The NFL draft has always been objectively one of the more stupid spectacles on the sports calendar. Even those who consider themselves real freaks for the event, the people who spend the preceding weeks consuming as many mock drafts as possible, can’t help but admit the truth to themselves once the first round nears its end.
Last night could have been different, though. With just about every sports fan in America desperate for some small crumb of live sports-adjacent content to nibble on, the NFL began the night with about as much unearned goodwill in its pocket as it could ever hope for. And what did it do with all that goodwill? It made us sit there and watch Roger Goodell stroke himself.
First we got an achingly overwrought intro narrated by Peyton Manning, who told us that the this year’s draft is a shining beacon of hope for all Americans, or something. Then we got Goodell’s fireside chat, during which he did what he always does: attach himself and the league, remora-like, to whatever vague notions of civic goodwill he can find and suck away until those vague notions become representative of the NFL and its interests.
Last night was nothing more than a branding opportunity seized with great vigor. You were meant to come away from all that soft narration and saluting of first responders with the understanding that the NFL is now the official league of Helping Us Heal During This Pandemic. Just as you were previously meant to understand that the NFL was the official league of Supporting Our Brave Troops, and Supporting Our Brave Women, and Supporting Our Brave Social Justice Advocates.
The irony of the NFL making uniquely eager sports fans sit through nearly 20 minutes of self-hagiography before actually giving them what they desperately wanted will likely never penetrate the league office. No sports league in history has never been more convinced of its own importance, or of its unique status not as an entertainment product, but as a civic institution.
The trouble is that the league will only be more emboldened to congratulate itself the more captive its audience becomes. Somewhere around the 12th minute of last night’s onanistic draft introduction, I convinced myself that I was disgusted enough to change the channel. I didn’t, of course, because what else was I going to watch? And besides, I wanted to see what Matt Patricia’s living room looked like.