The Nothingness Is Lovely


By now, you should know Joey [classified Jew name]. He writes for FD on occasion, is responsible for the ever-excellent Straight Bangin', and this week was a guest on the FD/DoC podcast. He also really likes The Hills, which figures prominently in a long interview I did with Eugene for his "The People You Don't Know" podcast. It will either make you love or hate me more than ever, or maybe send me sympathy ribbons.

Growing up in a household bereft of prescribed bedtimes or limits on television, and one where knowledge of all kinds remains the leading currency, I developed a “talent” about which most parents wouldn’t normally brag to others. But on more than just a few occasions, my parents would smile with this weird, proud amusement as they told other people that, “Joe stays up so late and likes sports so much that he can watch the same SportsCenter three or four times a day.”

That Joe--he really knows how to use his time well.

My neuroses aside, I summon this memory because it reinforces two related things: 1) I consume a lot of sports media; 2) I still have no clue as to what the NFL Draft is supposed to be about. Every year, I am left feeling the same way--the most misleading weekend in sports is that of the NFL Draft, because, honestly, it seems to be about everything but the actual sport that it nourishes. It strikes me as even more bizarre when it is juxtaposed against the NBA Draft. The NBA Draft is fun. The NFL Draft? Not really. The NBA Draft reflects the fluidity of basketball: point forwards, flex offenses, and “we like his athleticism so we took him.” The NFL Draft, meanwhile, reflects the rigidity of football: set positions, arcane formation rules, and “signability.” To be honest, it sucks.

First, think about the NBA Draft. No, wait. First, let us just get this out of the way: yes, the NBA Draft is an event, or a process, really, riddled with problems. As Hubie might warmly acknowledge, “We know this. OK?” You’re right, teams can make horrible decisions. They seem to emphasize nebulous notions of potential to the preclusion of rational thought. They ignore known entities to roll the proverbial dice on only partially formed athletes who can’t shoot but can move in multiple directions once airborne. They confuse priorities, they overly rely on individual workouts, they insist that kids who don’t care about college attend it for a year--we know all of this. ESPN even has the temerity to post graphics that say things like, “Needs to Improve: Athleticism,” as though you can just buy some at a flea market. The whole thing can lend itself to easy lampoon.

The NBA Draft is undeniably about playing basketball, though, and that redeems it. A sports fan can see this. (A sports fan stupid enough to watch Charley Steiner and Mike Patrick on a loop can see this over and over again.) The way it’s covered, the way it’s structured, the culture that surrounds it--basketball is the thing. More precisely, the focus never moves away from the on-court product, wrongly landing on the draft process, itself. Columnists and reporters frame the draft by highlighting what teams need to improve. There are pre-draft camps where prospects--brace yourselves--play the sport! Teams evaluate their needs and the available talent with immediacy. The idea is usually that the right player can make a meaningful difference, and the priority is finding the best basketball fit. Again, you can fairly criticize how these evaluations are made and where they net out, but it’s hard to impugn the motives behind them. Everything about the draft carries this air of renewal; everything acknowledges that improving the basketball is paramount.

Not unimportant, I should reiterate that the tone of the entire institution is optimistic: from the workouts, to the assessment of needs, to the handshakes with Commissioner Stern, the draft encompasses positivity about the game. Everyone is the next someone, and that someone to whom a given player is compared is rarely any old humdrum player. Parallels are drawn in the sun, with the glow of hope brightening prognostications. Further, front-office personnel, players, and fans are allowed, if not encouraged, to have fun with the whole thing. It is uncommon for a team to draft someone and foster an ensuing dialogue that bemoans how little things will change. There is a baseline understanding that the team is likely to become more competitive, even if a given draft cannot fully satisfy all needs. Enthusiasm is no stranger to the NBA Draft, and no one seems to be bothered by this. Heaven forbid that we enjoy ourselves while celebrating a game.


The NFL draft may be fundamentally about all of this, too. I’ll be fair and allow that this may be the case. Those yahoo Jets fans who show up certainly are into it. Nor will I deny that the denizens of America’s favorite gambling habit surely want to find the safety required to win a Super Bowl and help their fans feel the excitement that should come with successfully executing this search. But…it certainly doesn’t seem that way to an outsider who is very much attuned to sports culture. Instead, everything about the NFL Draft feels different: the way it's discussed, the way it’s administered, the way it’s approached by its participants. In patriotic, nationally aggrandizing Cold War terms, the NBA Draft feels like America--cheerful, excited, warm--while the NFL Draft feels like the Soviet Union--stern, severe, cold. Put another way, which event’s tenor would best accommodate Ronald Reagan eating his jellybeans and smiling with his vacant veneer of senility, and which would better serve Nikita Khrushchev as he pounded his shoe on a desk? That’s what I thought.

