Thursday, May 1, 2008


My first year as a baseball fan—at the sweet and tender age of seven—was 1945. The Cubs won the National League pennant. Baseball’s an easy game, I thought.

My first year as a football fan was the next one, 1946. The Bears, with the marvelous (and Jewish!) Sid Luckman at quarterback, won the National Football League championship. Football, too, seemed easy.

The first year I was aware of the NFL draft was 1947. Despite having won the title the year before (and for reasons I still can’t explain) the Bears had the No.1 pick in the entire affair. With it they chose Bob Fenimore, a several-time All-American tailback from Oklahoma A & M, now Oklahoma State U.

Nicknamed the “Blond Bomber,” Fenimore came suitably hyped. Just give him the ball and get out of his way, the newspapers said. The Bears did that in ’47, but not often and with little effect. Apparently still hampered by a knee injury he’d suffered the year before, the Bomber carried just 53 times for 189 yards in his first season as a pro. (I looked that up.). It also was his last season, because afterward he went home to Stillwater and began what was to be a lifelong career as an insurance agent.

I thought the NFL draft was weird and anything but easy.

All these years later, I still think so. That’s why I annually scratch my head in wonder over all the fuss made over the player drafts of our major sporting entities. Crap shoots is what they are, but that doesn’t keep them from gaining in importance and attention among us fans. That’s testimony to our love of hype, because in that category the drafts stand alone at the top. No events are involved. They’re all hype.

Yes, the newspapers overplay the things, but I trace this development mostly to ESPN, the all-sports cable TV channel whose 1979 launch transformed not only sports but all of American culture. Before ESPN, sports were mainly a weekend diversion in this land, something to occupy a few hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Men chatted with their wives, helped their kids with their homework, watched “Bonanza,” maybe even read a book.

ESPN’s 24/7 sports format changed all that. Total immersion, theretofore a dream, became reality. Soon imitators popped up and created other all-sports fonts, both national and local. Guys today needn’t spend an idle hour watching or thinking about anything except the world of fun and games.

Still, they don’t play the National Anthem much between midnight and noon, so ESPN has to hustle to fill its airtime. What better way to do this but with draft blather? Production costs are low—a couple of guys in a studio will suffice. Any two will do as long as they’re loud enough. No scripts are needed; a question like whether the Raiders need a running back more than a defensive lineman easily can fill a half hour.

The NFL is nothing if not adaptable, so it leaped to the opportunity by allowing ESPN to air its entire, two-day draft, round by tedious round, which the channel promotes with months of on-air speculation. The league’s passion for pseudo science gives the network’s commentators plenty to yak about all those hours. In Bob Fenimore’s day pro football teams did much of their scouting by reading newspaper clippings. Today they weigh, measure, calibrate, clock, prod and poke prospects, subject them to intelligence and psychological tests (“Would you rather climb a mountain or eat a banana?”), and interview their parents, teachers, coaches, parole officers and present- and ex-girlfriends to plumb their “character.”

Some of the results are nonsense; for instance, my track-and-field friends assure me that no human being can run 40 yards in 4.5 seconds from a stationary start in football gear. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop such figures from being parroted. And “character”? I guess Michael Vick’s dogs ate his test.

So hey, friends, how did you enjoy last weekend’s festivities? Did your team score big or get guys who look like Tarzan but play like Jane? What grade did they get from the pundits? Truth to tell, the world won’t know how well they fared for two or three years, soonest. But keep that under your hat or you’ll spoil the fun.

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