The NFL Draft: History and Cultural Critique

Later this week, former college football players will walk across the stage at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois. They will shake the hand of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, put on new hats, and hold the jerseys of their new NFL teams. Outside of the Theatre, the NFL will hold a “Draft Town” in Grant Park and Congress Plaza in the middle of the Windy City. Featuring entertainment, food, player autographs, and a festive-like atmosphere, the draft and “Draft Town” contribute to the expansion of the NFL as a dominant cultural force in the United States.

The NFL Draft has become (especially for me, a fan of the perpetually losing Cleveland Browns) a national holiday for American gridiron enthusiasts. Will my team get that star player who will lead them to the playoffs? Will they finally get a “franchise quarterback”? Ultimately, the NFL Draft is a media spectacle that the NFL has intentionally created for advertising dollars.

NFL Draft Logo (flickr)

Yet, the NFL Draft was not always such a spectacle. In fact, when the draft began in the 1930s, it was but a small aspect of the league and nowhere close to the cultural phenomenon that it is today. Furthermore, in the contemporary culture, this festive-like event and the build up to it sheds light on various social issues related to sport, and particularly professional football. In this post, I consider both the history of the draft and the ways in which it elicits a ripe area for cultural critique.

History of the NFL Draft

In the early 1920s, owners of pro football clubs, mainly in the Midwest, met in Canton, Ohio, and formed what would become the NFL. Even with the emergence of the league, most Americans did not see professional football as a serious and respectable sporting venture; college football remained the most popular form of the sport. Baseball was still the “national pastime.” Therefore, when Philadelphia Eagles owner and future NFL commissioner Bert Bell initiated the NFL draft in the 1930s, few saw it as an important aspect of American sports culture.

NFL Commissioner Bert Bell (Wikimedia Commons)

NFL Commissioner Bert Bell (Wikimedia Commons)

Bell recommended that a draft of college players begin, in part, because a small number of teams dominated the league in its early years and the owners desired parity. Many teams in smaller markets struggled to keep up with the goliaths (with Green Bay the exception). On February 8, 1936, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the NFL owners held the first draft of college players, what they then called the “annual selection meeting.” As Bell biographer Robert Lyons describes, team owners held the first draft in Bell’s hotel room. League and team officials had put together a list of 90 players in the weeks leading up to the draft based on media insights or haphazard scouting by team executives; NFL teams did not yet have formal scouting teams as they do now. The 90 names were written on a blackboard, and after each team had claimed the rights to nine potential gridiron stars, the draft concluded. “Surprisingly,” writes Lyons, “not a word about the draft appeared in the three major Philadelphia newspapers” (p. 59).

The first player to be drafted that February was the University of Chicago’s Jay Berwanger by the Philadelphia Eagles. He refused to play football professionally, however, as many college athletes did not see a pro gridiron career as a viable and respectable option. In 1941, for example, as the sport historian Craig R. Coenen details, NFL teams picked 200 players from the college ranks in the draft, but only 77 of them decided to play professionally (p. 96).

While many drafted players decided to not play in the pros, the draft also did little to improve league parity. Despite the inception of the draft, as sport historian Richard C. Crepeau chronicles, four teams—Chicago (Bears), New York (Giants), Green Bay, and Washington—dominated the league in the 1930s and early 1940s. These teams had the most money, and consequently, the best scouting teams. On the other hand, according to Coenen, teams without money, such as the Chicago Cardinals under the control of owner Charles Bidwill, simply picked players based on media speculation and advice from owners of other NFL teams (p. 80). Therefore, while owners hoped the draft would deliver parity, all it really did was end bidding-wars over college players, leading to a substantial decrease in player salaries. In essence, the draft helped the owners control their labor market.

Charley Trippi, 1948 Bowman Card (Wikimedia Commons)

Charley Trippi, 1948 Bowman Card (Wikimedia Commons)

Maintaining a hold on the labor market continued to be part of the conversation each year at the draft. During the times when there was more than one professional football league, the draft played a role in league schisms. The American Football League (of the 1940s—there were three AFLs in the history of the sport) held a player draft in 1940, competing for NFL talent. More specifically, in 1944, the NFL’s Detroit Lions drafted Northwestern’s star quarterback Otto Graham. The Second World War intervened, however, and Graham never played for Detroit. Instead, the All-America Football Conference’s (AAFC) Cleveland Browns signed him after offering him a $1,000 signing bonus, among other perks. Likewise, the following year, the AAFC’s New York Yankees drafted Charley Trippi who had also been drafted by the Chicago Cardinals of the NFL. This led to Trippi receiving a $100,000 contract (over four years), when just a few years earlier the Cardinals spent $45,000 on their entire roster (cited in Coenen, p. 130). Surely, players enjoyed the competing leagues.