Peter King wrote a column this week that captures so many of these differences. Trumpeting that the Detroit Lions, picking first, will focus on "signability" when making their choice next weekend, King easily rattles off 1,000 words about how the Lions will sort out whom they draft. It’s Peter King, so it’s overly moralistic and very much written by a middle-aged white guy from New Jersey knowledgeable NFL writing, but, strikingly, it has so little to do with football. Instead, it’s about business strategy; it’s about what the Lions are supposed to pay a top pick; it’s about a historical analysis of “what happens in the draft,” so to speak. King’s story presumes a certain kind of draft formalism that not only shifts its natural focus--shouldn’t it be about improving how the Lions play football?--but also illustrates what the NFL Draft is really about, namely the theater of “playing draft.” Football is almost secondary, and that’s neither fun nor sports, really.

Before we go on, I’ll again attempt to be fair: Maybe another team coming off a historic failure wouldn’t focus on “signability,” and instead would try to get the single best player. This could be a problem with the Lions (entirely possible), and not with the NFL. Further, the NBA doesn’t contend with signing drama because it has a rookie salary cap, so this could be an apples-to-oranges comparison. However, the NFL salary structure is fairly rigid, albeit non-codified, and the variations from year to year are not so vast. Were they, professional draft blowhards like Mel Kiper, Jr.--something else that, thankfully, sets the NBA and NFL apart--couldn’t shriek with such certainty about which players deserve “fourth-pick money” and which picks are good values. It wouldn’t make sense if everyone didn’t already know the stakes.


You can likely sense my skepticism that the absent rookie salary cap is the dispositive issue that separates the NFL Draft from its NBA superior. I am similarly skeptical (read: convinced in the opposite) that only the Lions would be choosing a top pick using actuary tables because, well, we go through this every year. It’s seemingly always about factors that are not directly connected to who runs faster, hits harder, and, ultimately, wins more. I don’t suggest that NFL teams don’t want to play better football. Rather, I’d argue that this unavoidable imperative, somehow, gets lost in the draft process itself. Not really a “sports” weekend, the NFL Draft has taken on this weird, meta component that seems to fuck up the thinking and the dialogue. The football draft is treated like a series of business transactions, and teams appear to lose sight of just picking the players who will make them best at playing football. NFL teams come off as more preoccupied with "drafting the right way," or carrying out some process preserved for its own sake, rather than the foundational issue of just improving the team. (For now, we’ll leave aside the much, much larger conversation about sports as business, which I acknowledge renders this post an incomplete exploration. I am OK with that.)

That’s not fun. Nothing about this ritualism is fun. It’s weird, and frankly annoying, that as early as February, people seriously argue about who the Seahawks should draft. Similarly, there is something nonsensical and antiseptic about the premier pre-draft event comprising Wonderlic tests, World’s Strongest Man simulations, and seemingly everything but actually playing football. The entire ordeal--and that’s what it is--feels insincere and disconnected from the sport.

Instead, the NFL Draft, not in organic harmony with the sport itself, seems to most directly connect to the larger NFL Industrial Complex that enjoys a suffocatingly tight grip on America. Everything about the NFL is taken oh so seriously, and discussed with such synthetic urgency and significance, that actual football is almost a secondary concern. Violence and primal physical competition may forever hold sway over the imagination of humanity, resulting in an evergreen appeal for the sport, but the Business of the NFL obscures this simple, innate appeal. It’s like when you apply too much dressing and drown out the natural flavors originally meant to be enhanced. Far from a compulsory exercise meant to showcase the product, improve how it’s played, and preserve the latent appeal of sport--a description which I’d ascribe to the NBA Draft as a compliment--the NFL Draft is its own industry, in effect. The draft is just about the NFL--the crest, those beer commercials, all that tailgating, and everything else that was once an attendant circumstance and now an equal to the football.

