America’s Second-Greatest Reality Show: A Visit to the NFL Draft Combine in Indianapolis
Indianapolis, Indiana, early morning, last Friday. It’s about a degree above zero on a miserable, windy Midwestern day and I’ve just hurried through the East Gate of Lucas Oil Stadium, about to fulfill a longstanding dream of covering the NFL scouting combine. Two guards in bright-yellow jackets halt my progress.
I open my bag. No weapons, no human heads, no copies of Catcher in the Rye. They wave me through and point in the direction of the media workroom.
“East Club,” they say. “Set up anywhere.”
Twenty-five years of reporting have trained me to expect the “media workroom” to be an airless hole with 50 balding white dudes quietly typing around a plastic tray full of wilting ham sandwiches. But through the next door is a vast sea of humanity stretching without visible end, along with a crush of voices that, decibel-wise, registers somewhere between lunch at Rikers Island and the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
It’s way too many people to be a press center. There’s no way America has sent this many reporters to cover Todd Gurley’s recovery or the 40 times of Nick O’Leary and Rakeem Nunez-Roches. I stop an official-looking woman with a non-media pass.
“Excuse me — which ones are the reporters? I’m looking for the media workroom.”
She waves, with a philosophical flourish, in an almost complete circle. “This,” she says, smiling, “is they.”
I look around in disbelief, and I’m not the only one. Arizona State star defensive tackle Marcus Hardison, a quick-twitch, 307-pound sack artist who looks like a linebacker up close, is just sitting down for an interview session as I’m looking for a seat. He gazes in all directions.
“Man, I usually want to run and hide when I see the media,” he says. “This is crazy. I’ve never seen so many reporters.”
There’s so much credentialed media, and so few seats, that I end up having to grab a chair on a hastily placed end table that stretches within feet of the entrance to the men’s bathroom.
“Yeah, this section near the bathroom, I’m pretty sure that’s new,” says Matt Glenesk of the Indianapolis Star, who has watched this event grow exponentially over the years. “Not sure what they’re going to do next year.”
According to the NFL Media folks, a record 1,071 press passes have been issued for this year’s combine. To put that in perspective, there were 3,100 credentials issued at the vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin at Washington University in St. Louis, which was probably the most anticipated political event of the 2000s. And that had a heavy dose of foreign media. Here almost the whole crew is both American and male. It’s a giant slice of a very specific and obvious demographic. And they’re here to cater to some of the world’s great obsessives.
David J. Phillip/AP
The exploding popularity of the combine represents one of the great triumphs of the modern NFL, a business that is marketed every bit as ingeniously as it is incompetently governed. What the league has done is essentially eliminate its entire offseason — aggressively stimulating fan interest during the non-playing months via the promotion of one of the world’s unlikeliest hit TV shows ever: the NFL draft.
The combine is Episode 1 of that program, and this year’s event is likely to draw about 12 million viewers, up significantly from about 7 million in previous years. Roughly nine weeks from now, the program will culminate in a late-April draft broadcast that, after months of relentless hype, will draw (if form holds true) just south of 50 million viewers — again, an astonishing number, on par with a general-election presidential debate and roughly 14 million more people than just watched the Oscars on ABC.
In the old days, the draft was an unknown event that took place in hotel banquet rooms, sometimes during the season. Old-timers like former Cowboys executive Gil Brandt tell stories about teams that used to “pick up a pay phone, call a school, and say, ‘Hey, we need a tackle; you got anybody good?’”
Screw that now: The new reality-show format subjects the draft entrants to a hilarious nine-week stretch of goofball obstacle courses and campy personality tests that collectively play out on TV like a cross between Battle of the Network Stars and the Miss America pageant, with a faint but troubling whiff of 1830s slave auction mixed in.
The action typically ends when the best and the brightest of a select few hundred cliché-spewing collegiate stars, most of them African American, put on outrageous new suits and take long catwalk strolls into the awkward, man-hugging white-guy embrace of $35-mil-a-year executive Roger Goodell, who always hurries just a bit too quickly to disengage.
