Posted: Thursday April 28, 2011 9:08AM ; Updated: Thursday April 28, 2011 1:29PM
Michael Rosenberg
Michael Rosenberg>INSIDE THE NFL

Why the NFL Draft has become a cultural phenomenon

Story Highlights

The NFL Draft is bulletproof: Even if league shuts down completely, draft will thrive

If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell held a draft every Sunday, people would watch

Draft is like sports-talk radio; you can argue but there's no winner or loser

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Well, now we have the proof: Even if the NFL shuts down completely, the draft will thrive. When the world ends, the only things that will survive are cockroaches, Keith Richards, the NFL Draft and Mel Kiper's hair.

At the moment, Roger Goodell is stuck in a doorless room, but he might finally have a way out: Forget the games. Just hold a draft every Sunday in the fall, leading up to playoff drafts in January and finally the Super Draft at the end of the season. (The halftime show, naturally, will honor Wilson Pickett.)

While the league and players argue over ... well, whatever the heck they're arguing over, the Draft just chugs along. It truly is the most remarkable big day on the sports calendar, a must-see sporting event that is not really a sport or even an event. It's guys shaking hands. Yet we can't look away.

The question is: Why?

I don't mean that in a negative, cranky, who-the-hell-ever-asked-for-color-TV-when-black-and-white-was-just-fine kind of way. People can watch what they want, and I would watch the draft even if I didn't have a professional (ha!) obligation.

But why? This is a question I ask myself a lot, though hopefully not out loud in public places. Why do we obsess over the NFL Draft? What, to use the parlance of our times, is the upside?

If somebody asked you why you love sports, how many of the answers would apply to the NFL Draft? We love seeing the best athletes in the world perform. All they do at the draft is walk. We love seeing our teams win. Nobody really wins in the draft, at least not right away. We love suspense, and I suppose there is suspense with every pick in the draft, but that doesn't fully explain its popularity.

The draft is missing the two most addictive elements of football: violence and gambling. Oh, I suppose you can gamble on the draft, but I don't see how, unless you're Al Davis. And one of these days Kiper and Todd McShay will get in a vicious altercation where they whip each other with their neckties. But we don't watch for the violence or the gambling.

Ostensibly, people watch the draft to see what their favorite team will do. But that doesn't really explain it. Unlike a normal game, with the draft there is no difference between watching it live and checking the results when it's over.

The draft used to be a fringe event in our sports culture. Now it is our sports culture. We watch anyway. The draft has a lot in common with American Idol. Both feature people we've never heard of, with talents that are open to debate, who could go on to fame or infamy, and are judged by experts in their field.

For years, people complained that the draft was overexposed. But that was back when there were real worries about the convergence of sports and entertainment --before that battle was decided. The following quote is not about the draft, but I think it says something about the acceptance of the draft as a cultural phenomenon:

"The first time ... I appreciated it, but this time around I think I will appreciate it so much more. I took a lot for granted early in my career. It was a great opportunity at the time, but now it will be so much more satisfying. To show it to my children and say I was able to accomplish."

That was Michael Vick, speaking to The Philadelphia Inquirer, about ... starting for an NFL team? Making the playoffs? Nope. He was talking about the possibility of appearing on the cover of Madden '12 (Vick lost out to Browns running back Peyton Hillis for the cover).

If we take the competition to appear on the cover of a video game seriously, how can we complain when people go crazy over the draft? We can't. Twenty years ago, in the context of our sports landscape, the draft seemed superficial, the bastion of losers with too much time on their hands. These days, with the explosion of interest in college football recruiting and television commercials and misspelled tweets, the draft feels important.

I have long believed that a central appeal of sports is that they are definitive: Every game ends with a winner and loser, every season ends with a champion, every Isiah Thomas job ends in catastrophe. But the draft has the opposite appeal: Nothing is definitive.

It is surely no coincidence that the NFL Draft and sports-talk radio rose to prominence at the same time. Sometimes it seems like sports exist mostly as a giant argument. Look at ESPN: First Take, Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn are all, on some level, televised arguments. People argue over which show has the best arguments, the kind of meta, argument-within-an-argument-about-an-argument that can lead to a confused man screaming profanities at himself.

The draft is an argument without conclusions or consequences. There is no risk in being wrong -- no embarrassment for arguing, vociferously, that Ryan Leaf would be a better quarterback than Peyton Manning. Unless you are an NFL scout, nobody will remember in three years whether you thought Marcell Dareus could hold his own against the run. We all get to watch and feel like we're part of it. This is the only sporting event where the participants, announcers and spectators all do the same thing: Watch highlights, talk about players, form opinions. General managers risk public humiliation and firing. The rest of us don't. For one weekend, it's a lot more fun to be watching the television than on it.

 
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