Over the weekend, I spent more time than I care to admit following ESPN's coverage of the National Football League draft. Call it a guilty pleasure.
It's also an example of how things once considered an afterthought have been magnified by the media, like the electric shock administered to Frankenstein's Monster.
Thirty years ago, we read about the draft in our Monday morning newspaper. When ESPN came along in 1979, coverage of this annual ritual took an uptick. Now, there are "draft gurus" like ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. who do nothing else all year but track college players who might be chosen the following April. Draft-oriented Websites have proliferated. And ESPN now shows us every one of the 255 picks, complete with glitz, performance clips of the players, and contrived drama.
Is it really that important? Of course not -- often, highly rated athletes flop and undrafted players become stars. But fan interest is insatiable.
And it's not just the draft. In February, there's the NFL Combine, where hundreds of prospective pros are measured, studied and tested by hordes of scouts and "player personnel" types. The closest corrollary in history to this phenomenon was the 19th-century slave market -- except that in this case, the money is paid to the participants, not for them.
Nit-picking abounds at the Combine. If a player clocks 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash, he's considered fast; if it's 4.6, he's slow. Other tests include how many times the player can bench-press 225 pounds, how high he can jump, and how well he scores on an intelligence test. Meanwhile, there are countless face-to-face interviews with team officials.
With all this, however, the sports cliche is still king. The players chosen are always delighted to play for the team that picked them, the general manager or coach always praises that player as a possible savior. A new wrinkle over the past few years has been the "character" issue, a product of the growing list of college athletes who have found themselves at odds with their coaches or the law.
Confronted with the character issue, coaches always say: "We've looked into Rock's background and interviewed his coaches, and we've decided that burning down the campus dining hall was really not indiciative of his true character. Besides, he runs a 4.3 40." (The last sentence is unstated).
But if a truth serum were added to the draft party punch, here are some comments I'd like to hear, just for variety.
Coach: "We really wanted that linebacker that Denver took in the round before us. Unfortunately, we're now stuck with this guy."
Coach, in the later draft rounds: "Yeah, our fans booed when we made that pick, but he's not going to make the team, anyway. We had to pick somebody, and there were no good players left."
Player: "Why would somebody from Florida want to go to Green Bay? I hate cold weather. I may be smiling now, but I just text-messaged my agent and told him: 'Get me traded to the Miami Dolphins, whatever it takes!'"
Coach: "Does it concern us that Brutus has been charged with armed robbery, abduction and inciting a riot during his years at State U? Sure, and we realize that he's a thug. But we're hoping he'll channel his aggressiveness into hurting players on the opposing teams."