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Sports is also the great unifier. While Wednesday night’s NFL Draft will certainly look different than it has in years past, one thing is clear: One of our favorite pastimes is once again giving Americans something to look forward to, thanks to the hard work of the NFL, its recruits and yes, even sports agents. It gives us all something to root for, and that is greatly needed now in our time of need.
In an event that has become the most exciting night for young athletes around the country, the tradition came under attack just as the rest of major league sports have during the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged America and the rest of the world.
The move to a virtual draft has not come easily. Through sheer persistence, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell telegraphed weeks before the opening of tonight’s events that the show would, indeed, go on. And while the show will look drastically different than the primetime spectacle that has evolved since the first televised NFL Draft in April of 1980, the nuts and bolts of the selection process will remain relatively the same, albeit with communication happening via technology still strikingly unfamiliar to some team executives.
Plans for the 2020 NFL Draft, which was to have taken place in Las Vegas for the first time in NFL history, had been in the works for years.
An elaborate stage was to have been constructed in the middle of the Fountains of Bellagio, where Commissioner Goodell would announce draft picks from the podium as fans booed mercilessly from across the water.
After tearfully hugging family members, selected players would have been escorted from a green room to a boat, which would transport them to the stage where each would have posed for pictures sporting a ball cap bearing their new team’s logo and held up a personalized-on-the-spot jersey.
Draft night traditions have been largely abandoned as part of the extensive “slow the spread” conditions implemented nationwide. There will be no stage. No green room. No hugs nor handshakes (social distancing!).
Instead, fans will be booing Roger Goodell from the comfort of their homes while he announces the names of draft picks from his basement in Bronxville, New York.
But while the production and pageantry of the stage may not be on display this year, the announcement of each selection in the 2020 NFL Draft will be no less life-changing for the young men who hear their name (while sitting at home, quarantined with their immediate families).
Like every other industry suffering under the pandemic, those involved in the NFL draft have been teleworking like most Americans.
In mid-March, NFL teams pulled their scouts, coaches and other personnel off the road, and all college Pro Days were canceled. While some forward-thinking teams shifted to virtual scouting months ago (unrelated to the pandemic), nearly all teams still rely on in-person evaluations of hundreds of players at on-campus workouts and pre-draft visits. In a moment, that important evaluation process was turned on its head. And one of the most critical pieces of the evaluation – medical exams by official team doctors – became impossible.
Teams have been hard at work, putting together their draft boards and doing their best not to miss the next Pro Bowler. Instead of sitting around giant conference tables in war rooms, however, they will be sitting in Zoom rooms or in Microsoft Teams or Google Docs. In preparation for this most unusual draft in NFL history, General Managers and their staff members have spent the week running “mock” drafts and testing internet connections. No team wants to be remembered for a draft night snafu.
It will certainly be a night to remember, in the best way, for the young men and their families who do get that call during the draft; a call they have dreamed about and worked toward their entire lives.
Through all the sacrifices, the hundreds of practices and games, the setbacks, the injuries, the victories and defeats, they have persevered, believing that someday – against all odds - they may get to proudly wear the NFL Shield.
Out of more than 1 million high school football players in America, only 7.3 percent will go on to become NCAA athletes (Divisions I, II & III combined). Of the 73,000 NCAA athletes, only around 250 will be drafted to play in the NFL.
For athletes from underprivileged communities, this draft night – however virtual it may be -- could mean everything.
For a player who grew up in poverty, it is his chance to change not only his life but the lives of his family members, and also his community.
For these athletes and so many others, this draft is the great equalizer for them.
Thanks to the hard work of the NFL, its staff and countless athletes participating, the league is giving back to the country a gift that is greatly needed right now: a glimmer of hope that we will, once again, play ball and that things will, hopefully, soon return to normalcy in America.
Kelli Masters is the first woman to represent a top-five, first-round draft pick in the NFL, and has represented more professional athletes than any woman in history. A former Miss Oklahoma and a University of Oklahoma twirler, she is an attorney, a sports agent certified by the NFLPA (NFL Players Association), and founder/president of KMM Sports.