Thank Goodness for the 2020 NFL Draft

After more than a month without live sports in the U.S., even Roger Goodell will be a welcome sight on Thursday night.
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On the Great To See You Again scale, Roger Goodell ranks somewhere between your tax accountant and your proctologist. The sight of him usually stirs up dormant annoyance. Few commissioners in any sport are beloved, but Goodell is well below the mean.

Yet Thursday night I will gaze upon the boss of the National Football League like a long-lost brother. It will, indeed, be great to see you again, Rog.

Goodell will announce the picks in the first round of the NFL draft Thursday, and the fallow sports landscape will bear its first fruit in weeks. For the first time since March 12, the day sports in America slammed to a halt, something will happen.

NFL draft 2020 Roger Goodell

We will have something to watch, and it won’t be a documentary (some of which have been great) or a replay of an old classic game. It will be present tense. We’ll have live and unscripted sporting drama, and it will be quite welcome.

It’s a long way from the most important thing in our world right now. Way down the hierarchy of needs. But man, is this draft arriving right on time.

We lost March Madness.

We lost Opening Day.

We lost the Masters.

We lost the stretch runs of the NBA and NHL regular seasons, and the start of their postseasons.

We lost pickup ball in the park, going to the racetrack to bet on the horses, and in some places the chance to play a round of golf. We lost soccer and softball and track and field and swimming and tennis.

We’ve lost a lot. All those landmarks of spring have disappeared, leaving us adrift in a sea of fear and uncertainty. Nothing looks or feels familiar.

Here is a chance to regain a little something, a little part of our U.S. sports DNA. Here is the start of a comeback. It will be a long, slow, arduous comeback—one that should not be rushed, out of ignorance or impatience or hubris—but this is the start of one nonetheless.

Great to see you again, Rog.

It will obviously not be a normal, 21st-century TV draft. Quarantine and a major ESPN production do not go well together. Concessions had to be made, but the show will go on.

This will be less of a visual extravaganza—remember, the plan was to hold the draft in Las Vegas and ferry the players by boat to the podium after they were picked—but it will still be a lot of fun. Maybe even more fun than usual, without all of us cast in the role of Green Room voyeurs.

The greatness of the draft isn’t dependent upon scene and stage. It works because it combines all the other elements of good sports theater: emotion, suspense, surprise, controversy and projections. Everyone can pretend to be an expert during the draft. The players won’t prove or disprove themselves for months to come, if not years. Nobody is wrong yet.

So this is always a compelling event. Many athletes’ childhood dreams are realized, and a few are dashed. Fans overreact to what their favorite teams are doing. Mel Kiper is Mel Kiper.

We get to see Joe Burrow complete his annus mirabilis. Last April in the LSU spring game, fans got their first look at the quarterback in a no-huddle, spread offense. From there it all flowed—an undefeated regular season, a Heisman Trophy, a sprint through the College Football Playoff to a national championship. Now Burrow should cap it off with a homecoming, a kid who grew up in Southeastern Ohio likely being drafted No. 1 by the Bengals.

We get to see the Tua Tagovailoa drama play out, as NFL teams finally have to lay their buy-or-sell cards on the table with the injury-prone Alabama quarterback. Will he go in the top five, or will he slide?

We get to see how NFL franchises prioritize a draft class flush with receivers and offensive tackles, important building blocks in an increasingly offense-friendly game. Decisions about who was taken ahead of whom will be remembered for years to come—maybe not quite to the level of Trubisky-over-Mahomes, but the comparisons will be there.

A dozen other plot twists will materialize along the way, underscoring the perennial allure of sports: We don’t know what’s going to happen next. Given the sameness of our lives for the last 40 or so days, that will be a nice change.

So welcome back, live sports. Not a competition, but at least a drama. There may not be actual football on time in late summer, but at least the machinery of the game will be in motion this week.

Sandwiched between a depressing past five weeks and an uncertain next several months, we will have this present-tense happening. Roger Goodell is nobody’s sweetheart, but we’ll never be happier to see him than Thursday night.