NFL draft: This one's for all those kids who got picked last
I don’t want to make a habit out of recycling old pieces I’ve written, but it is Earth Day, and this column I wrote about the NFL draft in 2003 for Flak Magazine is appropriate here as well. Even if you’re not a fan of the NFL, or the draft, or sports in general, at least a pro draft can be good for one thing: letting some athletes know how you felt getting picked last for every team in gym class — or not getting picked at all for schoolyard games. (NOTE: I’ve made a few edits to update the draft format, but otherwise the column is reposted as originally written.)
If you always got picked last for sports on the playground or in gym class, assuming you got picked at all, you can get some psychic revenge by watching the April 22-24 NFL draft.
Ostensibly, the purpose of any professional sports draft is to organize the distribution of the top young players not already signed to pro contracts. Other than a few hotshots whose early selection is preordained, most athletes will have to sweat out how late in the draft they’ll get chosen, if they’re chosen at all. They’ll curse the silence of their phones, which ring only with relatives and friends from back in the day calling to ask the damning question, “Why haven’t they picked you yet?” With each passing pick, the potential embarrassment gets greater, the pressure to smile through the pain grows stronger, the mental voice suggesting maybe they should have spent more time in class gets louder.
Isn’t that great? Who doesn’t love seeing jocks get a taste of their own medicine? At least when you didn’t get picked in the schoolyard, all you lost was your pride. They can lose their careers before they even start! A pro draft is one of the most stirring reality shows on television — you never know who’s going to get voted off, or voted in!
The NBA, anticipating an audience that one day would thirst for Simon Cowell yelling at warbling nobodies, about 25 years ago launched a tradition of public draft-pick humiliation. The league invites the presumably assured top picks to the site of the draft, which is now a very TV-friendly two rounds. The players have a tradition of showing up in pimped-out suits, in which they stroll up to the podium after their name is called by league commissioner David Stern. For their troubles, they get a baseball cap featuring the logo of their new employer. As each player heads for the podium, the dwindling numbers in the green room sit on edge, feeling like fools for still being there and for wearing such lousy suits. The camera inches closer to each remaining player, with announcers saying things like, “Boy, he was expected to go higher, but there he is. I wonder what’s wrong with him?”
The NBA draft’s definitive moment came in 1998, when high-school phenom Rashard Lewis slid all the way out of the first round to the fourth pick of the second round, being bypassed not once, but three times by his hometown Houston Rockets. With each pick, the camera came within fewer atoms of his face, which had teary eyes and the hangdog look of a guy who’d just been stood up by his prom date. Lewis somehow mustered the nerve to walk to the podium like a stud to get his Seattle SuperSonics baseball cap, only to be met by … assistant commissioner Rod Thorn. Stern doesn’t stick around for the second round. That’s gotta hurt.
At the NFL draft, the humiliation comes courtesy of ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., the TV network’s longtime draft analyst. Kiper is what’s known as a “draftnik,” which means “geek with a satellite dish and way too much free time.” The only helmet Kiper ever wears is his hairstyle, but he gets to pick apart every player even under consideration in the seven-round draft.
Who the hell is Mel Kiper Jr.? Ask Bill Tobin.
Talk about a sports loser’s revenge — millions of fans will base their opinions of a drafted player — a guy who’s spent his life beating the hell out of other people and getting the hell beaten out of him in hopes of some great financial reward — on the words of a community college grad who says things like, “He demonstrated some foot speed at the college level, but he’s going to struggle because his hands are small and his arms are too short.”
That’s right, you jocks. Mel Kiper Jr. has looked you over and discovered the dirty secret that you have baby-girl hands and tyrannosaur arms! What do you think of that? Maybe you should have chosen the Mel Kiper Jr. types for your elementary school teams instead of picking on them! But it’s too late for that, isn’t it?
Kiper also gives his instant gradings of a team’s draft, which brings us to another way to get psychic revenge. If you got picked last, with captains prefacing their selection by saying, “Do we have to take him?” then surprised everybody by showing a modicum of athletic ability, you can live vicariously through lowly drafted, or undrafted, players who make a team and end up performing far beyond expectations. For example, four years after Lewis’ televised humiliation at the hands of the NBA, he became one of the league’s top young players and a highly desired free-agent acquisition. He stayed with the Sonics, with a guaranteed $70 million on the way. (And Lewis got even bigger money later in Orlando, while the Sonics franchise itself followed by getting bigger money later in Oklahoma City.)
With so many ways to have a catharsis about your own early athletic experiences, there’s no way you should miss watching the NFL draft, or any draft. Not that I have my own issues about getting picked last, or anything.