That is not really sports. That is marketing, or popular culture, even. The Masters, the Final Four, the divisional football playoff games--those are sports weekends. Those are mirthful, exciting opportunities to celebrate sports. As is the NBA Draft, a process that never loses sight of basketball, of the NBA’s loose rhythm, or the hope of the offseason. The NFL Draft, on the other hand, is an event that’s not really about sports. It’s about itself, and the self-involved seriousness of the NFL. Football becomes almost incidental as the NFL Draft drones on, polluting a perfectly innocent spring weekend with consternation about tenths-of-a-second differences, stern treatment of depth chart minutiae, and self-righteous indignation arising when teams “get it wrong.” As though the goal is to draft a certain way, not win more games.

As I said before, that sucks.

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At 4/17/2009 1:36 PM, Blogger Logan said...

This sort of bias occurs on both sides of the aisle. I constantly hear Colin Cowhard or whatever describing how the NBA could become more successful by imitating elements of football - particularly the "blue collar attitude" some guys bring to the sport. Recognizing that the two are fundamentally different does not, in my opinion, have to necessitate ranking them.

That the NFL draft has become more of a chess game than purebred performance enhancement simply reflects those parts of the business. It happens in basketball too, as Diaw, Salmons, Miller, AI, and more than a few coaches will tell you. Someone who spent time chirping about the Battier article decrying the NFL draft - for being all brusque and businesslike - seems incongruent. That article, to me, was about how to succeed with faceless number machines rather than basketball personalities. Moneyball described everything that I would not want to bring to hoops, but I can understand why people enjoy it.

So for someone who wrote a book on basketball rituals and eccentricities to bag on people for enjoying tailgaiting as a part of the game is sanctimonious, and a bit of an ivory tower argument of the sports academic.

Please don't get me wrong, I find your stuff amazing, and I love the book. But I also find the NFL draft interesting, and I am a football fan, and they are completely different sports, and you definitely are comparing apples to oranges. Then you say that whatever, apples are better. You're riding the high pony.

At 4/17/2009 1:49 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Point of order, Joey is dear friend and frequent guest poster but didn't work on the book. Plus he is his own man. He likes the Spurs.

At 4/17/2009 1:53 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Oops, forgot the link for the PYDK interview. It's up top now, but here it is for good measure.

At 4/17/2009 1:58 PM, Blogger Christopher said...

He likes the Spurs?! Well, Shit, so do I. I like the NFL draft too though, but I see (and tend to laugh at) the overseriousness Joey's referring to at the NFL draft, and usually just brush it off as Mel Kiper Jr trying to pay his mortgage. Still I want the Copwboys to get somebody fast. I remeber last season being like, who the hell is Chis Johnson? Oh, he ran a 4.21, crap we shoulda got him.

At 4/17/2009 2:09 PM, Blogger Joey said...

Logan--wasn't trying to bag on the tailgating. (And I know you were keeping things simple with that example.) It's not that the NFL can't have eccentricities and attendant culture. It's that the NFL Draft is so serious about itself because the NFL, overall, is so self-reverential about everything. It obscures the sport, itself. And that really isn't much fun. At least, not for me. But I am a decided NFL outsider, so I will readily concede my bias.

I haven't seen this written yet, but someone should write an obituary for Manu's career. He's done, and while that may be common knowledge, I don't think anyone has taken enough time to consider what he did and/or meant. Those Spurs had an uncommon gumption, and the idiosyncratic equilibrium that Pop, Duncan, Manu, and Parker forged was really fun if you could buy into both its knowingness (they were so happy to be what they were) and its impressive effectiveness. That's gonna be lost now. Though maybe the real story is that Duncan will finally start slowing without the power to come back.

I need to stop now or I will begin waxing romantically about things like Bruce Bowen setting his feet in the corner.

wv: kabytic--a livery driver who can't stop cocking his head to the left

At 4/17/2009 4:24 PM, Blogger Logan said...

@ Joey

I didn't mean to get so self-righteous. And you pointed out where you weren't being fair, so in a lot of ways by responding so sternly to your post I demonstrated a lot of things that you pointed out.

I'll stick by what I said, but the tone I took was exactly what you were talking about. HP: FAIL.

At 4/17/2009 4:34 PM, Blogger Robert said...


Good draft stuff, and these guys are always sure to point out what a team needs to draft compared to what they will draft.

Slightly jock, but not too bad.

At 4/17/2009 4:44 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

I barely pay attention to football. Too violent for me. Yet I clinked on the Peter King link and I was amazed at his imagery: "hamstrung with this millstone of a pick"... Really? You have the most valuable asset in the entire draft, and the choice of any eligible draftee in the pool, plus the option to trade down if you'd rather pay a bit less money to a slightly less talented player, and that's a "millstone"? What happened to rational choice economics?

