in a fair and equitable way, the NFL will never give up the annual event during which everyone finds out at the same time which teams have picked which players. In an age where few things can attract and hold a large TV audience, two things do it very well — NFL games and the NFL draft.