ESPN can broadcast as many uncomfortable episodes of “Jon Gruden’s QB Camp” that it wants (why any agent would permit a prospect to subject himself to nationally-televised awkward conversations with an ex-NFL coach is beyond me). It can air specials like the “Bill Parcells Draft Confidential,” where another ex-coach shares the secrets of guessing the pro prospects of 22-year-old college kids. The network can run endless NFL draft promos, and trot out a parade of draft “experts” like Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay and Ron Jaworski and Trent Dilfer and the Amazing Kreskin and anyone else.
ESPN can hype the NFL Draft, which starts tonight and will be broadcast over three days, all it wants. It certainly has, five-times over. But the bottom line: this year, the draft will be a bit deflating.
(More on TIME.com: See the top 10 U.S. sports strikes and lockouts)
A record 23.3 million people watched the first round of last year’s NFL draft. This year, expect the numbers to fall short of that mark. Since there’s still a chance the NFL won’t be playing games this season, it’s hard to get fired up about players who, come September, could be jogging around high school tracks just to stay in shape. And although a federal judge lifted the NFL lockout on Monday, the league is still operating under lockout rules. So teams can trade draft picks with one another, but they can’t move current NFL players on draft day. The absence of blockbuster trade talk diminishes the draft day intrigue.
Further, the draft, which will be broadcast on ESPN and the NFL Network, is going head-to-head against Steve Carell’s farewell episode of The Office tonight. That can’t help.
Besides lower ratings and diminished cultural buzz, here’s another draft-day prediction: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who announces the picks and essentially emcees the event, will get booed by angry football fans gathered at Radio City Music Hall. They see him as the face of the NFL’s labor mess. And truth is, Goodell deserves a Bronx cheer.
Overall, Goodell has been a fine commissioner. During his tenure, the NFL’s popularity has grown to unprecedented heights. He has addressed safety issues, especially those involving head injuries. Goodell is a very friendly, likeable guy. But for a league that supposedly promotes sportsmanship, he has recently come across as a sore loser. The day after a federal judge lifted the lockout, Goodell penned an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal that painted the players as a rogue group out to destroy the NFL’s economic foundations for personal gain. The piece seemed disingenuous. Then, when players returned to team facilities to work out — which the judge’s order allowed them to do — most teams, under NFL orders, pretended that the players weren’t even there, and refused to let them into the weight room. Because the last thing a football team would want to see is a stronger player. (On Thursday, the NFL did announce that, starting Friday, teams could open their weight rooms to players).
What’s worse, even after Judge Susan Nelson denied the league’s request for a stay of the injunction lifting the lockout, the NFL continued to operate as if the lockout still existed. Players weren’t allowed to be signed to free-agent contracts. In other words, NFL owners shut down the free market, and let’s remember that the free market let these guys make a fortune, and own a team, in the first place. Even in the face of a judge’s ruling, it did not permit its employees to capture the monetary benefits that they’ve spent a lifetime trying to achieve. Isn’t this the definition of collusion? Legalese aside, it just seems unfair, and petty. (On Thursday, the NFL did announce that “we plan to distribute to all clubs, likely tomorrow, a comprehensive set of procedures” governing player transactions. One report indicated that free agency could restart as early as Monday.)
Tonight, when college stars like Heisman-winner Cam Newton and Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert hear Goodell call their names, it might be the finest moment of their lives.
We can’t say the same for the commish.
(More on TIME.com: See the top 10 Heisman trophy winners)