The commissioner announces a name, and the man of the moment takes the stage at Radio City Music Hall: the NFL's newest draftee, all smiles, dressed for the world's hippest prom. The crowd cheers; cameras flash. Roger Goodell and the player embrace. And embrace. And embrace.
Player and commissioner rock back and forth gently, like clumsy dancers at a wedding. The draftee, often a 300-pound man, nuzzles his face into Goodell's neck, like a Kodiak bear tucking into a salmon. Hands pat backs; arms drape torsos. Both participants act like they want the hug to last forever. Viewers start to worry that it will.
Finally, the commissioner tears himself away: there are only 10 minutes between draft announcements and others would like a moment with the NFL's newest star -- like the television cameras, or his mom.
Last year's on-stage hugs at the NFL draft were so long, strong and intimate that they became a source of awkward comedy. "Hug montages" sprang up on YouTube, while sports humor websites marveled at how the draft suddenly evolved from a pseudo-graduation ceremony into a nationally-televised serial bromance.
There is more to the draft hug phenomenon than just cuddles and laughs, however: Commissioner-on-player hugs reveal how social standards change while human biology stays the same, and how the neurochemistry that maintains order among primate societies can lead to warm feelings and rumpled formal wear.
Appropriate Touch. Draft hugs may seem uncomfortably snug, but players are not breaking any hard-and-fast etiquette rules. If the hugs are too long, it may be because we are too old.
"We are dealing with a different generation," according to Jacqueline Whitmore, author of Poised for Success: Mastering the Four Qualities that Distinguish Outstanding Professionals, as well as the Etiquette Expert blog. "This generation is not as formal."
Casual, non-romantic hugging has become more socially acceptable. It can be seen at commencement ceremonies, where the hug often replaces the formal handshake when graduates take their diploma from the dean or superintendent. It can even be seen in politics, Whitmore notes: President Obama often greets dignitaries with a manly half-hug (shake with the right hand, warm pat on the shoulder or back with the left), a maneuver which would have been too intimate for public greetings in past generations.
Hugs seem simple enough, but the Internet is full of how-to advice for novice huggers. A WikiHow article titled "How to Hug" by Jack Herrick has been viewed nearly a million times. Its advice is broken down by hug category: crushes, lovers, friends, family. With no "commissioners" category, only Herrick's "tips that apply to any kind of hug" apply to the draft. "Hug only when the person you want to hug extends his or her arms," the article advises. "Avoid hugging the person too tightly … hold the hug for a moment before letting go."
Draftees heed that first bit of advice well; it's the other two that need work. Whitmore said that the willingness/eagerness of the recipient to be hugged is the most important point of etiquette, particularly when that person is an authority figure. "These young guys take their cues from the commissioner, who is welcoming this hug," Whitmore said.
"The commissioner is kind of a huggy guy," she added, an observation rarely made about Roger Goodell in a non-draft context.
As for hug duration, hugging is not bull riding: there is no eight second rule. "It's hard to define in words," Whitmore said of hugs that feel too personal. "You just walk away and think: 'that was weird.'"
None of the participants in last year's hugs reported anything creepy. Only the audience felt a little awkward.
Good Grooming. Something primal is also at work when a new NFL player bear-hugs the commissioner. According to Dr. Paul J. Zak, author and director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University, hugs release oxytocin, a hormone which triggers feelings of safety and the emotions associated with familial bonds. "Oxytocin makes you treat strangers like family," Zak said.
Zak watched videotape of last year's draft hugs and noted the intimacy of the hugs. Participants sometimes clasped each other by the back of the neck: body language usually reserved for lovers or parents. "The players see the commissioner as a surrogate father," Zak explained.
The neuroscience of oxytocin works at deep evolutionary level. Zak explained that the triggers in the draftee's mind when his name is called are similar to the "safe signals" that relax the brain when a possible foe is revealed to be a friend. Zak describes a subconscious emotional response with roots that predate the birth of the NFL considerably. "I've joined a new Alpha Male's troop. I'm going to groom the Alpha Male, and show I'm a good cooperator, a good part of the team. Hopefully, that alpha will share some resources with me."
For Zak, those deep feelings have a greater impact on the duration and intensity of the draft hug than the millions of dollars the player has just earned. "It's less about the money and more about the belonging," he said.
Hug it Out. Goodell's reputation as an alpha hug wolf and last year's parade of snuggles have created a potentially uncomfortable situation for this year's draftees. Some of the draft's more reserved prospects may prefer a handshake, but a national audience now expects something more affectionate, and no one wants to start his career by demonstrating his reluctance to groom the alpha.
Whitmore warns her professional etiquette clients that when a hug is expected or offered, something more formal could be misinterpreted. "It could be deemed as offensive," she said. Luckily, human interaction is sophisticated enough that the body language of hugs is "almost instinctive," in her words, and Goodell can veer quickly toward something less personal, like the hand-jive he shared with draftee Melvin Ingram last year.
Zak's research indicates that hugs like those seen at the draft are a healthy part of human interaction, and notes that men create rituals, particularly around sporting events, that allow them to touch each other in non-romantic ways. "Physical connection is a great way to build a human connection," he said.
Last year's hugs may even be topped soon, as younger generations become less self-conscious about physical contact and the NFL attracts more prospects from European and other openly-affectionate cultures. "You might see one of the players kiss him," Whitmore said.
As long as it's all done in the spirit of goodwill and celebration, there should be nothing awkward about a big hug or a little kiss, even when they are shared by a boss and a new employee in front of millions of viewers. "If I were drafted into the NFL," Whitmore said. "I would be hugging the commissioner too."