Each year, the NFL goes about the business of drafting college players. Before draft day, players attend the NFL “combine” in Indianapolis where they are measured poked, interviewed and tested. This all leads to the draft itself when a large chunk of the sports world follows with intense interest, which teams select which players.
Media coverage of the draft generally focuses on two broad themes. The first are the rags to riches stories of the young men who have achieved their lifelong dream of playing in the NFL. These stories are inspiring and play into the NFL’s desired narrative of providing tremendous opportunity for fame and fortune. Everyone loves a story of an undersized underdog who “makes it” or the young man from a background of poverty striking it rich, often against all odds. It is a publicist’s dream. It’s compelling entertainment. After all, the NFL is, at its’ core, “sportainment” – sports as entertainment. To that end, the league views the entire draft process as another advertising, branding and marketing opportunity.
The second area of focus is on the winners and losers of the draft. Analysts debate and rate which teams improved their rosters with these narratives being closely followed by millions of fans. It is exciting to contemplate the possibilities of new players being added to the roster to improve their team’s chances of winning a Super Bowl.
Traditionally, media coverage of the draft can best be described as factual, breathless and fawning. Factual, in the reporting of the specifics of who drafts who and when. Breathless as in media members and analysts acting as if the NFL Draft is more important than world peace. And fawning, in our general tendency to genuflect and bow at the feet of athletes, coaches and sports figures and moguls.
But there was a slight difference in the coverage of this year’s draft. Specifically, an alternative narrative that seemed to be bubbling up just below the surface. While still overwhelmingly factual, breathless and fawning, there was a hint of social commentary, critical analysis and introspection. Specifically, that the institution of American football, with the NFL at its apex, is, at its core, a “meat market”.
The NFL a meat market? Astonishing! Of course, the NFL is a meat market! The NFL is a cold, hard business, plain and simple.
Clearly, the notion that the NFL is a business is certainly not news. And the fact is, there’s nothing wrong with the NFL being a business. Professional sports is the most “honest” form of sports that exists. Everyone knows the score. The players are all adults who know the risks, realities and rewards of the profession. Their job is to make as much money as possible while their bodies hold up or before the coach taps them on the shoulder to tell them they are no longer needed because they no longer produce enough for the team.
The goal of the owners and coaches is to squeeze as much production out of their “assets” (players) as possible. This is exemplified by the fact that owners can deduct players as a “depreciable asset” just like a machine in a factory.
The only difference between this system and an outright plantation system is that the “assets” are being paid handsomely. So let’s get over it.
Yes, the NFL is a meat market. And yes, players are simply cogs in a vast machine. No surprise there.
That said, there was something significant about the increased attention to this aspect of the realities of professional football and the NFL. While it may have only been a scattered few articles and certainly not a groundswell of coverage and attention, the fact is, the issue was raised and covered. It represents another level of public awareness and introspection regarding football’s role in our society. More people are beginning to ask questions and critically assess the violent nature of football and their personal and our societal relationship to it.
From concerns about brain trauma to football’s culture of violence in general and towards women in particular to the enormous amount of time, energy and resources that are allocated to support it in our schools, people are beginning to ask more questions. From parents being more hesitant to allow their children to play the game to decreasing television ratings, football as an American institution is receiving increasing scrutiny.
Granted, a few articles and some increased attention and critical analysis of the NFL as a “meat market”, in and of itself, will not bring the NFL to its knees. But make no mistake, slowly and surely, things are changing as it relates to the role, influence and impact of football in our society. Consider it another brick in the wall in America’s reassessment of the role of football in our society. Football is facing growing public scrutiny that will continue to increase.
And it should.