When I got my first full-time job out of college, I remember walking down the stairs of the old Star-Ledger building in Newark, out toward the car wash across the street to call my parents.
It was a fun moment—a brief recognition that all their hard work and sacrifice had lead to steady employment at a place that made me happy. I thought about my future for a minute, and whether I would have enough money to move out of an apartment that was cohabited by thousands of large centipedes. (I didn’t.) Life was good.
Then I went back upstairs and was brought in by the managing editor, who told me I needed to take a drug test, ASAP.
I imagine that high and low as a microcosm of the draft-day experience for NFL prospects. When their names are called, players embrace family, friends, loved ones and agents in the green room. Many of them cry, realizing they would not be here without the people at their table. They think about youth football, the injuries, the struggles, the tough games. Then they walk out on stage to see Principal Roger Goodell, the one man standing between a children’s sport they love and a massive, multibillion-dollar business with rules to be followed.
This is where my experience and the experience of NFL athletes differ greatly. I did not hug the managing editor of my paper, the gatekeeper of my steady employment. But these newly minted NFL players almost invariably embrace the commissioner. Why?
I’ve read all of the Goodell hugging stories. About the birth of the hug, the length of hugs, the best hugs and the hugging odds. What I never understood is why this is something that still goes on, year after year.
Gerald McCoy’s levy-breaking hug in 2010, if I’m interpreting him correctly, was a combination of excess emotion and the desire to partially downplay the stuffiness of the moment. It was humorous, like watching the chaperones dance with one another at prom. But every joke has an expiration date.
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The NFL is masterful at capitalizing on every merciful crumb of its product and has yet to realize that we’d rather see more of the family—more elated mom, more proud father, more dancing grandma—and less Officer Krupke breaking up all the genuine feels with an awkward, out-of-place hug. It’s now extended to custom handshakes. Just wait for Thursday, when Goodell and Saquon Barkley do the first eight minutes of “You Can’t Stop The Beat” from Hairspray together. This, of course, followed by more Mike Mayock-infuriating picks live from the Dallas Zoo.
An insistence on forcing The Brand into organic television takes away from the true beauty of the moment. How much time do we spend discussing the cacophony of boos the commissioner gets before every pick? How loud is that going to be in a 100,000-seat AT&T Stadium full of people not all that thrilled about Goodell’s performance in 2017? The entire NFL Draft Experience® throughout the week serves as an incubator to belabor the league’s points. Everyone gets it. Everyone loves it. There’s no harm in just letting the music play once the picks start rolling in.
The Green Room experience is already potentially perilous for these players, who have to worry about sliding into the second round on national television—or having their water photoshopped into a Bud Light. The notion that we’re asking them to be fish in an aquarium during the tensest moment of their lives should be enough because, let’s be honest, the only benefits are for the television producers and agents who can snag some camera time. If the light at the end of the tunnel is a warm embrace from a person who could very well be trying to suspend you for some flavor-of-the-week infraction two years down the line, I’ll pass.
Turns out Joe Thomas had it right all along. He spent his draft day with his dad on a fishing charter in the middle of Lake Michigan. I’m guessing he didn’t miss the hug.
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