Those who are drawn to this sort of thing (and I’ve been obsessed by it with an addict’s tenacity for most of my adult life) will find that it’s one of the weirdest and creepiest, but also most compelling, dramas in all of American popular culture. The two-month journey that starts here in Indy isn’t entirely (or even mostly) about sports. Outside of the presidential election, it’s the world’s most elaborate reality show, and the combine is where we get to meet each new season’s characters.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
For the media, the combine is set up a little like a swingers’ key party, or maybe a speed-dating event. You’re wedged into a too-small seat at a long plastic table, typing away in a crowd of other cramped, pissed-off sportswriters and Semi-Famous Football Celebrities (I had Vic Carucci to my left on Day 1), when suddenly a voice booms over an intercom:
“Kyshoen Jarrett, defensive back, Virginia Tech. Table A!”
Out of the thousand hacks present, maybe a dozen will leap to their feet and race across the room in search of Table A. Seated there is a nice, smiling young man in shiny Under Armour™ gear, a man you presume is Kyshoen Jarrett. Outside of the very biggest stars, most of the sportswriters have no idea which player is which; a furtive stroll behind the player to catch a glimpse of the name and number on the back of his jersey is something most become expert at very quickly.
When you reach Table A, the player, let’s say it’s Jarrett, is conspicuously surrounded by empty chairs. You may sit down, right next to him if you want! Like you’re friends! Just a couple of regular fellas chatting about life, family, and press-man coverage! But be careful: If the intimacy overwhelms you, and you reach a hand in the direction of the player’s knee, there is an NFL communications official standing about three feet behind him, ready to zap you into tachycardia with a cattle prod. (OK, I might have imagined that last part.)
The NFL makes about 215 players available for these intimate exchanges during the week, and most are offered up in the weird dinner-table setup.1 This is the real action for the press. The appeal of the draft for its most devoted fans is that any one of these ostensibly unknown players may turn out some day very soon to be Sports Royalty.
Unlike the NBA, where phenoms like LeBron or Kobe are spotted as young children and whose draft stock often remains more stable than that of young football players, the NFL is a sport where overpaid GMs regularly miss by a mile. They allow MVP-caliber players like Tom Brady or Terrell Davis to fall through their fingers all the way down to the bottom rounds, by which time the Mel Kipers and Todd McShays have talked themselves hoarse and millions of fans are still paying close attention, praying for a Seabiscuit-type miracle ending. It’s no coincidence that ESPN plays up draft-malpractice stories like The Brady 6 as they get closer to the event.
So diligent draftniks try to sit in for as many of those 215 interviews as possible, so they can introduce us not just to the big shots but the “hidden gems” and “sleepers.” The draft drama in this sense has a lot in common with reality series like Storage Wars and Extreme Couponing, which play on the shopping-obsessed public’s passion for bargain hunting.
But it’s mostly only diehards who are interested in the Za’Darius Smiths and Ali Marpets, the linemen from Towson and Norfolk State and the like. What still make and break each season, ratingswise, are the headline dramas, which typically revolve around the fate of a polarizing personality like Tim Tebow or Johnny Manziel — last year’s draft ratings peaked when the Cowboys, a rumored home for Manziel, were on the clock. Or it’s an (often artificially generated) suspense story about who’ll get chosen first.
This year’s draft will be easy to sell because it has a polarizing personality gift-wrapped for nine weeks of marketing as well as suspense at the top. The whole press room was waiting for Friday afternoon to meet the main character in that dynamic. A voice boomed over the intercom:
“Jameis Winston, quarterback, Florida State. Platform A.”
Everybody leaped out of their seats and rushed in Winston’s direction. It was like that scene in Airplane! when the reporters in the airport knocked over the bank of phone booths.
This was an important moment because the marginal ratings pull of the 2015 draft likely depends a lot upon the league’s ability to sell a Winston–versus–Marcus Mariota fight over the top pick.
Disaster for the NFL would have involved one of the two top-rated quarterbacks imploding at the combine — a right arm falling off during a passing drill, an incident involving puppies and arson at the local Marriott, etc. Winston in particular, being an unpredictable personality with a history of character issues (as accusations of sexual assault and/or other arrests are euphemistically described in draft parlance), raised for some the possibility that he might talk himself out of millions of dollars during the interview portion of this beauty pageant.
