Last Year’s NFL Draft Was a Charming Oasis. Now the Circus Is Back.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during the Draft extravaganza in 2019. Photo: Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For one night almost exactly one year ago, I did something I rarely do, something that has been increasingly difficult to do over the last decade: I completely, unreservedly, enjoyed the NFL.

I love watching NFL football, so don’t get me wrong: I’m as helplessly addicted to this brutal, soulless capitalist monstrosity as the rest of you fellow Americans are. But the league does not make it easy. To be a civic-minded NFL fan is to constantly be forced to explain away and ignore all sorts of unpleasantness, from the league’s continued see-no-evil on concussions; to its shady labor practices; to looks-worse-every-year blackballing of Colin Kaepernick; to the fact that it’s the reason we all know who Jerry Jones is. Even if you never miss an NFL Sunday — and, dammit, I never do — it’s not exactly a league that gives you a deeper feeling of good cheer.

But last April, the NFL did something nigh-impossible: It was downright heartwarming. The event was the NFL Draft, held last April 23, which was the exact day then-President Donald Trump suggested injecting bleach as a way of fighting COVID-19 — which is to say, the NFL Draft happened on an extremely disorienting day in the middle of an extremely disorienting time. It felt like the rest of the world was splintering apart in a way that might make putting it back together impossible. In the midst of all that came the NFL Draft, an event that, explicitly, is about looking toward the future, about investing all your hopes and dreams in the unknown and as of yet unspoiled. In April 2020, no other sports had even hinted at returning — the NBA bubble and the shortened MLB season were still months away — and American life felt terrifyingly frozen in place. The NFL Draft felt, at the time, like it was taking place in a parallel universe where maybe, just maybe, everything was going to be okay. That the entire event was virtual — including Bill Belichick drafting with his dog and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell nearly falling asleep in his easy chair — added to the charm. This was low-fi, unplugged NFL.

For a league that has acted for years like an unholy Voltron of Nike, Bear Stearns, Blackwater, and Halliburton, it was undeniably a good look. I’d never been so grateful to see that insipid shield.

We now live in a much different world in April 2021 than we did in April 2020, and thank God for that. This year’s draft, which begins Thursday night, will share some similarities with the 2020 version, most notably that most of the potential draftees will be appearing virtually rather than in-person, allowing us at least one sublime pleasure from the 2020 Draft: looking at the joyous homes of all the young men and their families celebrating a day they’ve been waiting for their entire lives. But most of the rest of the charm is already gone. This annual event — which, again, is simply the reading of hundreds of names of people you do not know — has returned to its signature NFL bloat.

Held in Cleveland, the actual selections will take place on a massive stage, surrounded by individual teams’ Draft War Rooms and the “Draft Theater,” where invited guests (including a few select players willing to show up in person) will be able to view and cheer on the festivities. This section includes the “exclusive Inner Circle presented by Subway,” where attendees will have the opportunity to watch Kings of Leon and Machine Gun Kelly perform. I have missed live music as much as I missed anything during this pandemic, but I am not sure I have missed it enough to watch Machine Gun Kelly in the Subway Inner Circle while the general manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars violently chews gum five feet away from me. Amusingly, the NFL says it’s holding the draft in person to “push a pro-vaccine message.”

After every sports league muddled through 2020 the best it could, everyone’s getting back to near-normal in 2021. That makes sense. There is considerable evidence that the sports boom we were expecting when sports returned last year, but never materialized (for a variety of reasons), is about to take place this summer and fall, when, thanks to vaccines and lowering infection rates, the world (or at least the U.S.) actually is about to re-open. Major League Baseball ratings, in particular, are way, way up from last year — with, the league’s live game streaming app, already racking up the seven most-watched days in its 20-year history.

For better or worse, sports reflect and represent “normal”: How much can the world really be falling apart if there’s still a game on? Sports leagues and television partners thrive on this thinking, and the Everything-Is-Fine-and-Getting-Back-to-Normal mindset plays right into the NFL’s wheelhouse. The league plowed through the pandemic season with its usual heavy-footedness, making sure it had its precious television inventory ready to present no matter what. (Even if it included maybe fudging some COVID case reporting.) It was also the first American professional sports league to allow fans in the stands, which paved the way for every other league to do it too. Nothing was going to stop the NFL. As Tom Ley at Defector put it, “only the NFL could get away with this.” And they did, and were even rewarded with a Tom Brady vs. Patrick Mahomes Super Bowl for a grand (albeit not-so-grand) finale.

So now that the draft is here, marking the unofficial calendar-turning of every season, the NFL is back to its usual wooly mammoth self. The NFL Draft conversations and chatter for the last month has been irritating, irrational, infuriating, and incessant — to the point that no football fans will ever want to hear the words “Mac Jones draft stock” again the rest of their lives. This year’s Draft will be a little different, but only just a little, and otherwise the same cartoonishly exaggerated , absurdly oversold hype-fest it has been for 20 years. They are back to selling everything in sight, and it is near-impossible for the average fan to withstand. The NFL is indeed back to normal (even the country itself isn’t), and what may end up being the most heartwarming thing about this year’s NFL Draft is how we get to go back to hating the NFL Draft. As they say: Nature is healing.

Last Year’s NFL Draft Was Charming. Now the Circus Is Back.