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Inhuman Resources, or the Background Noise of the NFL Draft: David Roth's Weak In Review

Thanks to its nature and the NFL's signature issues, the NFL Draft is and always will be weird. Now, with the NFL bigger than ever, the draft is stranger still.
April 22, 2016, 5:20pm
Illustration by J.O. Applegate

For two summers after high school, I spent my mornings splashing and spreading asphalt sealant over a strip mall parking lot in suburban New Jersey. The stuff came in twenty-pound pails that stunk like a dinosaur's crypt, and it bogged in fat inky puddles that we spread around with long-handled squeegees and the intense inexpertise native to hungover teens. No one could have done this bad job worse than we did, but we did it all morning and that's what they were paying us for. When it got hotter, we'd change out of our work clothes, which were heavy and mottled with various encrustations, and get out for a bit, before painting lines on yesterday's sealed surfaces.

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Oftentimes this getting out involved getting into Matt's car, an Eagle Talon the color of blue Gatorade. Matt was someone none of us knew but all of us liked: an intense, funny, inward guy who was going into the Army. The tape that he listened to—on the way to work and back, and on the way to Sherwin-Williams or the sandwich place, alone or with several smelly dudes packed into his car—was the audio from the film Falling Down.

Not the soundtrack. I want to be clear about that: whatever music there was to be heard was playing in the background during Michael Douglas's seething vigilante ramble across greater Los Angeles. Matt had recorded the movie onto a cassette in some prehistoric Clinton-era jambox, which meant that when we were in the car with him we were just listening to Falling Down. The (very unsettling!) result was that it sounded like there was another, lower, conversation happening under our own, except that this other, notably disagreeable conversation came through the speakers and involved numerous instances of a stressed-out Michael Douglas menacing service industry people with a submachine gun. Periodically that sub-conversation would be punctuated by gunfire, or breaking glass, or Douglas yelling about his rights. Beyond Matt mentioning matter-of-factly that he loved the movie, no one ever spoke about it. When someone is listening to Falling Down in his car, it is generally considered unwise to push too hard about why.

Read More: About Sam Hinkie And His Untrustable Process

Because of that, I cannot tell you what this meant to Matt, or why he chose to listen to it. I don't know if he found it inspiring, or amusing, or somehow relaxing; I cannot tell you whether his glove compartment had a bunch of similar cassettes with, like, Marked For Death or The Rocketeer or The Joy Luck Club that he listened to when in less violently retributive moods. I can tell you that even this, the strangest thing I have ever heard in a car, eventually assimilated itself into the background and became easy not to notice. Even an unhinged Douglas pissily discharging a bazooka just became part of the ride.

I thought of that again this week while watching four men stand around a video board. They had the grim purpose and folded hands of funeral directors, which made for an odd fit with their honking, purposeful diction; they were talking about college quarterbacks in the voices of people trying to order drinks in a very crowded bar. They were doing this because they were on ESPN, and because this is what ESPN does in the week before the week of the NFL Draft. That they did not strictly seem to know what they were talking about was as beside the point as it always is at this time, this year and every year. We are a week from the NFL Draft, and still several months from the first moment of meaningful football since the end of the Super Bowl. The NFL is still very much in background-noise mode. This week, against my better judgment, I tried listening to what that sounds like.

Anonymous scouts are concerned Robert Nkemdiche doesn't respect old-timey football helmets enough. Photo by John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Here is one way that this can sound, from an anonymous scout talking to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Bob McGinn about Cardale Jones, who led Ohio State to a National Championship in 2014 and entered the NFL Draft after a less brilliant junior season: "Strong arm. Big, big body. Not the brightest cookie in the world. I worry about him when he gets money in his pocket. I just don't know if it's all there mentally." Another scout—anonymous, as scouts tend to be—called Jones "a poor man's JaMarcus Russell," which in the language of the NFL is somehow a bigger insult than the Hallelujah chorus of salty racialized dog-whistling from the first dude. When Stephen A. Smith cranked up the wind machine to express his deep consternation at this outrageousness, it was the JaMarcus Russell part and not the Black Quarterback Is Dumb And Will Spend His Money Poorly part that drew the spittling Absolutely Unacceptables.

