By Jeb Lund
Some riddles for you: If nothing is happening, how can you tell when it started? Is nothing still happening? When does nothing end? More importantly, why do some people really actively dislike nothing?
It would be easy to chalk up calling the NFL draft a whole lot of nothing as an affected pose from terminally unsatisfied grouches if the people involved didn't admit as much themselves. Its very structure prescribes extremely short bursts of activity and news bounded by the happening of nothing. And Chris Berman. But I repeat myself.
"The NFL draft was hardly considered spectator material," write James Miller and Tom Shales in "Those Guys Have All The Fun," their oral history of ESPN. "Just the opposite: it was a particularly insular affair, generating interest about the top picks but little if any about the others. Some years, the draft was barely reported, much less covered."
They go on to quote Bill Fitts, ESPN's executive producer from their first draft in 1980: "I said ... there's nothing there, there's just some people on the phone, and they're not even football people, they're just relatives ..."
That said, nothing isn't necessarily bad. We enjoy nothing and have, culturally speaking, wholly embraced it. Consider the Academy Awards and the Primetime Emmys, both of which most people admit are ridiculous. Both are ostensibly showcases for the most creative or moving works of art in their respective fields, but we all know that they're instead essentially vehicles for self-congratulation. Best Picture goes to a billion-dollar swords-and-orcs franchise or Hollywood watching itself; "The Simpsons" somehow never wins Outstanding Comedy Series. The most challenging works of art go unacknowledged or appear only in some category for foreigners. We watch both of these faithfully, even if only to complain about them.
The deep desires of lazy journalists notwithstanding, Twitter is not the whole universe, but it provides a helpful sample for how people engage with non-events. While some fans surely hosted parties at home and got chemically blitzed as a social act, it was also clear last night that, per Paul Westerberg, a person can work up a mean, mean thirst with a hard night of nothing much at all. People proudly announced draft drinking games (drink every time you hear "upside"; die prematurely and soon) and generally admitted that booze provides a means of coping with even something as anodyne as entertainment.
There was plenty to cope with. The evening began with bizarre and stereotypically over-the-top ESPN fanfare, opening the show with a slickly produced double-act of The Heavy and 50 Cent, while various potential draft picks and recent picks stood around like optional avatars in a first-person shooter. "I'm Russell Wilson; I was picked 75th, but now I kill bugs for the Mobile Infantry!"
Chris Berman delivered another sui generis performance, opening the festivities with, "It's as if we're kicking off the season, and in a sense we are." His Bermanosity was strong. Aside from the CNN reporter who commented on the empty streets of Boston following a bombing by saying, "It's as if a bomb went off," only he could employ a common metaphor derived from a sport to use metaphorically about that sport. A more apt indicator of the kickoff of the NFL season is the first kickoff of the NFL season, which isn't a metaphor at all. Berman's forced dramatics highlight the problems that Jon Gruden faced all night when breaking down picks' abilities: it's hard to upsell the basic and literal.
Berman's particular brand of analytic oblivion represents the best explanation for the problem of the NFL draft, both for the broadcast itself and for fans' engagement with it. Because "nothing" should elicit the same as a response: nothing. Yet the puffed-up self-seriousness of ESPN's coverage provokes a relatively unique phenomenon. It makes "nothing" have haters.
While people hate-watch the Oscars and Emmys, ESPN's broadcast seems to engender a much stronger antipathy. Entertainment awards shows are different every year; there are different producers and segments each time; hosts vary, and, hey, sometimes the voters even get stuff right. The problems of ESPN's draft broadcast are all problems of the essential selfness of ESPN.
ESPN took a product that, by one of its producers' own admission, was a blank space and ludicrously inflated it as an event. Entertainment awards shows are supposed to be glamorous and self-congratulatory because they're produced by glamor factories, about glamor factories and for the purposes of congratulation. The draft is a bunch of eggheads picking meatheads and making phone calls. All the choices made are ones that are, barring unusual moves by other teams, mapped out and mostly foreordained. In between the long stretches of nothing happening, you bear witness to things that have essentially already happened.
To be generous, we could describe last night's show as fan service. Fan service is good! It's fun, and it's responsible for many welcome developments in sports, like subscription services that let you watch every game nationwide from your iPad or advanced players metrics in the stat lines flashed onscreen when a player comes to bat. But when a show needs only to be highlight clips, a few observations and roll-calling, all the extra bits unavoidably come off as additions meant for something other than fans. Maybe it's log-rolling between a 24-hour sports network and a sport in which it's heavily invested. Maybe it's brand maintenance. What it isn't is terribly enjoyable.
Like other 24-hour news networks, ESPN has blown an event all out of proportion to compel watching it. Like CNN making a building fire in Chicago into, "FIRESTORM BY THE LAKE: MRS. O'LEARY'S COW II, THE RECKONING," ESPN has turned what amounts to little more than menu selection into -- well, whatever last night was.
While fans might enjoy getting hammered and staring for three hours at Mel Kiper Jr.'s legendary hairline until it turns into the great black bird that explodes out of a dove in "The Wall," the real purpose of the night is relentless branding self-seriousness. Berman's clumsy kickoff metaphor gave away the game and only reinforces how people can lustily mock what should be a lot of nothing. The first game of the season can always be on some other network and feature an actual game. The draft will probably always be on ESPN. The kickoff to the season is ESPN. You are watching ESPN.
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