Janae Pierre: This is The Takeaway. I'm Janae Pierre sitting in for Melissa Harris-Perry.
Announcer: "With the first pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars select Travon Walker, Georgia."
Janae Pierre: Making it to the NFL is the dream of countless young boys and men across the nation. Less than 2% of college football players will make it to the NFL. For those who do make it, before they can don the uniform of a professional team and see those dreams realized, they must be selected in the NFL draft. Draft day is like winning the lottery for those selected to play on an NFL team, but the draft isn’t without its critics who find the process dehumanizing. Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick expresses this sense of dehumanization in Netflix's Colin in Black & White.
Colin Kaepernick: "Before they put you on the field, teams poke, prod, and examine, searching for any defect that might affect your performance. No boundary respected, no dignity left intact."
Janae Pierre: Both Kaepernick and football executive Troy Vincent liken the process to a modern-day slave auction. With the NFL draft taking place later this month, we check in with Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation and author of The Kaepernick Effect, about the state of the NFL draft and how it stacks up against other professional sports. Dave, welcome back to the show.
Dave Zirin: Oh, it's great to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
Janae Pierre: Absolutely. Take me to the NFL draft. Can you give me a sense of NFL draft day, what it's like for coaches, owners, and, of course, the players?
Dave Zirin: Sure. It's changed dramatically from the first NFL draft, which was in February of 1936. Back then, it was just representatives of nine NFL franchises going into a fancy hotel that was picked in part because it was owned by relatives of the NFL commissioner at the time, Bert Bell, and they basically closed their eyes and pointed at players they'd read good things about in the local newspaper. That was the extent of the draft process. That has changed so dramatically over the last, oh, 90 years or so.
It is now a spectacle the likes of which probably is only rivaled by the college football championship, and is just a level below the Super Bowl. More people watch the NFL draft than watch the World Series.
Janae Pierre: Wow.
Dave Zirin: It's become a spectacle unto itself. As part of that spectacle, they have changed it to the point where it now runs over the course of several nights, including a Thursday night broadcast that's coming up on April 27th, where they are going to play it on network television during prime time so they can maximize prime time ratings. People get obsessed with this and start thinking about the NFL draft months in advance. Every fan is like an amateur scout, figuring out who their team should take. It's become something for not just the serious fan but the casual fan is truly appointment television and an event the likes of which they wait for, for the entire year.
Janae Pierre: Before draft day, there's the NFL Combine. Talk to me about that. What happens there?
Dave Zirin: Yes. The NFL Combine's only been around since 1977, so 40 years after the first draft in 1936. The collection of NFL executives said, "Okay, we need to find out a better way really to quantify the unquantifiable." Because that's what we're talking about. Most draft picks work out, a lot don't work out, and I mean even in the first round. It is the most inexact of sciences.
This is their effort to try to put some form of formal relationship to the process of figuring out who they want to take, and not making it just about word of mouth or game film, but the NFL Combine where they prod players, they poke players, they time them in their run, they time them in their jump, they come out in their underwear so they can be looked over, and until last year, had to take IQ tests.
This is the thing that's led to some of the criticisms that you played at the start of the interview segment. Just to be clear about some of those criticisms that liken the NFL draft to something that would be more at home in the South of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. That criticism while became widely heard through Colin Kaepernick's show really is not new, and it's been said by players for some time in reaching for some sort of simile, if you will, for people to understand what they felt like is a very dehumanizing process of going through the Combine thing.
Janae Pierre: Yes, you mentioned that the criticism is not new. Do you think that it's a fair comparison, and also what's driving that criticism?
Dave Zirin: Oh. Well, I'm going to sit out the conversation about whether or not that's a fair comparison because it's not me doing it, and it's not my ancestors who lived through the trauma of the transatlantic slave trade. I'm going to stand totally outside, but I will say that what it comes from is something that you really don't see in other draft processes, in other sports, which is that sense of being-- I've spoken to NBA players about this, Major League Baseball players about this, and they say, "We don't feel like a piece of meat, if you will. We don't feel objectified when we go through our process. We're asked to do certain physical things, we're asked to play, we're asked to take some swings, we're asked to take some shots," and that's pretty much what it is. It's a workout.
This feels less like a workout, and more an assessment of your body. There's a hyper objectification that takes place, and players, particularly young players, 70% of whom are Black Americans in reaching for a way to try to explain their own feeling of dehumanization. They have reached to comparisons of the slave trade. Now, that has provoked some extremely strong reactions among executives, NFL commentators, and the like, but I've never heard any other players say, "Hey, that's really out of bounds."
Janae Pierre: I'm happy you made the transition to point out other sports drafts including the NBA, and we know, of course, Major League Baseball, they have drafts as well. Talk a little bit more about the similarities and differences in their draft processes compared to the NFL.
Dave Zirin: Well, let me tell you quickly about something a great NFL player named Brian Mitchell once said to me. He once said to me, "A chef once came up to me and said, why do you get paid so much and I get paid so little?" I said to the chef, this is Brian Mitchell talking. I said to the chef, "Well, your job is to cook a steak. In my job, I both have to cook the steak, and I am the steak." That's what the NFL draft is like which differentiates it from other drafts. It's that hyper level of objectification in measuring pretty much every part of your body, except of which you have a privacy zone around as I said to my kids when they were little.
It's like everything is measured and assessed in a way that by-- Also, you get asked a series of questions, it's not uncommon, that would be profoundly out of bounds in any other job interview-type situations. The kinds of questions that are asked have forced some players even come forward and say things, like when Dez Bryant said, "Effectively, they asked if my mother was a sex worker or not." They get into those kinds of issues which are so out of bounds, because some of it, I would argue, is executives are overwhelmingly white and very privileged.
