Philadelphia Metro Viewpoints
NFL a practice in socialism By Evan Weiner
For Philadelphia Eagles fans, Saturday marks the time of year when they can come out of hibernation in their best tailgate-stadium attire to celebrate what is essentially a restraint of trade, the NFL draft.
It doesn’t matter to NFL fanatics that the baseball season is nearly a month old or that the NBA and NHL are in their playoffs. No, it’s time to salute the most perfect form of socialism ever invented. The National Football League, where all 32 owners share money, has devised a way of divvying up college athletes that under most other circumstances would be illegal.
And the fans buy into the notion and don’t ask questions. Should Eagles fans decide to go up to New York and attend the NFL Draft at the theater in Madison Square Garden, they get to attend a football function that’s a lot like the old Jerry Seinfeld show where nothing happens. Once inside Eagles fans can wear nutty outfits, read what Mel Kiper Jr. or anyone of literally 200 other draft gurus have to say about the NFL’s potential new employees and jump up and down hoping that an ESPN camera will put their mugs on cable TV. It’s like the crowd on “Let’s Make a Deal.”
They sit around and wait for the NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to announce that the San Diego Chargers are “on the clock.” The top prospective employees sit within ESPN’s camera range and when an athlete’s name is announced, ESPN captures the moment and the fanatics react the way Caesar might have. With a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
It’s a tough crowd. But the fans really don’t know how tough it is inside their favorite team’s “war room.” Spread across the country in each city that has a franchise, the war room resembles the old smoke-filled backroom at a political convention. Each team has a place filled with coaches and scouts arguing among themselves, and on the rare occasion even getting physical, while discussing the merits of a particular player.
Some organizations have accused others of bugging their war rooms to find out what is going on. The NFL draft really is crisis time. After all, teams are investing millions of dollars in first-round picks and a “bust” could force an upset owner to fire his entire personnel department.
In essence, the NFL owners have perfected a system to the point where they don’t have to compete for the very top college students who are eager to enter their unique business world, professional football. The teams automatically get the top applicants. Imagine accounting companies just going to Wharton or Harvard School of Business and drafting students. It can’t be done.
Yet the NFL draft is legal because the owners and the players’ association have cut a deal that allows the draft to be legal, even though college players apparently are left with few rights.
Football players’ contracts are not guaranteed, but they do keep the bonuses. Chosen college applicants are also slotted into a sliding salary scale. The No. 1 pick will get the most money, the final player chosen gets the least. But at least the last player picked in the draft gets a week vacation in Newport Beach, Calif., as the Lowsman Trophy winner. The geo-political world has changed, but not the football world. Some things just never change.
Evan Weiner is a commentator on “The Business of Sports,” for Westwood One’s