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Johnny Football And Laremy's Mask, The Sorrow And The Pity: David Roth's Weak In Review

As the NFL Draft enters its baroque phase, let's consider the strange and disconcerting stories that the NFL tells itself, and the ones it doesn't even bother with.
April 29, 2016, 7:40pm
Illustration by J.O. Applegate

Strictly speaking, the NFL Draft does not need to be held anywhere in particular. Any room with an operational phone will do, and while it would probably be unwise to hold the NFL Draft in a high-end hotel bathroom—there is not enough room for all the wasted Jets fans, and voluntarily sharing a bathroom with Chris Berman is extremely unwise—it could be done. Naturally, the NFL Draft is now a sprawling event, as lustily televised and branded as any NFL game, except that this is basically just a 32-way conference call that lasts for three fucking days.

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Beyond that, there is Draft Town, a 900,000-square-foot brand encampment in Chicago's Grant Park. It features a Ferris wheel, a bar, and little tents at which the NFL Draft's pilgrims can participate in simulated football activities and interact, free of charge, with NFL-adjacent brands; it is a place in which the words "visit the Skittles tent" is not an opaque euphemism for buying drugs but an actual thing that people can do. It is presented by a brand of low-fat Greek yogurt, except for the parts of it that are Driven By Hyundai. Next year, the draft will almost certainly move to some other city, and everything else will almost certainly be exactly the same. Then as now, that sameness will be the point. You do not go to Burger King (or the Skittles tent) to be surprised by culinary invention; you go because you know exactly the experience you'll have, and because it is an experience you want.

Read More: Inhuman Resources, Or The Background Noise Of The NFL Draft

But if the NFL Draft has to be somewhere, it might as well be in downtown Chicago, amid the antique grandiosity of the Loop's towering and broad-shouldered monuments to the business glory of the first half of the last century. These are really nice buildings, but they're as brutish as they are beautiful, and their bulk and their beauty make the same points—a grand one about human potential, but also a smaller one about the human urge to shoulder someone smaller out of the way in order to improve your view.

It may just be a tic, or a bit of creepshow jargon repeated by rote, but today's titanic corporations like to talk about improving people's lives and changing the world. That this gets said, as often as not, about apps that connect you to poor people who'll do your laundry or some other bit of whimsical phone-bound micro-arbitrage is only part of what's ridiculous about it. The heart of the whole thing has always been the message that presents itself through Chicago's brawny downtown skyline, and it's one less about changing the world than subduing it. This is where the NFL belongs, because this is what the NFL believes, on draft day and every day, and what it aims to do. The turtlenecked affectations of the venture capitalists and tech billionaires don't fit at all, here—the NFL's franchise-holding billionaires think and act like barons.

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I've found that, whenever I am puzzled by the NFL—when I wonder why its idea of a Fan Festival is a tossed-off tent city for brands with a carnival ride and a field goal-kicking simulator stuck in it, for instance—this is the answer I keep coming back to. These are decisions made by a handful of ultra-cosseted weirdos—the failson scions of century-old industrial fortunes and wizened petro-reptiles and dead-eyed serial accumulators—who are not at all accustomed or inclined towards taking the rest of the world's opinions, or facts, into account. It's not that the league is institutionally or constitutionally immoral, or amoral. It's that it reflects, very clearly, the sincere and shallow strangeness of its most powerful people. The NFL Draft, more than any other time, is when we see this most clearly—the league's phobias and foibles, its conscious and its unconscious biases, and its twinned cynicism and romance.

When the big ginger goofus can smell your character issues. Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday night, in the first round of the NFL Draft, this all played itself out. The former Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, once a candidate for the first overall pick and the consensus best player at one of the most important positions in the sport, tumbled to the 13th pick due to someone hacking his Twitter account and releasing a video of him taking a bong hit in a gas mask. His former teammate Robert Nkemdiche, considered to be one of the best overall talents in the draft, nearly fell out of the first round entirely, due mostly to an incident in which he fell out a window, some synthetic marijuana, and his generally being sort of a weird guy. These are the sorts of things that are generally categorized as "character concerns," and the NFL's remedies for them are draconian and preemptively punitive. Tunsil, it turns out, could be referred into the league's drug treatment program because of the video alone; one of the conditions for teams drafting Nkemdiche, apparently, is that he distance himself from his brother, who is considered to be a bad influence. It is easy, in the context of the NFL draft, to forget how deeply strange all this is—to have your first strike in a league that's fixated on punishment before you even start working, or an employer demanding that you cut ties with a family member.