“If he gives a shout-out to ISIS or something,” whispered one reporter, “he might fall out of the top 10.”
Winston strode to the lectern with the assurance of a sleepwalker, flashed an enormous smile, and immediately won over the crowd with a rambling, Rex Ryan–esque declaration of his awesomeness. In the first minutes of his speech, he kneecapped “Mariota” (Winston eschewed — in fact seemed almost to forget — his rival’s first name) and fired warning shots at Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in one fell swoop.
“I’m not into no competition type of thing,” he said. “This is no competition between just me and Mariota. Because one thing about me, I plan on winning the Super Bowl next year, so it’s going to be me versus Peyton Manning, and Jameis versus Tom Brady.”
He barely had to answer questions about his multitudinous off-field issues, which range from sexual-assault allegations to an incident of crab-leg theft. (I raised my hand to ask why, if you’re going to steal something, you would steal crab legs, but Winston would have needed a spyglass to see me in the crowd.) The closest anyone came to the Ugly Stuff was a question asking him if anyone else — read: one of the teams — had asked about his past. To this he cheerily replied, “I can’t talk about situations or anything like that in the past.”
Seconds later, he was back into a series of entertainingly incoherent third-person sermons. When he gets going, Winston sounds a little like a jocky combination of Alan Greenspan and Pat Riley (“Compartmentalize is all a part of confidence” had some audience members stumped). Then he went out in the drills and looked free and easy throwing every ball in the book. There was talk among the reporters that he was a lock to go to Tampa Bay with the no. 1 pick, but then came Saturday afternoon and the 40-yard dash. Reporters crowded around the monitors to watch.
Winston didn’t look quite as bad as 2000-combine Brady, but it was close. The first attempt was a 4.97. The second was a 4.99, and Mike Mayock said on the broadcast that he had him at 5.01. Oregon’s mammoth 300-pound offensive tackle Jake Fisher had run virtually the same time a few days earlier.
“Jesus,” mumbled one reporter. “He looks like dogshit.”
Worse, Mariota was killing the same drill. He ran a 4.52 and looked like a faster, more nimble version of Cam Newton. Unlike Newton, he didn’t completely suck in the throwing drills. In that moment, the Jameis-Marcus fight was officially on, and there was some anonymous chatter coming to soup up the drama.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
In years past, there have been several controversies involving highly rated African American quarterbacks and draft experts. Longtime Pro Football Weekly writer Nolan Nawrocki, whose face is certainly on the Mount Rushmore of draft analysts and who is known for his Tolstoy-length, book-style draft reports, infamously blasted Newton as having a “fake smile” and for being a “con artist” who “comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup.”
Critics derided Nawrocki’s attack as racist and dug up similar incidents, like the time he downgraded Virginia linebacker Darryl Blackstock for wearing his hat tilted sideways. (Later, he faced still more accusations of racism for blasting Geno Smith.) And while Nawrocki himself hasn’t yet commented on Winston (although it’s much anticipated), an “unnamed scout” launched a similarly scathing review of Winston not long after Winston’s combine speech this weekend, through respected Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writer Bob McGinn.
“Someone will take him in the first round, but how could you even let that guy in the building?” the scout snapped. The anonymous source cited the “second law of thermodynamics,” saying, “The more ways they can fuck up, the more chances they fuck up. This guy’s got a lot of stuff that would lean him more likely to be a bust.”
And thus began SubtextBowl 2015. Get ready for a ton of Winston-Mariota hype chock full of loaded dog-whistle language, some of which will probably be below the belt. Winston is clearly the more gifted passer, but Mariota, a talented Hawaiian often celebrated for his consistency and quiet leadership, is already being showered with the laudatory overachiever clichés normally reserved for white wide receivers, who in the draft are always compared to Wes Welker and inevitably described as “gritty,” “hardworking,” “coachable,” “blue-collar,” “humble,” and possessing of a “high football IQ.”
Some of that is already coming Mariota’s way: Get ready for a lot more as the hype train gains steam.