Although the NFL gobbled up the AAFC following the 1949 season, league feuds and salary escalations reemerged again just a decade later. This time the more well-known AFL of the 1960s entered the picture. Disputes in this decade were once again triggered by the simultaneous drafting of players. As a result, the drafted athlete was often left with leverage in contract negotiations. In 1960, for example, both the NFL and the AFL chose 1959 Heisman Trophy winner, running back Billy Cannon from Louisiana State University, as their number one overall selection. As Crepeau documents, the NFL’s Rams presented Cannon with a number of contracts prior to his final college game (the 1960 Sugar Bowl vs. the University of Mississippi). Cannon did not officially sign any of them in order to, in the words of Crepeau, “satisfy the power barons of the NCAA” (p. 60) who would have negated Cannon’s “amateur status” if he had done so. Following the Sugar Bowl, and while still on the field, Cannon instead penned his name to an agreement worth $110,000 to play for the Houston Oilers of the AFL. The Rams’ fight in court against the Oilers did not lead to anything. When the NFL and AFL finally ended their dispute in 1966 and inched closer to an official merger, one of the first actions taken by the two leagues (eventually the two conferences) was to hold one draft of college players. With a unified draft, and the limited chance at free agency in the NFL because of the “Rozelle Rule,” which all but restricted free agency, players’ bargaining power, again, plummeted.

Racial issues have also played a role in the draft. In 1962, Washington selected Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis out of Syracuse University. While Davis was the clear number one pick in the eyes of scouts and the media, many feared that Washington, under the leadership of George Preston Marshall, would not select Davis because he was black. Indeed, the Washington team was the only club in professional football to not desegregate by the early 1960s. Marshall had been a staunch supporter of segregation and believed that because Washington was the team of the South, he should refrain from signing black athletes to appeal to his fans. According to historian Thomas G. Smith, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall forced Marshall to sign black players or risk losing his thirty-year stadium lease. Udall’s threats represented the Kennedy administration’s push toward supporting the Civil Rights Movement, and because Washington’s stadium was located on the Anacosta Flats, a part of the National Capital Parks system, it fell under federal jurisdiction. When Washington drafted Davis and traded him to Cleveland for Bobby Mitchell (a wide receiver who identified as black), Washington avoided the wrath of the Kennedy cabinet. All of this drama played out in the shadows of the draft.

2010 NFL Draft (Wikimedia Commons)

2010 NFL Draft (Wikimedia Commons)

In the last few decades of the twentieth century, the NFL became a bona fide “brand,” as scholar of football and American culture Michael Oriard argues. Part of this “brand” included the transformation of the draft from simply an in-house activity to a mediated spectacle. As documented by scholars such as Thomas P. Oates, in 1979 the fledgling network ESPN agreed to cover and broadcast the draft and it has remained on the network ever since. The NFL, according to Oates, saw the draft “as an opportunity to promote interest in the league during the off-season.” The renowned “draft guru” and ESPN pundit Mel Kiper, Jr., joined ESPN’s coverage of the draft in 1984 with “his now-famous hair,” as Crepeau quips. The event moved to Madison Square Garden in 1995 from a local hotel; in 2006 it went to Radio City Music Hall and the NFL Network also covered the event for the first time. Finally, in 2010, the draft entered prime time, with the NFL moving its first-round coverage to Thursday night. Over seven million people watched the first day of the draft that year.

Cultural Critique of the NFL Draft

Indeed, the NFL Draft has transformed into a mega-media event over the past few decades. As Crepeau suggests: “The draft may be the biggest, most popular nonsporting event associated with the NFL” (p. 106). This off-the-field sporting spectacle has given scholars an area and a space to study how a number of social issues continue to make headlines in both the draft and the league.

