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The Humble Early Days of the NFL Draft

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When NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced Mario Williams as the Houston Texans’ first overall pick, he signaled not just the start of the 2006 NFL Draft, but also that the draft itself had become a standalone event. That 2006 draft was the first one held at Radio City Music Hall, a coronation of how far the NFL has come both as a business and as a cultural phenomenon. It’s going to seem impossible as you watch this Acadamy Awards-level production in primetime tonight, but there once was a time when nobody even knew the draft happened.

The First Draft

The draft’s evolution from business meeting to months-long obsession had been a long time coming. The first draft, held in 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, consisted of nine rounds and was essentially uncovered by the media. Most newspapers around the country didn’t even publish the results, not to mention scouting reports or mock drafts.

WWII

During World War II, the NFL stopped calling it the “draft” since there was a different draft underway, instead referring to it as the “preferred negotiations list,” a much more professional term that would fit in well amongst modern NFL legalese. Considering a lot of football talent was being sent to war—the skills required to be a good football player and soldier overlap considerably—the league expanded to 30 rounds, assuming most of their picks would end up in Europe or the Pacific instead of the gridiron.

Post-War

After the war, as American life returned to normalcy and the NFL’s popularity slowly grew, so too did coverage of league news. Newspapers like the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times ran occasional brief scouting reports (Frank Finch’s semi-regular reports in the Los Angeles Times often began with “Dear Diary,” going on to provide snippets such as, “The backs are okay...but prospects up front are none too promising”), but the revelation of the time was publishing comprehensive draft results, usually breaking down the first ten rounds by team selections.

Starting in 1947, the NFL experimented with a bonus pick, in which the first overall pick was given not to the worst club, but to a random team via lottery (although no team could get a bonus pick twice). This practice lasted 11 years until the league recognized it for the terrible idea it was.

The AFL Draft Takes on the NFL

Like football itself, the NFL draft wasn’t an intriguing affair until it got some competition. Starting in 1959, the burgeoning American Football League held a draft in competition with the NFL’s, often selecting the same players who would then get to choose in which league they would play. “Our big inducement of competition with the National Football League is that we can just about guarantee a job to the players we draft,” Max Winter, General Manager of the Minneapolis-St. Paul team told the Los Angeles Times in November of 1959. (Ironically, this team would stay in the AFL for only one season before switching to the NFL and becoming the Vikings.) The AFL chose to hold their draft prior to the NFL’s, a bold but necessary move for the new league to attract players. Likely in response to this, the NFL reduced the number of rounds to twenty.

For the next several years, the AFL and NFL jockeyed to incentivize college players to sign with their respective leagues. The AFL offered an advantage by holding their draft in November during the collegiate football season (to the NCAA’s chagrin) while the NFL offered, as LSU star Billy Cannon articulated, “the better players and more security.”

The 1960 NFL Draft illustrates just how far the draft had come in terms of preparation and production. According to the Christian-Science Monitor, the draft took 11.5 hours “as coaches took their time making selections. They went to the telephone almost every round to call players and ask them, (1) will you play pro football, and (2) will you come to the NFL rather than the AFL.” This is a far cry from the modern draft, a year-round scouting process in which GMs ask players weeks in advance if they’re gay or if their mother is a whore.

As teams found they had more to consider on draft day, the draft itself took longer, lasting 19 hours in 1963 (still shorter than the three-day modern draft). For some reason that isn’t clear from newspaper accounts, the NFL decided to hold the 1964 draft via telephone and teletype, foreshadowing the millions of fantasy drafts held over the internet decades later. The 1965 draft, once again held in person, took an absurd 31 hours to complete, making recent drafts appear brisk by comparison. Meanwhile, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle accused the rival AFL of holding a “secret draft” in three of the previous five years in an effort to procure college talent. In a classic move of antagonism, the AFL then rescheduled their draft for the same day as the NFL’s.

The Merger...and ESPN

Soon after, the antagonism ceased and the two leagues merged, forming the basis for the NFL we know today, eliminating the competition which formed most of the draft’s intrigue. Nevertheless, the draft continued to grow in popularity, largely because the sport did so as well. In 1977, the draft was moved to late April or early May and reduced to 17 rounds. But the biggest and perhaps most significant change to the NFL draft occurred in 1980 when it was televised by ESPN for the first time.

The 1980 ESPN broadcast is barely recognizable from the effervescent glow you’ll see this April, partly due to technological changes, but also because of the draft itself. The 1980 version was held in the New York Sheraton’s ballroom with team officials huddling over each other, with barely enough elbow room to lean over and cough. In retrospect, the 1980 draft seems more like a middle school group project than a professional sports league; you could easily imagine a delegate from each team assigned with trying to overhear other teams at adjacent tables.

In 1984, Mel Kiper Jr. and his perplexingly consistent haircut became the first dedicated draft analyst, kicking off the age of year-long draft obsession. Today, the draft is televised on ESPN and NFL Network. Player workouts are broadcast live on ESPN weeks before the draft while analysts debate whether what we’re watching actually means anything with respect to the player’s draft position, which will then later be debated as to whether it actually means anything. This is to say, the draft has become so big that we don’t even know how much it matters anymore. In a way, everything has come full circle, just with a lot more talking.

All photos courtesy Getty Images

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Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.


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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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Arizona Teen Becomes First Female to Earn a College Football Scholarship
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In recent years, women have made great strides in male-dominated sports. Currently in the NBA, Becky Hammon and Nancy Lieberman have proven their worth as assistant coaches for the San Antonio Spurs and Sacramento Kings, respectively, while Sarah Thomas made news as the first official female referee in the NFL in 2015. Now, an Arizona teenager named Becca Longo is joining their ranks.

On April 12, Longo, an 18-year-old kicker from Basha High School in Chandler, Arizona, signed a letter of intent to receive an athletic scholarship and play for the Division II football team at Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado. She is the first woman to be on scholarship at a Division II school or higher—a fact Longo herself didn't even realize until her high school coach informed her at the signing ceremony.

Longo’s kicking prowess in high school was highlighted by her making 30 out of 33 extra point attempts during her senior season, which caught the attention of Adams’s head coach, Timm Rosenbach. She also sent the school a highlight reel and began following coach Rosenbach on Twitter to show him what she could do.

"She's kind of put herself out there to let everyone know she wants to do this," Rosenbach told CNN. "If she's able to compete at a level we think she's able to compete at, we should afford her that opportunity to do that."

Longo’s persistence led to a visit from Adams’s offensive coordinator, Josh Blankenship, who told the young kicker that the school was interested in her being on the team. But being on scholarship doesn’t mean a spot on the starting roster is guaranteed. The kicking spot is up for grabs, according to Rosenbach, and there are two other kickers who Longo will have to beat out for the job. But despite the pressure, Longo told ESPN, "I'm ready to compete. I don't really have any expectations beyond that."

In addition to the football team, Longo has also committed to play basketball at Adams State next year.

[h/t CBS]

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