David J. Phillip/AP
The draft is long-form unscripted drama in which the reporters don’t have enough time to truly get to know the characters, so they often take shortcuts and force-fit them into caricatured boxes. In politics, each batch of primary hopefuls somehow always produces the same archetypes: a Plucky Underdog, a Guy You Want to Have a Beer With, a Nuanced Statesman, a Prickly Intellectual, an Insurgent, etc.
The typical draft likewise has several basic types:
- The Front-runner: In this case, Winston. He can usually only lose his title by his own incompetence. A caveat is that as the draft pulls closer, the Front-runner usually receives an increasing amount of abuse/scrutiny in the press — call it the Hillary Clinton effect — which sometimes helps send him into an irrevocable death spiral, Aaron Rodgers being the most famous case.
- The Riser: This is a no-name player with middling stats who blows up the workouts and vaults himself high into the first round — think Dontari Poe, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Dewayne Robertson. This year’s entrant looks to be UConn corner Byron Jones, who broke the combine’s standing long jump record, apparently shattered the long jump record as well, and vert-jumped a David Thompson–esque 44.5 inches. Nobody in America has ever seen Jones cover a wide receiver, but he’ll be in great demand by draft day.
- The Faller: Usually a big college star whose physical, behavioral, or intellectual warts are uncovered in Indy, plummeting him down the board: Think Brandon Spikes and his 5.0 flat 40 time, Damontre Moore and his sub-quarterbackish 12 bench reps, or Manti Te’o, whose fake-girlfriend scandal wouldn’t have meant so much if not for the 4.82 he ran in the 40. This year’s entrant is another linebacker, Paul Dawson of TCU, who was Mike Mayock’s top 4-3 guy until he ran almost as slow as Spikes (4.93), and did so at a measly 235 pounds. Within hours of his disastrous result, he tweeted: “I’m an awesome football player… Not a track Star.” Tweeting immediate post-drill excuses might be a new combine thing. Keep an eye out.
- The Malingerer: Virtually every year there’s a player who’s either not completely healthy or has an agent who’s afraid suckage in a certain drill will cost his client millions of commissionable dollars, so he holds out and gets pilloried by all 10 billion journalists present, often never recovering his rep. For instance, the last time anyone ever heard of Dan LeFevour was before he decided to skip the throwing portion of the 2010 combine. And Barkevious Mingo probably needs about 15 more career sacks before his decision to skip the bench press two years ago will stop following him around. Missouri pass-rusher Shane Ray was hurt and bowed out, which led to some media grumbling, but Georgia’s monster running back Todd Gurley refusing a medical check at the combine was a never-before-seen innovation — not clear yet how that will play.
- The Wonderlic Underachiever: The results of the NFL’s kooky version of the SAT test are venemously leaked almost every year. The test, as has been widely reported, contains questions so simple that your average congressman could answer them without help (“A pad of paper costs 21 cents. How much will four pads cost?” is an example). Players are graded on a scale of 1 to 50, and each year, some poor player’s low score is leaked, allowing the public to gape at Vince Young’s 6 out of 50, Dan Marino’s 15 or 16 (depending on the source), Morris Claiborne’s 4. No word on this year’s offering yet.
- The Weed Guy: This player often falls dramatically in the draft, not so much because NFL execs care about players getting high, but more because getting high just before you know you’re going to be tested by NFL doctors allegedly demonstrates less than perfect self-control. But stoned, on his couch, and watching cartoons is exactly where you want your 330-pound rookie in his spare time. The alternatives can be so much worse: unregistered handguns, strip clubs, single-car accidents, etc. Basically, teams should always pick the Weed Guy if he falls on draft day, as he almost always turns into a bargain — think Randy Moss, Warren Sapp, Tyrann Mathieu, Percy Harvin. (Aaron Hernandez is a notable exception.) Wideout Dorial Green-Beckham has two weed incidents in his past, so he’s a prime candidate, but I’m not sure the “Draft The Weed Guy” rule applies when mixed with a tossing-a-woman-down-stairs incident (see below).
There is also, almost every year, a Bad Seed. This is the player who bombs the public interview portion. Maybe he rolls his eyes at the 500th question about whether he is a “vocal leader,” or he forgets to compare his high school position coach to his dad or Abraham Lincoln, or he says Yessir either too little or too much (teams have reportedly become wary of “Eddie Haskells” lately). Or he comes off poorly in private team interviews and this gets leaked to the media, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron being a recent example.