Mel Kiper, Jr., Keyshawn Johnson, Steve Young, and Chris Berman discuss players at the 2009 draft. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mel Kiper, Jr., Keyshawn Johnson, Steve Young, and Chris Berman discuss players at the 2009 draft. (Wikimedia Commons)

One such issue surfaces as potential draft selections are discussed. Football scouts, coaches, and general managers, along with TV and radio commentators, journalists, and fans have spent the past few years, and the past few months especially, studying, critiquing, and analyzing these players’ entire lives. Many of these conversations are racially charged. For example, in a ten-year study of Sports Illustrated’s NFL Draft website, communications scholars Eugenio Mercurio and Vincet F. Filak found that journalists tended to emphasize the physicality of black quarterbacks, while highlighting the mental sharpness of white quarterbacks. The differences in framing these stories are based on racist stereotypes about the “natural” athletic ability of black athletes compared to the more “hard-working” white athlete.  Scholars Matthew Bigler and Judson L. Jeffries came to similar results in a study of black quarterbacks at the NFL draft.

Whereas racist stereotypes have infiltrated discussion of college players looking to move to the pros, discussions of NFL draftees also focus on gender, specifically in terms of norms of the male body. Oates and scholar Meenakshi Gigi Durham looked the NFL draft in terms of media discourses of the male body. They found that media coverage glorified such bodies in ways that perpetuated ideals of hegemonic masculinity (the focus on “size, strength, and the successful use of force”). Furthermore, because teams have predominantly white coaches and administrators that draft a large number of “non-white players of a lower class position,” the draft, according to Oats and Durham, “reinscribe[s] power hierarchies of ‘race’ and class” (p. 301). Oates has also analyzed the draft through the concept of the “erotic gaze.”  All of this analysis, moreover, is done through “metaphor[s] of the marketplace” or through an “unbridled celebration of organized capitalism,” he explains (p. 39).

Draftee Robert Griffin III poses with marines at the 2012 draft. (Wikimedia Commons)

Draftee Robert Griffin III poses with marines at the 2012 draft. (Wikimedia Commons)

Additionally, the NFL has used the draft to fortify and expand its dominance in the public sphere. For instance, the NFL employed the draft as a way to promote its brand in ways that connect to its role as a signifier of American nationalism. The league often holds tributes to the armed forces, continuing its close connection to tenets of nationalism and patriotism. At the 2004 draft, for example, the league paid tribute to Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinal who was killed in Afghanistan after leaving pro football for the armed forces. Although what really happened to Tillman was and remains murky, the NFL saluted Tillman as someone who “personified the best values of America and of the National Football League,” tying the two institutions together (cited in Oriard, Brand NFL, p. 24).

While the draft highlights the role of pro football in the United States, it also emphasizes other issues that remain in the league, and sport in general. Some, such as journalist Dave Zirin, suggest that Michael Sam’s fall in the draft last year illustrates the homophobia still rampant in the league.  This year’s potential number one pick, Jameis Winston, who is currently being sued by a woman that accused him “of sexual battery, assault, false imprisonment, and intentionally inflicting ‘emotional distress,’ highlights the issue of sexual assault and domestic violence in football. Indeed, Winston’s presence atop draft boards occurs amidst a much-needed national conversation about sexual assault and domestic violence. New players will also enter the league this weekend as more and more athletes are questioning their participation in football. The recent retirements of a handful of young NFL players in their prime, because of the health dangers associated with the sport, particularly head injuries and the risk of C.T.E., has some questioning the future of the league.  Added to these concerns over player safety is the ongoing litigation surrounding the “concussion settlement” between the NFL and former players.

Even with all of these critiques, the NFL Draft continues to demand prime-time coverage from ESPN and the NFL Network. Millions will tune in this Thursday when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are declared “on the clock.” In doing so, the NFL will launch another weekend of nationalistic pageantry, NFL branding, and capitalistic celebration.

Andrew D. Linden is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Pennsylvania State University. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. Currently, he is the Student Member-at-Large on the Executive Board of the North American Society for Sport History. He can be reached at and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He maintains his own website at

One thought on “The NFL Draft: History and Cultural Critique

  1. Pingback: Review of The NFL: Critical and Cultural Perspectives | Sport in American History

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