Why not make the NFL draft more fair to players?

The NFL draft was this past week. It has become a three-day extravaganza, hyped for weeks before and analyzed for months afterwards. Although we treat it like a sporting event, it’s really just a mutated job fair. The way it works is that the 32 NFL teams take turns selecting players. The teams select in the reverse order of how well they did in the previous year. This year, the first pick was made by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who won two games and lost 14 last year and the last pick was made by the New England Patriots, because they won the Super Bowl last year.

This seems like a fair system. Giving the worst teams the best new players, (or at least their choice from the new players) should create a league with some amount of parity, where it is difficult for some teams to continually be the best and some teams to get stuck at the bottom of the standings forever. Who, exactly, is this fair for? It’s fair for team owners who, despite a fair number of socialist league policies (revenue sharing, etc.) do benefit from the popularity and success of their own teams. It’s also fair for football fans who generally have hope each year that their team may compete for the playoffs or even the championship.

I suppose the current system is also fair for players, each of whom have declared themselves eligible for the NFL draft with a full and easy understanding of just what that means to their futures. It’s not always very nice though. A player can easily be drafted by a team whose management or coaches he does not like or from a city or region he doesn’t feel comfortable. A football player doesn’t get to choose where he lives, who he works with, or for. This year, Deadspin ran a short photo with caption style post about Amari Cooper, drafted by the Oakland Raiders with the fourth overall pick of the draft. The headline was “Amari Cooper Looks Really Happy to Be on the Raiders.” He doesn’t. And why would he? The Raiders are a notoriously inept organization with insane (sometimes good insane, sometimes bad insane, but either way, an acquired taste insane) fans. Cooper is from Florida and played his college football in Alabama. Now he’s got to move out to Northern California and play for a team that hasn’t had a winning record since 2002… when Cooper was eight years old.

Sure, there’s no need to cry for Cooper, he’ll be making over $400,000 this year, but the same cannot be said for the players who were drafted in the fifth, sixth, or seventh rounds. These players are on the fringes of the NFL and close to as many of them won’t have a job in two years as will. For all players, but for these guys especially, the difference between getting picked by a good team and a bad is enormous. So, why not think about other systems that are equally fair to fans and owners but perhaps more fair to the players? There are lots of different “fairs.” Before joining a pickup basketball game, the first thing you ask is “winners or losers?” In other words, does the team that just scored get the ball to start the next possession or does the team that just got scored on? Both are seen as fair options, one simply rewards one thing and one rewards another? The NFL could just as easily reverse the draft and reward the teams that perform well by letting them select first. That will help some players but not all of them. Another option would be to reverse the power structure. Make the NFL a little bit more like college, where teams can recruit players, but the players eventually get to choose from the teams. That’s actually a more feasible option than it may seem at first glance. Not all the players will just go to a few of the best teams because, thanks to the NFL salary cap which limits the amount of money teams can pay players, there’s a preexisting brake on how many good (and therefore expensive) players a team can have at one time. We could even still have a draft — where teams take turns announcing that they’ve chosen to select a particular player from the group of players that have said they wanted to play on that team. If a player gave his assent to a group of five or ten teams, the draft order might still determine which team gets to hire him.

Why not give a little bit more freedom to the players?

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