In the next three days, I will spend more time watching the National Football League Draft on television than I've spent watching The Wire, The Sopranos and Mad Men combined. I can appreciate the inevitable comparison between watching the draft and witnessing hours upon hours of ever-less-lucrative lottery drawings — by the end, if the metaphor holds, you're basically watching teams play scratch-and-win tickets — yet I have painstakingly cleared my social calendar for the occasion. (Note: My social calendar consists mostly of making my kids dinner, picking up cat vomit and staring into the middle distance, but still. The kids are nervous.)
Obsessive football fandom, for the most part, requires little explanation. But a fixation on the slow-moving non-spectacle in which the NFL's 32 teams select draft-eligible collegiate players for possible roster spots? It is literally, aside from those weekends in which meaningful actual football games are played, my favorite three-day stretch in all of sports. It's actually become a popular television event among people who aren't me, with competing wire-to-wire coverage on both ESPN and the NFL Network, but I nevertheless feel like the NFL Draft needs a spirited defense.
I ask you to bear in mind that:
1) Football hasn't been on TV for almost three months. For those who live in regions of the country that get harsh winters, the arrival of football can be bittersweet: It's essentially a fan's consolation prize for short days and shoveling driveways. Experiencing a reasonable approximation of football on television — and a meaningful one at that, given the extent to which the NFL Draft alters teams' rosters — at a time when it's not physically painful to go outside? It's an unfettered joy, especially if you're feeling ambitious enough to crack open a window next to the TV.
Baseball fans hoard most of that joy in the heady months of late spring, summer and early fall; for long stretches, they get sports to themselves at a point in the year where they're most likely to have time off work to go to games. The NFL Draft takes one weekend back from football's sepia-toned, relentlessly romanticized cousin. The last Thursday, Friday and Saturday in April? Those are ours.
Stephen Thompson is not the only person who loves Draft Day. A pivotal two-part episode of the Aaron Sorkin comedy-drama Sports Night, set at a SportsCenter-like show, featured people who may love it even more.
2) The draft peddles hope to the hopeless. Fortunes change quickly in the NFL: The Indianapolis Colts collapsed horribly in 2011, tying for the worst record in the league after quarterback Peyton Manning suffered season-ending neck surgery. Now, Manning is with Denver and the Colts are set to draft Andrew Luck, the Stanford quarterback widely regarded as the best prospect in a generation. The awful Washington Redskins, after two decades of mediocre-at-best quarterback play, are certain to pick Baylor's electrifying Robert Griffin III, who will define the franchise for years to come. Worst picks first, so longtime bottom-feeding also-rans like the Cleveland Browns and St. Louis Rams ought to be radically reshaped in the days to come. If you're a fan of one of those teams, you're going to have more fun in the next three days than you did watching 16 games in 2011.
Even my beloved Green Bay Packers, perennial late-pickers by virtue of being awesome, ought to come out of the 2012 draft improved: After winning the Super Bowl the season before last (and then going 15-1 in the regular season that followed), horrific issues with the pass defense derailed a championship run that had once seemed inevitable. Even with their team picking 28th, Packers fans like me have been speculating like crazy for months. Will our pass rush get a boost from Boise State's Shea McClellin? Clemson's Andre Branch? How about Connecticut defensive tackle Kendall Reyes? Fans who'd never heard those names as of three months ago have since formed intense opinions about each of them.
3) Mel Kiper is the human personification of eggnog, or maybe marshmallow Peeps. The advent of podcasts, in-depth websites and the online trading of game tapes (not to mention at-home experts who've blurred the lines between fans and paid professionals) have made the NFL Draft the domain of more than just venerated ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper. That heightened interest has, in turn, made guys like Kiper — and his ESPN partner Todd McShay, and the NFL Network's fast-rising Mike Mayock — omnipresent on more than just draft weekend.
But even with all the added competition and draft noise, there's something positively giddiness-inducing (at least for me) about seeing Mel Kiper and his copiously shellacked hair on TV for hour upon hour after hour. No longer does Kiper seem to be the only man on earth who could, off the top of his head, list the measurables of late-round Arkansas State strong safety Kelcie McCray. But it's good to know that, like eggnog in December, Kiper — like the NFL Draft that made him famous — is there if you want him to be.
A writer and editor with NPR Music — and a panelist on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour — Stephen Thompson intends to periodically turn his head from one screen to another long enough to live-tweet the occasional NFL Draft highlight at @idislikestephen.