What would the world of your chosen profession look like if it followed the structure of professional sports? (Other than having people pay 100 bucks to watch you sit at your desk, Stephen A. Smith occasionally dropping by to scream about the quality of your work, and your office being a lot smellier.) What if your job had, say, a draft?
Here is what would happen if your job had a draft:
• There are only 30 possible employers in your chosen field, and the quality of their product or the stability of their business vary dramatically. This will make no difference to you, because you do not get to choose which of them you work for. In fact, the worse they are in their chosen field, the more opportunity they have to select the most talented employees.
• These 30 companies are spread throughout North America, and if they select you, you must move to whichever city their business is based, regardless of where you currently live, where your extended family lives, or where you would personally like to live.
• No matter how skilled you may be, no matter how much money you might bring into the company, there is a set salary structure that determines how much you can be paid. It is in fact on a sliding scale as the draft progresses, which means the higher quality of the business that selects you, the less money you will be paid.
• This company, simply by virtue of this draft, owns the rights to the entirety of your employment for the next six years at least. If you are unhappy with the company and wish to work for someone else, you will only be allowed to do so if your company decides to move you to another company on their own terms, and you won’t get to choose what that company is either. If you don’t like the company that chooses you, the only alternative to working for them is leaving the industry all together.
• Oh, and there are only 15 to 50 jobs at each company, and it’s overwhelmingly likely that you be aged out of the industry within ten years and will have to find a new line of work altogether.
The putative purpose of the draft is to keep the league healthy by promoting competition — funneling the best talents to the worst teams to give them a shot at winning. But all it takes is a cursory understanding of sports to understand that’s not how it works, particularly not in an age of salary caps and luxury taxes. Bad teams are generally bad for long stretches, and good teams find ways to be good essentially every year; 19 teams have drafted first since Tom Brady and the Patriots won their first Super Bowl, and not a single one of them won a Super Bowl after making that pick. (There is something perverse about funneling the top talent to the worst teams anyway — these are teams that have proven to be the least likely to maximize a player’s skills.) If there’s parity in the NFL, it’s not because of the draft. That’s true even in the NBA, where one player can make such a huge difference. Since Tim Duncan was drafted in 1997, the only first pick to win a title with the team he was drafted by is LeBron James — and that was only after he returned to the team in free agency.
Never mind the fact that in a world where every league has restricted spending limits for each team, the whole point of a draft is rendered moot: If they’re all playing under the same spending rules, after all, why should one team have an advantage over any other? After all, shouldn’t Zion Williamson just be able to go to whatever team can afford to fit him under their cap rather than the one fortunate enough to lose enough games to have ping-pong balls fall their way? What’s the logical reason for any league to have a draft when every team has the same spending rules?
The answer, of course, is control. Drafts don’t exist to make leagues more fair. They exist to allow owners more power over players, to grab hold of their rights at under market value for as long as they can. As activist baseball writer Marc Normandin put it in his excellent newsletter, in a world of no drafts, “small-market teams, a concept that mostly exists to weaken the negotiating and earning power of the players, would be able to afford plenty of players, be they amateurs or otherwise. They’d just have to sign them while working in a leveled negotiating field.” (Normandin also notes that getting rid of drafts would eliminate the need for tanking, which might justify getting rid of drafts on its own.) No other industry would ever allow for something as anti-worker (and, really, anti-capitalist) as a draft. Yet drafts seem more powerful than ever. More people watched the NFL Draft — which, to remind you, is simply people’s names being read off a piece of paper — than are watching any of these compelling NBA Conference Finals games. As ESPN’s Bomani Jones noted, fans just accept the draft without even pausing to consider how unfair it is, or how they might react to one in their own fields.
There are signs, however, that players and agents might feel differently. On Tuesday, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Carter Stewart, a 19-year-old pitching prospect out of Florida, would be signing a six-year deal worth more than $7 million with a Japanese team rather than enter next month’s MLB Draft. That six years is the key: It means Stewart avoids the draft process and the team rights that come with it altogether, so he can return to the U.S. at the age of 25, essentially as a free agent. And tellingly, he’ll make more money in those six years than he likely would have as a draftee. That’s how draconian drafts have become: A star teenage prospect from Florida would rather pitch in Japan than put himself through it. The forthcoming XFL has all sorts of problems inherent in its conception (not to mention its leadership), but it is doing something intriguing in its search for players: It’s inviting current college players to its combines, which, at least theoretically, could give the league access to top college players before the NFL can get to them in their draft. The incentive to play in the XFL could be to avoid that draft and subsequent posting. It gives players autonomy.
It’s tough to imagine drafts being abolished forever. Fandom has become too team-oriented, with all of us pretending we’re little general managers, to truly ever throw them away entirely. But as players earn more power and search for independence wherever they can find it — and as new leagues sprout up with different incentives for player acquisition than the established ones — the draft looks increasingly draconian. Zion Williamson should be able to play in New York if he wants. Or somewhere else if he doesn’t. No one wants to be forced to work six years in Salt Lake City or Oklahoma City (or New York City, really), if they don’t want to. You’d never stand for that in your own field. So why would we demand that our best athletes do so?
Will Leitch’s Games column runs weekly. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.