At 4/17/2009 4:59 PM, Blogger ciscojennings said...

Fans and writers love invoking the “football as war” metaphor and laud belligerent, bullying Pattonesque leaders like Bill Parcells. The NFL draft is a weekend when the league’s George C. Marshalls take a bow. Huzzah for Quartermaster Generals and their ilk!

From a solely logistical perspective, although both the NFL & NBA draft take place in Cablevision-owned venues, football’s seven rounds, spread out over two days, involving hundreds of draftees, dwarfs the NBA’s draft, which hasn’t had seven rounds since 1989. The sheer volume of draft picks results in sports publications immediately giving letter grades to each team’s draft performance, guarantying that said publications’ archives will, in a few short years, have one more piece of near-absurdist humor writing. Alphabetical grades are less frequently applied to NBA drafts, flush with unknown, unsignable foreigner flotsam and second-round jetsam, despite NBA teams’ drafts frequently impacting a higher percentage of their roster spots than an NFL teams’.

Every spring, NFL fans are tantalized by the prospect that their team can radically change its future prospects. There are so many rounds that each team walks away with exciting skill position players as well as the somewhat anonymous role-playing cogs that are linemen, many of whom will be buried deep in the depth chart. The NBA draft is far less balanced, with lottery teams selecting the projected stars and the better NBA teams, the ones who spent the spring actually playing basketball, walking away from the draft with projected back of the rotation, role-playing cogs. The lack of stars being disbursed to every team, when coupled with the far fewer number of draftees, understandingly makes the NBA draft a more modest proposition, even without accounting for the NFL’s ruthlessly efficient skills in marketing, PR and related dark arts.

The fact is that when a surefire franchise player like Tim Duncan is involved, all the drama in that year’s draft takes place during the NBA lottery, long before the draft itself. The only real excitement in NBA drafts comes when multiple projected stars are available at the top of the draft and there is debate over which one will be picked first (seen most recently in Portland’s 2007 selection of Oden over Durant) and, of course, during the annual self-flagellation of the underclassmen who got bad advice and/or only listened to agents and their own entourages, and dropped out of the first round.

At 4/17/2009 5:33 PM, Blogger Sweat of Ewing said...

Small point, but I wonder how much of the difference between the NBA and NFL drafts stems from the fact that, in a game of 5 on 5, one player can really significantly swing your team's chances. Not so to the same degree for football.

Not saying that one player makes you a championship contender in the NBA (except, just maybe, Lebron), but one player can take you a lot further. So the NFL draft actually does become a bit of a chess match, because it's necessarily about moving pieces around strategically, rather than winning yourself a nuclear warhead for the next season.

At 4/17/2009 8:41 PM, Blogger Jon L said...

This speaks to the "the NFL Draft is about the NFL Draft, not about playing football" argument, I think. While occasionally you hear the "who would you start an NBA team with" argument, I don't think there's ever been an NBA draft piece written like this: http://tinyurl.com/co2tvb

At 4/17/2009 10:17 PM, Blogger David said...

I thought the NFL and the NFL draft (and indeed "football" in general) was about selling beer and trucks, and nothing more. As a small car-driving, wine-supping Euro living in Texas, the sooner "football" is banished in favour of real football (which you chaps refer to as "soccer") the better. The beautiful game looks ever more beautiful when the alternative is the Lions vs. the Vikings. Grim stuff indeed.
Now, the Lakers vs the Cavs promises to be quality entertainment indeed, even for a Rockets fan.

At 4/17/2009 10:34 PM, Blogger Louie Bones said...

...and whata swipe!

At 4/18/2009 12:29 AM, Blogger Ben said...

First of all, brilliant analysis of the 2 drafts. Secondly, I really enjoyed the comparison of the NBA Draft to America and the NFL Draft to the Soviet Union. But what do you think of NBA Draft = Obama, NFL Draft = McCain?

(no offense intended to the Republicans reading this, but the outcome of the election speaks for itself)

At 4/18/2009 1:11 AM, Blogger EL MIZ said...

brilliant stuff, joey. thought-provoking while pointing out the obvious. some excellent points as well on the 14 comments. as someone who attended the nba draft from 2002-2006, i will say that, in addition to the lottery, the nba draft was one of the best night's of my year, every year. a $10 ticket to the top right corner of the theatre at msg with about 500 other nba diehards, man the last thursday in june was about as much fun had at the garden all year -- especially given the state of the knicks. (best basketball at the garden, regardless, will always be the big east tourney.)