All of this—the anonymous scouts talking shit and the dueling funeral directors standing around a blinking set barking about defensive tackles and the pop-eyed play-fighting—is to some extent just what it sounds like when the NFL is talking to itself. It is not just circular but cyclical. Stephen A. Smith will always get extremely upset about the wrong thing, because that is something like his job; the conversation about the NFL will never be less silly or less serious, but only louder and larger, until eventually those towering sets are crowded to capacity with men in suits, all holding forth, gravely and at the top of their lungs, about which wide receivers are too immature to make it in the National Football League.

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The whole of it loops recursively, forever in the same year-spanning orbit, and if we turn our eyes to it at the right moment we will always see a Stanford quarterback being described as "cerebral" or a 22-year-old being dismissed for not "having that winner quality about him" or some bit of poker-faced and totally psychotic thumbnail psychologizing. "He hangs out more with managers than he does teammates," one scout told McGinn, about Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg. "It tells me he likes to be king of the little people rather than king of the big people." That this is stupid—that it is overdetermined and under-reasoned and also mostly doesn't work—will not stop it. Being stupid in a specific type of way is, mostly, what it is about, and what it is for.

When you notice an inconvenient personality trait. Photo by Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

That is not necessarily true for the teams involved. The Rams and then the Eagles traded up in this NFL Draft because they want to draft one of two intriguing quarterback prospects, not because they are in the market for a fucking king; the intriguing quarterbacks who might or might not make it will or won't for reasons that have more to do with this stubborn, punishing game than any bit of anony-scout gossip. We might as well hope that the people making decisions for NFL teams know all this.

This is not to say that the NFL is averse to this sort of macho mysticism—the innate leadership qualities that some Lipitor-pounding grump with a stopwatch can pick up from a firm handshake, the troubling immaturity that those scouts tend to diagnose disproportionately in young black men. The NFL is and always will be prone to getting high on its own supply, which is why the same people are allowed to be wrong in the same ways at this time every year, and why the league could so readily be upended by people a little less prone to that. It's just to say that what the NFL is selling, in the weeks before the NFL Draft, is a specific product targeted towards a specific audience.

In order for the NFL to sell football to people who know what football is, and what it does, a certain amount of dehumanization is necessary. This is, mostly, nothing more than hack storytelling, the sort of shorthand that makes the anointed players into fearless gladiators and lets the rest of the league settle, faceless, into the role of villain or victim. Football, at the NFL level and elsewhere, does many of the things that war does, but talking about it as a sort of play-war makes it less implicating to watch and less complicated to consume. For the players being drafted into this play-war, a certain amount of breaking down is in order—in the squicky quantification and objectification of the combine, then in the reduction of their selves into units of risk that could deliver Production X if they can be kept from Distraction Y. This is not just about assimilating into a team concept; it's about not upsetting the NFL's signature illusion.

This, I think, is why the language of the draft is both so abstracted—knights and knaves, leaders and felons who just haven't offended yet—and so wildly, weirdly censorious. As in any modern corporation, the NFL's ideal employee is a fungible and frictionless engine of production. The sort of person who fits this role is without sharp edges or potential snags; he would be "boring in a good way," as NFL.com describes the defensive lineman prospect Sheldon Rankins. The article ticks off what that means: Rankins "doesn't go out much," has no debt or property, no cell phone bills, no credit record. "All about football," Conor Orr writes, describing the way a credit check on Rankins revealed nothing at all. "He could have successfully vanished from the planet if he lost his social security number."

That's the highest praise that gets offered at this time of year, especially to players who look like Rankins looks. It means that he is ready to do his job, in the narrative if not on the field. It means that he could blend, seamlessly and selflessly, into a background that is so constant and so lulling that we eventually stop noticing the ugliness and the violence—the plain blind righteousness that edges hard into madness—of what we're hearing.