NFLPA acknowledges draft weirdness
Wait a minute, wait a minute: There's still an NFL draft?
The reports Monday that the NFL Players Association -- reduced to shadowy advisory status after its decertification adventure over the weekend -- planned to request that top draft prospects stay away from the April 28 event in New York jolted me straight up out of my Barcalounger. Up until that point, I hadn't assumed the thing would go on at all.
But of course it will, because America has to have its NFL draft. The draft will draw new talent into a league that the owners absolutely, positively know will go forth into the 2011 season. Considering the massive payout to both sides regardless of how the percentages ultimately are broken down, the idea of a total collapse in a $9 billion negotiation is laughable -- and even a short-term interruption of game feeds, a few weeks' worth, will only whet the public's appetite for more.
And all that, in turn, makes this the most cynical, manipulative "lockout" ever devised. Thanks, pro football, for reminding us that what you think of us can generally be summed up in a single manufactured word: sheeple.
On Tuesday, NFLPA executive George Atallah tweeted that players and their families would be at the draft, but the experience might be "different."
For all the vitriol being directed at the erstwhile players' union over its reported suggestion that top college picks avoid the draft-day broadcast in New York, what would anyone have it do? Act normally? There can't be anything more insulting to the ticket-buying, game-gobbling public than for both sides to walk up to the draft as if it were just any other year.
I give the NFLPA credit for at least acknowledging that the draft this year is a weird, disconnected event. The NFL's owners are blithely going ahead, selecting the future players for their franchises on the one hand while pretending their mortal existence is being threatened on the other. It's inane. It's like my newspaper delivery guy telling me he's going on strike, then leaving me a few months' worth of issues to tide me over.
And it is quite clear that the powers that be, on both sides of the NFL's labor-line of scrimmage, simply assume full audience participation once they do settle their differences. History mostly tells them that they're smart to so assume. The recent ratings for pro football tell them the rest.
We'll be back right away. They're sure of it. And that's why they can run right ahead with a pro draft on a day in which, technically, the owners aren't even allowed to have contact with the very players who populate their locker rooms and compel their fans to watch -- and the newly minted rookies have no teammates to join and no deals to negotiate.
I don't have a dog in this race. I'm surprised any normal person does. If I were to fall toward either side, it would be the players', primarily because the NFL owners this time around are barking as though the just-expired division of riches in the last contract was some grand cosmic injustice that befell them. (Memo to ownership: You bargained that deal.)
Either way, though, it's remarkable that the NFL draft simply goes on. It is certainly fair to argue that the draft can't do anything but go on, but does no one else see the arrogance wrapped inside that logic? It is an insult to people of good will, to real sports fans.
Labor issues stymie sports leagues from time to time, without question, and I think most sensible people understand that. So why doesn't the league actually stop when one side either goes on strike or initiates a lockout? Isn't that what is supposed to happen, that the league goes dark? Who conducts a draft for a league with no labor agreement -- unless people on both sides realize, deep down, that such agreement is absolutely going to happen and that the rest of this is but posturing and staging?
And that's it, you see. That is the long and the short of it. The very fact that the NFL is going ahead with its precious draft tells you everything you need to know about the state of the league, if not the up-to-the-bloody-second update on how contract negotiations are proceeding. The negotiations stink. But that is so much less important than the truth that the league is richer than Rockefeller.
Football isn't going anywhere; the NFL is doing a draft. And as long as that is the case, you really don't have to waste your energy with even a moment of worry about it. Go about your business and evaluate those top-round picks, then enjoy your summer.
Baseball will be in full swing, and college football will arrive before we know it. At some point, the NFL will get dragged out of whatever closet it just ran into, and we'll all smile and wave. Old friends.
For pure theatrical effect, I'd love to see the NCAA's top players spurn the NFL draft this year -- but, as I say, it's strictly theater. In reality, every one of those draftees will wait patiently for the time when he can sign his name to a contract that's valid. And so will we.
And I have to imagine that the National Football League and all of its beneficiaries know that fact very intimately. Without that knowledge, such cynicism as a predetermined lockout would never occur. Sheeple are the lifeblood of the revenue system, after all.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in August by W.W. Norton. Reach him at email@example.com.
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