Donald H. Yee is a lawyer and partner with Yee & Dubin Sports, a Los Angeles sports-management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches, including New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton.
On Thursday night, 32 young men were offered high-paying jobs during a live television broadcast. For the first-round picks of the 2014 NFL draft, it was the culmination of a nearly five-month application process — one that is humiliating, dehumanizing, intrusive and borderline illegal.
From No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney, who went to the Houston Texans, to No. 32 pick Teddy Bridgewater, who landed with the Minnesota Vikings, the players were examined like cattle in front of team personnel and questioned about subjects that touch on their sexual orientation and religion (subjects that, by the way, are off-limits according to state and federal law). Most players believe it’s all worth it if you become a high draft pick — until, that is, you are labeled a “bust.”
If you’re drafted in the first round and your performance doesn’t quickly meet the expectations of team executives or sports media, you’re forever branded an epic failure, an embarrassment for the team that chose you and a discredit to your draft class. Think Heath Shuler, drafted third by the Redskins in 1994. Or Tim Couch, 1999’s overall No. 1. Or JaMarcus Russell, 2007’s top pick.
It’s an incredibly harsh judgment on a young person. And an incredibly unfair one, too. When high draft picks don’t become stars, all the blame falls on the players. Instead, all the blame should be placed on the executives, coaches or owners doing the choosing.
When it comes to the NFL draft, the players have little control. The teams have almost all of it. Sure, there are the rare occasions when a drafted player refuses to sign with the team that picked him, such as 1983 first-rounder John Elway declining to play for the Colts or 1979 first-round pick Tom Cousineau turning down the Bills. But during the pre-draft evaluation, the players are largely powerless.
Aside from deciding whether to participate in an all-star game or a private workout, they can’t influence the process much. And on draft day, they’re sitting at home or in New York, just waiting to hear their names called.
It is a weird way to get a job.
By contrast, I suspect that team executives have more insight on their prospective workers than any other employers in America. Consider the information that a typical NFL team has on a potential top pick:
●Video of the player playing in college football games over two to four years
●Video of the player’s college football practices over two to four years
●All-star practices and games, also on video
●Several in-person interviews, some of which are filmed
●Close observation of the player through four days of the NFL combine
●Lunches and/or dinners with the team’s players and coaching staffs
●Game-film discussion sessions between a coach and the player
●Comprehensive medical information about the player, including lab work and X-rays
●Criminal, credit and personal background checks, often performed by former FBI agents
●Interviews with former coaches, trainers, academic advisers, etc.
●Specialized athletic testing (some teams develop proprietary tests)
I’m sure I’ve left some things out, but you get the picture. I think we’ve elected presidents with less information.
All of this data is served up to NFL personnel executives, who must use it to project whether a player can play in their team’s particular scheme. In my view, there’s so much information that it’s a wonder teams ever make a colossal mistake.
So why are colossal mistakes made? And why are the players usually blamed when things don’t work out? In my opinion, the biggest draft-day mistakes involve momentary incompetence, poor organizational discipline or politics within the organization — or some combination of all three.
Let’s say a team has reams of information about a prospect indicating his enthusiasm for post-midnight social activities. If a team drafts that prospect, and he doesn’t succeed because he’s out all night partying, do you blame the team or the prospect? Given that the prospect isn’t the guy who hands the draft card to the commissioner, I say the team. It was incompetent of the team to ignore the information it had.
Of course, team executives might hope that the player will mature and see the benefits of being in bed by 11 p.m. But that is essentially a guess — and if the guess is wrong, who is at fault? Players don’t draft themselves.
Sometimes teams make colossal draft errors because of a lack of organizational discipline. For example, every team spends months setting up a “draft board” prior to the big day, developing some ranking of each prospect. The idea is to choose according to what your final draft board dictates, thus taking some impulsiveness out of the equation. It’s a reasonable premise.
But what does a team do when its owner barges into the room, overrules everyone — including the almighty draft board — and dictates a choice of his or her own? And that decision turns out to be a multimillion-dollar mistake? Don’t blame the player waiting for the phone to ring. League scuttlebutt says this happened in 2006, when Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams insisted that his team draft University of Texas quarterback Vince Young. Young signed a contract with nearly $26 million in guarantees and had three good seasons with the Titans, but has largely bounced around the league since then. (He recently signed with the Browns, where he’ll battle for a backup job.)
Then there are countless political scenarios in which management politics gets in the way. Say a recently hired general manager inherits a head coach but openly covets a different head coach. And suppose the general manager makes a high draft pick that the current coach doesn’t favor. Will that lame-duck coach go out of his way to develop and showcase the rookie, or will he neglect or even sabotage him as a way to get back at the general manager? This scenario may seem unlikely to those outside of the NFL, but it isn’t to those who work in the business.
I’ve always found it interesting that the general managers are the only people in the draft process who don’t have their own money at risk. Owners sign the paychecks. Players risk their future income. And agents provide for training expenses to prepare players for the draft machinery. (If a player gets hurt or doesn’t pan out, that’s on the agent.) But general managers work under guaranteed contracts, so even if they make costly mistakes and are fired, owners still have to pay the balance of their contracts. If general managers didn’t work under such contracts, they might not feel as comfortable overlooking red flags.
The reporters and television personalities covering the NFL are also complicit. With so many of their mock drafts littering the Internet, lots of college players get the “can’t miss” label — only to end up missing. But instead of the writers taking responsibility, it’s easier for them to label a young man a bust. Catchier headline, anyway. (I’ve asked a few writers whether they would like to see their own sons treated this way in their first jobs. A typical reply: “That’s different!”)
So let’s congratulate the 32 young men who became first-round NFL draft picks Thursday night. Just remember that they didn’t draft themselves, and that a good number of them will not have long, productive careers. When that happens, be careful where you point the finger.
Donald H. Yee has written for Outlook about what college football will look like in 2020 and the case for paying college football players. Read more from Outlook, friend us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.