Three reasons why NFL Draft
is bad for players, fans, league

          Posted: Sunday, April 19, 2009

This weekend is the NFL Draft, and this NFL fan will happily watch just about every minute.

Even so, the NFL Draft should not exist.

Remarkably, there has never been a significant modern movement against the NFL Draft.

So it starts here.

1. Sports drafts do not bring "competitive balance" to the leagues. 2. Sports drafts do not hold down salaries. 3. Sports drafts do force certain stars to teams they might not want to join.

Drafts in every sport were either created or maintained under false advertising. The stated reason for launching the NFL Draft was to provide competitve balance. Many well-meaning executives in football and other sports probably assumed that it would. It never has. But there was a side benefit: holding down a star player's salary by restricting his negotiating rights to one team.

The baseball draft has always been most dubious, but all the major sports have long since signed on to the same concept. This excellent article by Steve Treder, about baseball launching its amateur draft in 1965, notes, "By limiting each drafted prospect to negotiate with a single team, the purpose was served of dramatically reducing signing bonus amounts."

What about the original "competitive balance" argument?

In the NFL, consider several teams. The Detroit Lions last made the playoffs in 1999. They have topped 8 wins (a .500 season) once in 11 years. In 2008, they became the first NFL team to go an incredible 0-16.

Yet these have been the Detroit Lions first round draft picks:

2008: 15 (traded back to 17)
2007: 2
2006: 9
2005: 10
2004: 7, 30
2003: 2
2002: 3

So in seven years of extremely high draft picks — top 10 in six years, top 3 in three years — all the Detroit Lions have to show for it is 0-16.


In the last six seasons, the Oakland Raiders astoundingly have never won more than 5 games. Yet these were Oakland Raiders first round draft picks over that time:

2008: 4
2007: 1
2006: 7
2005: 7 (traded for Randy Moss), 23
2004: 2
2003: 31, 32
2002: 17, 23

Five straight years of extremely high picks (all top 10, top 2 twice) left the Oakland Raiders 5-11 in 2008 and once again selecting in the top 10.

The San Francisco 49ers, one of the NFL's greatest franchises with five Super Bowl wins, have not finished .500 in six years despite routinely qualifying for high picks in that time, including the No. 1 overall pick in 2005.

People serious about "competitive balance" would demand a draft of all players, not rookies, every season. Notice nobody suggests this.

So the competitive balance argument does not wash. What about the need to hold down salaries so that New York and Chicago teams don't bankrupt the league?

That argument has long since died, because the NFL, NBA and hockey all have a salary cap. In baseball, it could be argued that abolishing the draft would give more power to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Yet those are playoff teams every season anyway. How much more power would they gain by being able to sign more young players?

So how does the draft actually hurt the players, the fans and the league?

It forces players to join specific teams — in a manner that would probably be illegal if not for the public fascination with sports — when the players and fans might prefer they play elsewhere.

The NBA for example has allowed LeBron James to be drafted by Cleveland and Tim Duncan to be drafted by San Antonio. These are extremely low-profile teams and, by NBA standards, low-profile cities without a national fan following. This is an important point: If James and Duncan wanted to join those franchises, they certainly should be allowed to do so. But they might actually want to play for the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, 76ers or Knicks, or some other franchise. Is the NBA truly better off if the Lakers and/or Celtics and/or Bulls are no more special, year after year, than the Portland Trail Blazers?

Kobe Bryant, by the way, told the NBA prior to the draft he was going to play for the Lakers, and it happened. Would pro basketball be better if he had merely stayed with the Charlotte Hornets, who drafted him?

Eli Manning (2004) and John Elway (1983) famously told the San Diego Chargers and Baltimore Colts, respectively, they did not want to play for those teams. The Chargers and Colts incredibly, somehow, stubbornly drafted them anyway. Those players were prized enough to force trades to places they did want to go — do Broncos fans and Giants fans really think that was a bad thing?

Fans who complain the big teams would monopolize all the talent should ask why college football is so popular. Every year USC, Ohio State, Texas, Florida, Notre Dame, etc., get the prized players. Nobody seems to have a problem with this.

Supporting a draft is the equivalent of saying Hofstra and Wyoming should get first pick of high school prospects and USC and Ohio State should pick last.

Players such as Elway and Manning endured a serious public backlash for exposing the draft as a fraud and demanding basic employment rights and in the process making the league better. The public would never stand for the concept of every college grad being told where he was going to work and for what company. Yet there is the sentiment that pro athletes are very fortunate and should feel lucky to be paid millions to play a game, and thus should "go along with the system." Sports locker rooms — particularly in football — tend to be very conservative places, and young players perceived as telling the league what to do are not viewed kindly, as evidenced by the criticism of Manning by existing and former NFL players in 2004. Those who disagree with this article — and we welcome disagreement and debate — please forward to Mr. Elway and Mr. Manning and see if we can get them on the record on this subject.

History in all sports clearly shows a long-term trend: The teams that win are teams that most want to win — not teams that draft high.

The reality of business is that unproven stars are always going to be paid more than they rightfully deserve at the time. This is a business phenomenon. A company considers introducing 10 new products. In general the most promising ones will be the most costly. Some will be busts, a waste of money. But the ones that succeed might easily pay for themselves and become a big part of the future of the company. Thus, Matthew Stafford of Georgia will receive a large sum of money soon despite never playing a down of professional football, while experienced NFL quarterbacks will make less in 2009. This bothers people, but is a perfectly sound outgrowth of capitalism.

So nobody thinks to even question the pro sports draft, and opinions like these, saying the NFL Draft "has been one of the most crucial ideas implemented by the NFL, keeping the league competitive and varied throughout its history," remain commonplace. Interestingly, the first pick in the first NFL Draft, Jay Berwanger, in 1936 told the Philadelphia Eagles he did not want to play for them. He refused to join the NFL. Berwanger had it right, from the beginning.

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