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Keith Strudler: The NFL Draft’s Flat Circle

As much as time is still a flat circle, there is one date by which most football fans mark time, a moment to reset the internal clock and begin anew. That date, of course, is the NFL draft, which tomorrow will be held in Cleveland, which I assume is a way of discouraging too many people from wanting to come. Unlike last year, which was held at the height of the pandemic, or at least its onset, this draft will be held in person. Masked and outdoors, by live and face to face. That means we won’t see the inside of everyone’s living room and get to know uncles and cousins and all the other people that helped make the journey possible. While I understand the change, I’ll miss the paradoxical intimacy of forced separation.

Football fans of this region are likely split in one of three camps. Either you’re Jets fans that’s feverishly learning about BYU’s passing attack, a Giants fan that’s comparing 40-yard dash times of SEC wide receivers, or a New England fan that believes your management has somehow secretly found the next Tom Brady. Or perhaps you’re a fan of one of the other 30 teams with some theory about who you should take and why that pick might automatically make your team a perennial Super Bowl contender in a league that’s designed to limit continued success. Just ask the Jets.

By and large, there are two groups when it comes to the NFL draft. Either people who think it’s the most fascinating television ever, or people who’d rather watch reruns of Alf. To its credit, the NFL has long turned the HR process into a much-watch miniseries worthy of Emmy consideration. It’s perhaps the truest of reality television, especially since it’s pretty much all scripted anyway, just like MTV’s Laguna Beach was. You don’t have to watch to know that Trevor Lawrence is going first to the Jacksonville Jaguars. But we will anyway.

I suppose in some way, this NFL draft, live, in-person, and masked, is perhaps another marker of where we are in time and our painful slog towards normal. It won’t feel like old times, but it also won’t feel like last year. And I expect the NFL commissioner to publicly acknowledge the Derek Chauvin verdict and the League’s general support of racial justice, a line the NFL has attempted to walk in maintaining the highest possible audience in a largely fractured America. The draft, and the NFL itself, are quite often both a reflection and a result of who we are as a collective. So even if you’re more sociologist than sports fan, you can still find something to watch for.

Perhaps what’s most interested about the NFL draft at this moment in time is, well, it’s status quo. Take away the cosmetics and the outdoors and the masks and the politics, and what you have is largely the same thing you’ve had since, well, forever. Or at least in the current era of the NFL and big time college football, where a largely unpaid apprenticeship is the entrance requirement to the pros. Over the course of the past several years, we’ve seen growing instability to this particular model, or at least that’s what we’ve been led to believe. There’s an ongoing legal fight over name and likeness, there’s growing interest in new professional leagues to compete with college sports, and there’s the threat that the entire system of big time college sports violates anti-trust law. Add that to the idea that fewer kids will play football because of concussion risks and the challenges to generating live media dollars in a streaming world and the fact that who knows if people want to actually spend money to attend a football game in person, and you’d imagine that the NFL and its talent acquisition would be staring into one giant abyss. And yet the normalcy of this football draft speaks otherwise. As does the expanded 17 game season and big contracts with new media partners like Amazon to fund the new wave of talent graduating from college to the pros. As much as people have been calling for the demise of professional football for the better part of a decade, tomorrow night’s draft is a strong rebuttal. Or to paraphrase Matthew McConathy in Dazed and Confused, the NFL keeps getting older, and players stay the same age.

It almost makes sense. Anyway, for now, time in the NFL is still a flat circle.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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