They're only strange things to do to people, though. Players like Tunsil and Nkemdiche do not quite rise to that level, though—they are units that carry varying degrees of risk, and are approached and discussed as such. When asked about Tunsil's fall in the draft, which will cost him more than $10 million on his first contract per the rookie pay scale, commissioner Roger Goodell instead talked about the draft, and how curveballs like this make it so great. "Clubs make decisions," Goodell said. "Sometimes they take risks."

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Notably absent from this statement is Tunsil himself, who has been transmogrified from a football-playing human into a relatively risky investment in a club's portfolio. This will be how he is understood and discussed until the league is done with him, not because he is not human, or because his performance is not important to his team's success, but because his humanity is not necessarily important to the story that the NFL wants to tell—which is about clubs, and to a lesser extent about their risk-taking owners. Those owners believe the story belongs to them, and they'll tell it how they like. There is room for actual football players in this story, but only a particular type of player, and only in a particular type of role.

He's like a terrible, terrible kid out there. Photo by John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

A couple of weekends ago, Johnny Manziel somehow managed to stand out for his obnoxiousness at Coachella, the desert music festival which is, for two weekends a year, the world capital of outdoor cocaine use. There are photographs of him looking zonked and jarringly clammy in a ball pit. There are stories about his extravagant and loutish drunkenness, as there have been dating back to his time in college. "He arrived wasted, partied wasted, and stayed wasted," someone told Page Six. Earlier this week, Manziel was indicted for assaulting his former girlfriend in Dallas. There is no real pity to be found, here, as Manziel has never really pretended to be anything but the lout that he has revealed himself to be; he has never been contrite, never even really feinted seriously at making any positive change, and never really evinced any interest in doing right by anyone but himself. Despite all this, and despite the fact that there is no evidence from his two miserable years in the league that Manziel could or should play quarterback in the NFL, there are still quarters of the league in which he's regarded as not just redeemable but even a little bit romantic.

There are some easy explanations for this, starting with Manziel's whiteness and its attendant suite of privilege—only a certain type of person is regarded by NFL types as Reckless and Colorful even after fucking up his life with addiction and hitting a woman in the head, and that sort of person does not look like Cam Newton. A dozen desperate NFL teams will pass on a potentially franchise-altering talent like Tunsil because of a two-year-old video of him taking a bong hit, but Jerry Jones still regards Manziel, after years of shitty behavior and shittier football, as someone worth saving. This is because Jerry Jones is a doofus, but also because Manziel fits into the NFL's cockeyed sentimentality in a way that Tunsil—and no black player, really—never would.

The stories that the NFL likes to tell itself are told in a very particular language, about a very particular type of player. This macho mysticism applies only to some players; where some get to be reckless gunslingers—the hoary cowboy verbiage itself tells you a lot—others must be disciplined and broken down until they're willing to serve a system. Manziel was never really convincing as anything but what he was, and he shares nothing with Brett Favre or Joe Namath beyond an accent and some issues with impulse control. But the story into which he fits so well isn't convincing, either, or at least isn't built to convince us—it's a story the NFL's billionaires tell each other, about wild and brilliant boys like themselves. That this story is not just false but creepy doesn't really matter much; it's for them more than it's for us. If I had to guess, the leagues grandees probably don't think you'll get much out of visiting the Tostitos tent in Draft Town, either. They still think you'll go.

It is tempting to say that these illusions—the offhand dehumanization of the mass of players and its consequences, the equally casual superhero-izing of others and its consequences—will be the thing that kills the NFL, if anything ever does. And the illusions are in fact dangerous. They fog over the deadfall precipices so thoroughly that even the obvious canyons, the ones rushing right up at 12 o'clock, arrive as a surprise. This is the risk of believing things that are easier than the truth, the invasive speciousnesses that are first brought in to countervail harder truths and then, parasitically, colonize and replace them. I happen to think that the NFL is already over the precipice, and falling. The fall is not the thing that will kill the NFL, or wound it—even as it tumbles, faster and faster, the league is making astonishing amounts of money. It's never the fall that kills; it's the sudden stop. At this point in the descent, things have become very strange; it smells weird down here, we are somewhere deep and decaying and old. It's no place to be. It is just hard, sometimes, to believe that there's a bottom to find.