After Celebrating Tragedy, the N.F.L. Draft Looks to Change Its Tone
The N.F.L. draft is a pinnacle for many players, most of whom have dreamed for years of hearing their names called by Commissioner Roger Goodell in front of millions of TV viewers.
But in 2020, as players celebrated reaching the professional ranks, the broadcast zoomed in on their personal tragedies.
In one widely condemned instance, as Tee Higgins, the wide receiver from Clemson University, was chosen 33rd overall by the Cincinnati Bengals, he pulled on the team’s cap and hugged family and friends who sat beside him in Knoxville, Tenn. ESPN then showed viewers a graphic that, among other biographical details, spotlighted his mother’s past drug addiction.
It was one of several such gloomy instances in what is otherwise a celebratory event enjoyed by millions of football fans on television, but one which comes with aspects that can be dehumanizing to the people who should be its stars. Viewers learned, for example, that the sister of receiver Jerry Jeudy, whom the Denver Broncos selected 15th overall, had died while he was in high school. The package introducing Michael Pittman Jr., a receiver taken 34th by the Indianapolis Colts, revealed his stutter. Trevon Diggs, a cornerback picked 51st by the Dallas Cowboys, was noted to have lost his father to heart failure in 2008.
The spotlight on the heartbreak in the lives of the players selected, most of whom are Black, by producers of the broadcasts aired by ESPN and the NFL Network drew criticism for wading in so-called tragedy porn, an indulgent focus on personal trauma.
“We still think that’s a big deal, to acknowledge the obstacles they’ve had to overcome in their journey to the N.F.L.,” said Seth Markman, who has led ESPN’s draft coverage for 11 years, and who apologized to Higgins in 2020. “But what we realized that year is that we can probably do a little better job balancing and making sure that not every story is about those obstacles and those backgrounds. Not everybody has to be a kind of a clichéd bit of storytelling, if you will, and I think that year it was.”
Markman and his counterpart at NFL Network, Charlie Yook, said they have also become more mindful of not focusing repeatedly on troubles in the prospects’ lives.
“You don’t want everyone to cry every time,” Yook said. “This is a celebration of a dream coming true. It’s not a game of gotcha. We want to tell your story and it will be unique to the player.”
It isn’t the only part of the draft process that has been called out for its indignities. As the N.F.L. last year re-evaluated the workouts, medical testing and physical measurements that players undergo ahead of the draft, Troy Vincent, a league vice president who is Black, reportedly told team owners that the scouting combine had characteristics of a “slave market.”
“We just feel like the overall experience, talking to the players, we can be better in that particular aspect,” Vincent said of his meeting with team owners in March 2022. “So there was, I would say, a good discussion around what that looks like, where we could be, keeping in mind that the combine is the player’s first experience with the National Football League, and in that experience, there has to be dignity.”
The scouting combine is an annual audition for 300 college players who are interviewed by team personnel, given medical exams and perform drills in front of team scouts and coaches. After widespread complaints from agents and players — including some prospects who declined to attend the event — the league now holds workouts on one day, instead of across two.
It streamlined the sharing of medical records so players don’t have to be tested several times. The interview process has also been standardized after complaints about intrusive questions. And the league last year stopped administering the Wonderlic test, a 50-question I.Q. exam long criticized for racial and socioeconomic biases, replacing it with the S2 Cognition test.
Players undergo only one full orthopedic exam, with the results presented to all 32 teams, and there is no longer a built-in window for teams to administer their own behavioral assessment tests.
Despite these changes, perhaps the most potentially dehumanizing aspect of the combine remains: Players still wear skintight outfits during drills as dozens of mostly white scouts evaluate their physical attributes.
Joby Branion, a longtime player agent, said the process has “hints of slavery.”
He added: “It’s about as dehumanizing at that moment in this process as it can be. It ain’t about you. It’s about how your body looks.”
This year, 17 top prospects will attend the first round of the draft in Kansas City, Mo., on Thursday, with the league paying for airfare and hotels for the players and several of their family members and friends. There, they’ll wait to hear their names called in the draft’s green room, which the N.F.L. said will feel more like a living room than the stiff-table setup used in past years, when some prospects waited in partitioned rooms.
Markman said the networks have also reduced some of the close-up shots of players fretting as they wait to have their names called.
Still, the evening can quickly and unpredictably turn sour if a player’s name is not called for hours, or at all. The potential for that stress and embarrassment is why Brad Blank, a longtime agent who represented the former offensive lineman D’Brickashaw Ferguson, the former defensive lineman Chris Canty and other top players, tells his top prospects to skip the draft.
“My advice to anybody is: ‘Don’t go. Stay at home, no pressure,’” he said.
But some players ignored Blank’s advice because they viewed the draft, including the chance to wear their new team’s cap, hold up a jersey and hug Goodell on national TV, as a rite of passage. Blank recalled the mother of one top prospect pushing back hard against his advice.
“She lambasted me: ‘This is our moment. We’re going and we’re going to hug the commissioner,’” Blank said.
Markman said ESPN began moving away from zooming in on players in the green room after 2013, when quarterback Geno Smith sat through the entire first round without getting picked.
“Every time someone got picked, the camera would look at me, and it created this perception of negativity that wasn’t there,” Smith said.
Figuring his name wasn’t going to get called, Smith left before the end of the first round so he could celebrate his mother’s birthday. His departure, though, led to suggestions that he was bitter.
“As TV producers, we were sort of like, this is going to capture ratings and this is going to be a juicy story line, and make sure we have cameras with these guys,” Markman said. Now, “we don’t need to show these kinds of guys who are supposed to be having the best days of his life and it turns into a nightmare. Let’s not take advantage of him in this situation.”
Smith, now with the Seattle Seahawks, said he did not realize how he was portrayed until afterward. He had not planned on returning the next day, but his mother persuaded him to attend.
When the Jets drafted Smith in the second round with the 39th overall pick, he visibly exhaled as cameras trailed him to shake hands with Goodell and his voice cracked as he described his relief in an interview.
After Smith watched quarterback Malik Willis, a projected first-rounder, drop to the Tennessee Titans in the third round last year, he called to reassure him. Smith also said he told Lamar Jackson, who was the last player in the green room before the Ravens selected him with the final pick of the first round in 2018, that he should have gone higher. “I texted him, ‘make them pay.’”