On Thursday, April 25, millions of prime-time television viewers will gather to watch a a middle-aged man read off a bunch of names in 10-minute intervals. This will go on for three days. By the end of the weekend, 254 young men will be assigned to one of 32 potential employers. Welcome to the 78th annual National Football League Player Selection Meeting, better known as “the NFL Draft.”
The sports draft is an anomaly of the American labor market. In most industries new hires are free to seek employment wherever there's an opening. Even promising high school athletes may accept a scholarship offer from any college. But the NFL shield has stood resolutely against labor freedom since 1935 when Bert Bell, then the struggling owner of the last-place Philadelphia Eagles, convinced the rest of the nine-team league that poorly performing clubs should be rewarded with first choice of promising college talent. Under this new system, a “drafted” player could only negotiate a contract with a single team.
The first NFL Draft took place on May 9, 1935, in a ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia (where Bell worked before buying the Eagles). Bell selected University of Chicago running back Jay Berwanger with the first-ever pick in the nine-round draft. Bell then made the first-ever draft deal, trading Berwanger's “services” to the Chicago Bears for veteran tackle Art Buss. Bell reportedly balked at Berwanger's demand for a $1,000 per game salary. Berwanger declined to sign with the Bears and never played professional football.
Nearly 77 years later, the Indianapolis Colts selected Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the first overall pick. Luck signed a four-year, $22.1 million contract in July 2012. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Colts also made Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish the final selection (253rd overall) in the draft, earning him the traditional moniker “Mr. Irrelevant.” Harnish spent last season on the Colts' practice squad, where the minimum salary was $5,750 per week.
This vast improvement in player compensation since the 1930s has muted any criticism of the NFL Draft as a restriction on the free movement of labor. Most commentators and fans accept on faith Bert Bell's original argument that the draft enhances the league's competitive balance. In reality, this “balance” is mostly the product of the league's 16-game regular season, which makes a year-to-year swing of one or two games much more important than in any other professional sport.
Another critical (and overlooked) factor is the absence of labor restrictions for non-player personnel. There is no draft for coaches, general managers, or other front office staff. Competition for managerial talent drives innovation and improvement far more than restraints on incoming players. The NFL in 1935 had no professional scouting. Today, all teams have entire departments dedicated to player assessment. Eliminating the draft would not impact the need for, or work of, these staffs.
Nor would abolishing the draft significantly alter the structure of the modern NFL. Regardless of how players come into the league, they are all subject to a salary cap that fixes total compensation as a percentage of football-related revenues. The present collective bargaining agreement further constrains rookie salaries, and roster limits prevent a team from simply stockpiling players. All the draft does is increase the likelihood that the most promising new talent—the players taken at the top of the first round—will go to teams with a demonstrated history of mismanagement.
This should concern the league as it faces a rising tide of concussion-related lawsuits brought by former players. While the NFL tinkers with playing rules in an effort to make the game “safer,” there's been no effort to question the role of the draft system in promoting unsafe working conditions. Let's say Player X is a highly touted quarterback prospect drafted by Team A. What if Team A has a poor offensive line and a coach prone to recklessness with his quarterbacks? Player X can't turn around and negotiate with Team B, which offers a better line and a coach with a stronger record of developing young quarterbacks. Player X is stuck with Team A, and if that means he's out of football after four years, a record number of sacks and a half-dozen concussions, then so be it.
The problem is that the NFL never thinks through the consequences of the draft system. League officials are far too enamored with the marketing spectacle the draft has become since the 1980s, when ESPN started televising the event. Commissioner Roger Goodell expanded the draft from two to three days to maximize the hoopla. It's part of the NFL's evolution into a year-round television reality show where the players are mere contestants. The NFL Draft may not be a sensible way to allocate talent, but it provides football-starved fans, media pundits, and “draft experts” with something to discuss endlessly between the Super Bowl and the start of training camps.