The players they're talking to come from backgrounds where they make assumptions about criminality, that a lot of players find as you can imagine really offensive. I've never heard that with other pro sports teams. I've never heard that kind of interview process that has been subject to so much critique. That also goes for the IQ test, which was called the Wonderlic, which only stopped in 2022. Other leagues don't give IQ tests to, again, this goes back to what we were talking about earlier, to quantify the unquantifiable.
All these executives are so scared about losing their jobs, that they're trying to show their minders, the franchise owners, "Look, we have this data, and that data means this person should be drafted." If they are a bust, which like I said is a coin flip, they can always say, "Well, we did our due diligence, look at the data." Unfortunately, that due diligence is often in the NFL very out of bounds.
Janae Pierre: All right, Dave. Quick break, more NFL draft talk right after this.
Okay. We're with Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation. We're talking NFL and the upcoming draft. I want to take us back to the summer of reckoning, the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, when multiple companies, organizations, including the NFL, promised to do more, to understand, and eliminate racism. What have you seen regarding the NFL or other major sports leagues' efforts to address racism and better relations with Black and brown players?
Dave Zirin: What I've seen from the National Football League, and I've seen this in other leagues as well, so in this case, I don't want to just single out the NFL, but in the NFL, I think it's been the most dramatic. I think you see how paper-thin corporate allyship actually is, because, yes, the NFL made lots of proclamations, as did, let's be frank, companies and organizations across the corporate landscape in 2020.
I think we all remember Mercedes-Benz's commitment to fighting racism. It was because they felt, and that's not to single out Mercedes-Benz, it's just the comical nature of every single company saying, "Well, we want to do this, too. We're on the front lines of this. We care about racial inequity," and you wonder where those companies are now as so many things are taking place across this country, as Toni Morrison is banned from our libraries.
You don't hear Mercedes-Benz saying a darn thing, and you don't hear the National Football League saying a darn thing. That was about that summer, and responding to the incredible outrage that not only took place across the NFL among players, where a lot of players were active against racialized police violence, but also about their fan base and the future of fans in the National Football League. They understand, like a lot of corporations understand, that the future is more demographically diverse and less tolerant of intolerance than any generations in the history of the United States.
The NFL's efforts to connect with that, you saw them after 2020, you saw them put end racism in the end zone. You saw players allowed to put slogans on their helmets, but you've also seen over the last several years, a walking away from some of the big commitments that they were talking about, about finally doing something about coaching inequity, for example, and lack of opportunity for Black coaches.
Well, what's happened since 2020, they're now getting sued by Brian Flores, a former coach of the Miami Dolphins, who says with tremendous credibility that racism was a part of his firing. In that lawsuit that Brian Flores has put forward, guess what he calls the NFL?
Janae Pierre: What?
Dave Zirin: He calls it a neo-plantation mentality and situation. There you have those criticisms about the draft now being put forward from Brian Flores and his attorneys. That's what we're seeing from the NFL. We saw a lot of talks and very little follow-up. If I could just say one last thing about that, that speaks to the gap between the objectives in the NFL's central office where Commissioner Roger Goodell works on Park Avenue in New York City, and the kind of message that they want to send to their fans, and the reality of who really has power in the National Football League. That's the 32 top executives, the 31 franchise owners, because Green Bay doesn't have a franchise owner, who makes the decisions in shadows and behind closed doors. In those rooms, we're not seeing progress.
Janae Pierre: What about the disparities seen between Black and white quarterbacks? I'm thinking right now of a piece you did on Lamar Jackson. Why is it a struggle for Jackson to find a new home outside of the Baltimore Ravens?
Dave Zirin: Well, the number one reason why Lamar Jackson is having a trouble finding a new home outside the Ravens is because of a broad-based, very blatant ''collusion'' taking place among NFL franchise owners. I said ''collusion'' because we have no actual proof that they're sending emails to each other saying, "We cannot sign this guy. He's asking for too much money." Yet, you saw team owner after team owner, franchise executive after franchise executive comes forward publicly and say, "We're not signing Lamar Jackson. We are not doing this."
What do you call collusion when it's out in plain sight? They're all very upset because of the amount of money Lamar Jackson is asking for. Actually, it's not even the amount that's upsetting them. It's that he wants it to be guaranteed, because NFL contracts are not guaranteed money. You hear the news about so-and-so signing this huge contract. That's really not worth the paper it's printed on largely because they can be cut at any time. Lamar Jackson is saying, "I don't want to live that way. I want guaranteed money." The reaction to that has been a lot of people to say, pump your bricks, people in power, because they don't want to go down that road at all.
Now, there's one other thing I can say about it where I think this does get to issues of inequality, of inequity, is the fact that Lamar Jackson basically plays two positions. He's a great quarterback and he's a great runner. There's a lot of logic on his side here, that because I'm going to take the punishment of playing two positions, I should actually be paid in a way that speaks to what I'm putting my body through because I'm not going to play as long as Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, and that's just the way it is. How about I be compensated for doing the extra work?
That to me speaks to an absence of understanding and appreciation of the kind of skills that Lamar Jackson is bringing to the table that historically have been racialized and pathologized that the running quarterback seen as somehow less valuable than the one who stands in the pocket, Tom Brady style, and Lamar Jackson, one of the things that to me makes him so revolutionary is that he's taking this and standing it on its head, and saying, well, actually, I do have more value than these guys, and I should be compensated for it.
Janae Pierre: Dave Zirin is the sports editor of The Nation and author of The Kaepernick Effect. Dave, thanks as always for making time for The Takeaway.
Dave Zirin: Anytime. I love The Takeaway. Thank you so much for having me.
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