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Imagine the sales pitch that might have been delivered in the long hallways of a Ministry of U.S. Sports Culture not very long ago: O.K., how about this for a television event. The commissioner of the NFL stands at a podium in the middle of a stage. Every few minutes he reads out, in a businesslike monotone, the name of a collegian who has been selected to play for an NFL team. "With the first pick ..." and so forth. No music, no special effects. Just the commissioner and the microphone. Trust me. It'll kill.
The index cards have scarcely changed. "All these years, and we're still using the cards," says Joel Bussert, the NFL's vice president of player personnel and the impresario of the draft. In 1976, at the first of Bussert's 31 drafts, the league provided a stack of index cards on which teams could write their picks. The cards were stamped with blank lines for: team, round, player, position, college. "Now, of course, the cards are a little bigger and they have team logos stamped on the back," says Bussert. "But they're pretty much the same." � Little else about the draft is unchanged.
Riding the ever-rising tide of the NFL's popularity, the draft has become a spectacle unto itself, picking up steam before the confetti has been swept from the Super Bowl turf, then building to a crescendo on the last weekend in April in New York City. "It's become the second-biggest day of the year for the league," says Ernie Accorsi, who retired in January after three decades as a personnel executive with the Colts, Browns and Giants. "It's bigger than the conference championship games, it's bigger than opening day. It's bigger than anything the league does with the exception of the Super Bowl."
This year fans have congregated by the millions on the Internet, tirelessly debating mock drafts and arguing whether the Raiders should take LSU's JaMarcus Russell (a potential franchise quarterback) or Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson (the consensus best player) with the No. 1 pick. In the meantime prospects spend weeks tuning up for the scouting combine, on-campus pro days and individual workouts. On Saturday and Sunday, ESPN will provide 18 hours of live draft coverage, pulling in ratings that dwarf regular-season college basketball. Fans in game jerseys and face paint will swarm into Radio City Music Hall to cheer or chide each pick. In short, an entire culture has grown in support of an event that resembles sweeps month on C-SPAN.
Why? Because the draft taps into every fan's inner fantasy player, giving him a sense of control and power that's lacking on fall Sundays. No sane recliner jockey believes he can do Peyton Manning's job--but plenty of them think they can do Bill Polian's. "And do it three times as well," says Polian, the Colts' president. "It's noise, folderol and curbside psychoanalysis."
The deregulation of college football telecasts in 1984 unintentionally turned the draft over to the masses. Where previously fans were limited to two or three college games per weekend, suddenly dozens were being televised nationally, showcasing thousands of potential pros. "College players had been mysterious," says the ubiquitous Mel Kiper Jr., who began publishing a draft guide in 1979 and has built himself into a brand name synonymous with the event. "The only guys people had heard of were from Notre Dame or the Heisman Trophy winners. Now there are hundreds of college players ready-made for the draft."
Looking for a deeper explanation for the draft's appeal? Sports sociologist Jay Coakley, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, says some fans enjoy seeing athletes in a setting in which they're "objectified and reduced to pieces of meat ... in the same manner that some women and men watch beauty pageants. It offers a chance to be a voyeur while feeling temporarily superior to those being watched and objectified."
If that's too scary, there's a simpler hypothesis. Draft day is the birth of a year's optimism, before high picks turn into busts, before hope descends into a 2--6 record and strident cries for the coach's head. "Every team and all their fans think they're a winner on the day of the draft," says former Redskins and Texans G.M. Charlie Casserly. "It's one weekend when nobody loses any games. Everybody is undefeated."
At a Sinewy 6'4", 219 pounds, USC wideout Dwayne Jarrett is an imposing physical specimen. In three seasons as a starter he caught 216 passes and scored 41 touchdowns. But several NFL clubs are uncertain whether he's fast enough to merit an early pick, so at USC's pro day in late March, Jarrett was dressed to run the 40-yard dash in a black sprinter's unitard with gold insets on the shoulders, similar to models designed by Nike for Michael Johnson in his Olympian prime. Not coincidentally, Jarrett endorses Nike. "When you look good, you feel good," said Jarrett. "And you run fast."