News stories quickly appear describing the player as “arrogant” and a “clubhouse cancer,” and this can badly hurt the player’s draft stock (see Ryan Mallett) or not hurt it at all (Cam Newton). Either way, his progress inevitably is gleefully tracked on draft night.
I was thinking about this on Friday when I heard the voice come over the intercom:
“Frank Clark, defensive end, Michigan, Table C.”
A higher-than-usual quantity of reporters leaped out of their seats and raced toward the mountainous lineman, slumped at one of those dinner tables with his arms folded. Along with Winston and a few others, Clark was a leading candidate for this year’s role as the draft’s Bad Seed.
Clark got booted off the Michigan team in November after being arrested for grabbing his girlfriend by the neck in a motel in the eerily named town of Sandusky, Ohio, apparently after a trip to a local water park. Virtually every NFL draft also features several players who have been accused of serious domestic-violence episodes — and this is something a post–Ray Rice Roger Goodell might want to worry about, before he man-hugs the wrong player on draft night. Of course, these incidents usually only affect the player’s draft status if (a) he runs a slow 40, or (b) he blows the combine interview.
This particular draft will be a key referendum on the phenomenon, since it features multiple players with troubling histories along these lines, including Winston, Clark, and Oklahoma’s Randy Moss clone, Dorial Green-Beckham. Green-Beckham, among other things, was accused of pushing a woman down a flight of stairs.
Clark seemed to be doing OK during parts of the interview. He broke out one of the 10 Essential Draft Clichés2 while speaking about his high school coach, Ted Ginn Sr.: “He’s been like a father figure in my life,” he said.
Then he moved on to the arrest. “Basically, I put myself in the position I shouldn’t have been in,” Clark began, again sticking to the usual script.
Then it all went downhill.
“It could have all been avoided,” Clark went on, “if I’d said, ‘No, I don’t want to go to Sandusky. No, I don’t want to go the water park.’”
Eyebrows raised around the table. Deciding not to go to an Ohio water park may be sound thinking generally, but it’s not usually part of the avoiding-domestic-violence process. Clark could have left it at that, but then he wandered mentally back into the Sandusky motel room and had a whole crowd of reporters reliving the experience. “When we were in the room,” he said, “the person involved let something get out of hand and took something further than what it was planned.”
He smiled. Reporters were scribbling madly.
“I’m not saying I’m a womanizer or anything of that nature,” he protested. “I’m just saying it was a confrontation … and the woman involved took it to another level that it shouldn’t have been taken to.”
Again, blank stares and scribbling.
“That’s fine. I’m not throwing her under the bus. I’m not saying she did anything wrong. I’m just saying that a lot of things that happened in that room that night could have been avoided.”
A few minutes later Clark was scooted out of the room.
I wrote in my notebook: 7-UDFA. No way, I thought, is this guy getting drafted. You’ve had almost three months to figure out a cover story for reporters, and the first chance you get to talk to the national media you decide to go with I’m not throwing her under the bus or anything, but she hit me first, and it would have been cool if I hadn’t gone swimming? Bills beat writer Matthew Fairburn chided Clark for “victim-blaming” and FanSided’s Cameron LaFontaine wrote a piece headlined, “Former Michigan DE Frank Clark starts combine poorly.” Draft Jesus Mayock, meanwhile, explained that Clark likely wouldn’t be drafted, not so much because of his character, but because he isn’t that good.
“Unfortunately, the more talent you have physically, the more rope we’ll give you,” he explained. “I think most teams are like, ‘Let’s not even deal with it.’”
In the Miss America pageant, the interview portion counts for 25 percent of the program. It probably counts just somewhat less at the draft. And while Clark failed, Green-Beckham nailed his crucial interview with a stunning all-cliché dismount.
The freakishly tall receiver’s heightened talent level meant he got to address the media from a lectern, not from the dinner table to which a slouching Clark had been consigned. Reporters tried to get Green-Beckham to delve into his behavioral history, but he wouldn’t budge, going with the tried-and-true, Mark McGwire, I’m not here to talk about the past strategy.
