You Can’t Dodge the NFL Draft

Every fan’s a recruiter these days.

This year’s NFL Draft gets underway Thursday. It’s always one of the most anticipated and highly rated sporting events of the year, even though it’s not really a sporting event at all.

We all know about the “Dirty 30″ incident in 1999, which is to the history of Philadelphia sports fandom what the “Mission Accomplished” ceremony was to George W. Bush’s presidency. NFL Draft obsession may not always take on that level of hostility, but it remains obsession nonetheless.

When ESPN.com asked fans in 2006 which event they were most excited for—the NBA and NHL playoffs, the ongoing baseball season, or the NFL Draft—more than 60 percent picked the draft, the one option that doesn’t consist of actual games. And it’s only gotten bigger since. I was at a kids’ birthday party during the Sunday of the draft two years ago, and all the men in the room were glued to the TV watching teams make their sixth- and seventh-round picks.

The rise of the draft, complete with live television coverage of the scouting combine and mock drafts on every sports website, every week for six months out of the year—on top of three days of gavel-to-gavel coverage of the draft itself on both ESPN and the NFL Network—is an example of a big shift that’s taken place in sports fandom over the years. There’s so much more information out there in so many more places than there used to be, and even among those of us who try to keep on top of it all, keeping up can be a challenge.

It used to be sports fans argued about who should start at third base, or whether or not the football coach calls enough running plays. We still have those fights, but now they go a lot deeper. At this point, every Phillies fan has an opinion not only on the makeup of the roster and lineup, but on which Class A prospects the team should or shouldn’t offer in trades, on whether John Mayberry’s righty/lefty splits necessitate the use of a pinch hitter in the ninth, and even on which course of treatment Chase Utley should’ve undergone for his knee injury.

If you’re a fan of a major college football program, it’s not enough to know your team’s current roster or even the incoming recruiting class. True, hardcore fans are even looking at the highest-ranking high-school freshmen, who are potential recruits down the line.

I’m not saying I don’t like the way things are now. I love reading sports blogs and watching hours of ESPN draft speculation just like every other fan, and I’m as big a fantasy football guy as anyone. And pushing new boundaries of knowledge, whether through reading out-of-town columns or discovering newfangled baseball statistics, is one of my favorite parts of being a fan. But it’s also a lot more demanding than it used to be.

Here’s what’s going to happen this weekend: The Eagles are going to draft some linebacker or defensive tackle or quarterback in the fifth round. Some fans will like the pick, others won’t, but unless he’s from a major or local school, chances are virtually no one on either side of the argument will have ever seen the guy play or know anything about him beyond his name, position, school, and the 30 seconds they heard Ray Didinger talking about him on CSN. But they’ll still have an opinion.

Silly as that exercise may be, it sure beats going to New York and booing the picks.

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