At 4/18/2009 8:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The NBA draft is more care-free because there is a lot less on the line than in the NFL. For one, the NFL (unfortunately) does not have a rookie salary scale like the NBA. 1st round picks in the NFL get crazy, unlimited paper, so there is a high incentive for NFL to make sure they don't waste money on busts(see Matt Leinart, etc.). Second,in the NBA draft, once you get past the lottery and the mid-late 1st round, good players are extremely rare. I understand the same can be said about the NFL (that once you get past the 1st round there are no more good players), but there are 6 more rounds after that point to try and find a diamond in the rough. That gives you a considerably better chance of improving your team than only having one round like in the NBA. Just some thoughts. Good topic. Good commentary.

At 4/18/2009 11:33 AM, Blogger T. said...

@Chris - but it flows both ways. There's a lot more at stake in the NBA Draft because a single player can change an entire team's make-up or fortunes. And its not only the lottery picks - Milwaukee is built around 2nd round pick Micheal Redd. Low first round picks are driving playoff teams like Houston (Aaron Brooks/Luis Scola) and Miami (Chalmers). Even if you manage to draft Adrian Peterson or Peyton Manning - it won't move the needle on your teams W/L.

At 4/18/2009 5:25 PM, Blogger ronald james davis said...

Rose v. Rondo > Paul v. Williams?

At 4/18/2009 5:42 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 4/18/2009 5:44 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

1. It's amazing that NBA teams invest so much scouting effort to look at college and foreign players, so they don't screw up the one, two, or three draft picks they have each year. If you get it right (see: Portland in 2006 snagging Roy and Aldridge) you've made your franchise a contender for a decade. If you screw it up (see: Marvin Williams over Chris Paul) you've squandered possibly the one chance you'll have in ten years to vault your franchise to championship levels. But given that relatively few of each year's draft picks turn into All-Stars, and if we look retrospectively at prior drafts we can usually say that most teams picked badly, i.e. they failed to take a superior player available to them, it seems that scouting is a very shaky endeavor. I wouldn't go so far to say that it's a "random walk" like picking stocks, but it's hard to get it right. Isiah Thomas rightly gets a lot of credit because he's one of the few executives who consistently drafts well. Given the few draft picks each team has and the low probability of success, there might be a case that teams are over-investing in scouting, which sounds paradoxical given how crucial good scouting is to a franchise's fortunes.

2. ESPN has Mel Kiper who bloviates all year about the NFL draft, but they also have Chad Ford for the NBA.

3. When I was a kid, I attended the 1993 NBA Draft in suburban Detroit, live at the Palace. I remember they curtained off half the arena to provide the same intimate feel as the MSG drafts. Hometown star Chris Webber was the star that year, and boy, everyone was shocked and puzzled when Orlando slapped our city in the face (so went the logic) by trading him. The Pistons were in ineluctable decline then, so Webber's success was the city's last hope. I wonder if a Webber-Shaq tag team would have been any more successful in the long run than Hardaway and Shaq. (Scott Skiles could've been a serviceable point guard...)

4. @ Ronald James Davis: Wow, I would love to watch six more games of Rose v. Rondo.

At 4/19/2009 10:53 AM, Blogger G Wolf said...

You lost me once you referenced a Peter King article in a serious manner.

At 4/19/2009 7:59 PM, Blogger Chocolate Bear said...

The reason they don't play football before the NFL draft is that it's just too physical and complicated of a game to have players who have never been teammates thrown together into teams. To develop a playbook that would adequately demonstrate everyone's abilities would take weeks, the risk of injury would be very high, and individual, isolated physical measurements are of a lot more use in football than in basketball. Besides vertical leap, almost every other physical attribute that is truly measurable would be better seen on the court than in a combine. In the NFL, weight room strength has much more value than in the NBA. Ditto straight line speed. Poorly thought out post.

At 4/19/2009 9:15 PM, Blogger Jacob said...

Fully agree with every criticism of this post. Apples v. Oranges, and all that good stuff. If you want to shit on the NFL, you gotta come with something better than this(and there are undoubtedly a lot of criticisms you could level).

At 4/22/2009 3:01 PM, Blogger Captain Caveman said...

Columnists and reporters frame the draft by highlighting what teams need to improve.And that DOESN'T happen in the NFL? Wrong.


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