“I just wanna, uh, [not] think about all the things that’s happened in the past,” he said, “and just not look back to it and just focus on one thing and be a better person.”
And that was it. He didn’t jump into his time-tollbooth and take us back to the stairwell and try to explain how it was some woman’s own fault that she ended up at the bottom of it. Then he went out Saturday afternoon and ran a 4.49 at 6-foot-5, 237 pounds — not quite Calvin Johnson numbers, but close.
I felt certain in that moment that Goodell would very soon be hugging Green-Beckham on draft night, while Clark, surely, would end up a camp invitee in someplace like Jacksonville or Oakland. When it comes to domestic violence and the NFL, a strong 40 time goes a long way. So imagine my surprise on Sunday when NFL.com declared Frank Clark to be that day’s “Top Performer.” Turns out Clark ran a 4.05-second 20-yard shuttle run (best among defensive linemen), an 11.22 60-yard shuttle (best), a 7.08 three-cone drill (second-best), and jumped 38.5 inches, the second-best vertical in his group. The 271-pounder even ran a 4.79 40, which not only made Winston look like Mr. Magoo but ranked Clark as the sixth-fastest defensive lineman. News reports that night lauded him as the “top hybrid performer” among the defensive linemen at the combine.
Now it’s better than even money that Clark gets drafted. A rough interview isn’t what it used to be.
Random notes from my draft experience so far:
- Winner of the Most Resembling A Character Removed From The Script Of A Michael Mann Movie Award: Jeff Fisher, head coach, St. Louis Rams. Fisher spent most of his presser deflecting Los Angeles questions and talking elliptically about Sam Bradford, but he looked like he’d just huddled up with Jon Voight to decide to whack Waingro.
- All in all, the NFL granted access to 48 different team officials, mostly head coaches and GMs. One team notably declining to provide a media availability? The New England Patriots, apparently firmly embarked on their 2015 World Suck On This Tour.
- Best line from a combine participant: Ole Miss corner Senquez Golson, describing how hard it was to turn down a pro baseball contract after getting drafted in the eighth round by the Red Sox: “You look at the paper and it’s got all those zeroes. It’s tough, man.”
- Least reassuring explanation from a player kicked off his college team: Marcus Peters, the first-round talent booted from the Washington Huskies for what he termed “miscommunications.” Asked what he meant by that, he answered: “Am I a hothead? Which is false.”
- Peters also had the best malapropism of the whole combine: “I’m going to give it my best foot.”
- Separated at birth: Nebraska wideout Kenny Bell and Old School’s outstanding Rick Gonzalez.
By Day 4, everybody’s gone except the defensive backs (still drilling), the NFL Network broadcast team, and some media members who took an extra day to sleep off hangovers (a waitress at a local sports bar snapped at me: “It’s worse every year with you guys. Football people must think bathroom floors are where you put puke”). The combine is still happening, but the only way to watch it is on TV.
As live television, the combine is a marathon effort at extracting something out of not too much of anything. It’s 45 hours of watching guys the casual fan has never heard of run wind sprints. You have to be brain-damaged to love it, but millions, including myself, do.
The program wouldn’t work without Rich Eisen, who has perfected an ironic golf-commentary whisper to go with 50,000 different ways of describing guys in tights running in a straight line.
Here’s Jamil Douglas of Arizona State, he whispers, picking them up and putting them down …
The drills used to be for hard-core draft geeks only, and there was a time, not that long ago, when such people were few and far between. Now the NFL draft has become a guilty, dirty pleasure for tens of millions of (presumably mostly male) Americans. For decades, the crumpled magazine hidden under hubby’s side of the bed was Playboy or Penthouse; now it’s Athlon’s or Street and Smith’s Draft Guide. What that means, God only knows, but that era is upon us. And there’s no going back now.
Filed Under: NFL, NFL Combine, NFL Draft, Roger Goodell, Lucas Oil Stadium, Jameis Winston, Florida State, Marcus Mariota, Ryan Mallett, Cam Newton, Rich Eisen, Dorial Green-Beckham, Marcus Hardison, Arizona State, Byron Jones, Paul Dawson, Jeff Fisher, Senquez Golson, Marcus Peters, Kenny Bell