The lead up to NFL Draft is a time to celebrate talented players, but first– we must drag them through the mud.
Next week, the National Football League will hold its annual draft where young men, many of whom are African American, from colleges around the country will realize their dream of playing professional football. And just like anything else NFL-related, the draft has become a huge event that strains credulity. In the past, one round, or the first 32 picks were televised; now, over the course of three days, all 7 rounds of the draft are televised. This year, a record number of 26 players will be flown to New York to have every flicker of happiness or disappointment that flashes across their faces captured by a live television camera.
But there’s more to the draft than a few days of pomp and circumstance. There is the hysterical lead up in which NFL writers and bloggers spend weeks developing mock drafts and scouting reports with varying degrees of credibility (if any at all). It’s also a time where sport writers-turned-armchair therapists assess the “character” and “intellect” of draft prospects to determine “potential risk"…a process which often amounts to nothing more than humiliating various—mostly Black—players and playing accomplice to team attempts to drive down a player’s value.
This time last year, North Carolina Panthers Quarterback Cam Newton was the target of a number of attacks on his abilities and character. Many writers claimed that they were certain Newton wasn’t worthy of being picked first, that he was “one read” (despite a playbook that indicated differently) and would struggle in a complicated NFL offense and cited the NCAA’s investigation into his father’s dealings as a red flag that he could be trouble. One writer went so far as to say Newton was too arrogant and had a “fake” smile. The criticism of Newton was over the top then, but once he broke numerous rookie offensive records, it looked even sillier in retrospect.
Unfortunately, the media’s mistake with Newton hasn’t stopped the unfair treatment of this year’s crop of young people. The most egregious attack thus far was on LSU’s Morris Claiborne whose wonderlic score was “leaked” by someone in the league. The wonderlic test is a dubious aptitude exam given to draft entrants and given the fact that in the past many very good players have scored low and bad players have scored high I, like many others, am not a fan of the test and think it should be scrapped completely. Especially since the scores—which are supposed to be strictly confidential–are typically only revealed when a player scores low. Rarely is the test a factor at all when players beat the averages.
No matter what you think of the test, giving Claiborne’s score of 4 out of 50 to the press was malicious. Upon the score being leaked and the inevitable crowd of folks delighting in how “stupid” Claiborne must be, it was revealed that the cornerback suffers from a learning disability that he has coped with well enough to become a top performer at his position.
But why dwell on the narrative of the dumb Black athlete when there is a juicier tale in Alabama’s Janoris Jenkins who reportedly has four children by three different mothers, had to transfer schools due to misconduct, and has previously failed a drug test. Despite the fact that Jenkins has, by all accounts, been very forthcoming about his problems to NFL teams and media and has made noticeable attempts to stay out of trouble every move Jenkins makes is now fodder to be used as an example of his “bad character.”
When Jenkins rather belatedly fired a celebrated agent for a lesser known African-American agent, the media reacted with venom simply because the timing wasn’t ideal. Jenkins later stated through his mentor that he wanted a smaller company that could provide him with more personal attention–the kind of attention a player who may be dealing with personal problems may benefit from.
This week, the story is that North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples’ work ethic is questionable. This is a claim I find interesting since it’s quite difficult for a fellow to laze his way into being one of the top prospects in the nation.
On some level, I believe that having to constantly churn out draft pieces makes writers scramble to drum up interest, succumb to pressure to predict the unpredictable, and run out of things to say. But the default way to draw readers in shouldn’t be to speculate about how stupid or lazy or terrible a human being a 20 year old is. Yes, part of being an athlete is dealing with the criticism that accompanies the spotlight; but there’s something sick about allowing that to preclude thoughtful coverage of these talented young men.
Jessica Danielle is a professional speechwriter, media coach and sports blogger. You can read more of her sports commentary at Playerperspective.com. Follow her on Twitter: @plyrperspective.