x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Anxious moments for players and fans ahead of NFL draft

Excitement is building as the NFL's draft commences on Thursday. But it could be the last action for a while.

Fans watch the 2008 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Fans watch the 2008 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Before the NFL hijacked the US public's attention, the annual draft of college players in late April was a casually followed affair.

Sure, the hardcore types might devote the month to speculating which positions their teams should replenish.

Mostly, though, fans would look up from the NBA or NHL play-offs just long enough to memorise the names of the new players.

Who could have reckoned that someday the NFL draft, a former two-day happening that quietly went about its business for 12 rounds, would have seven rounds spread out over three days, and open on prime-time television.

Or that it would be watched by millions and attended by thousands of jersey-wearing lunatics in a New York theatre reacting lustily to each pick?

Well, it's easy to explain.

It falls, fortuitously, near the midpoint between the Super Bowl and the opening of NFL training camps. The starved will eat anything. These few morsels will tide them over until the popping of pads commences this summer.

(Some cannot wait until then to unleash boos, so they practise on draft picks deemed unsuitable, like the quarterback who met with the vicious disapproval of Phildelphia Eagles fans in 1999. The object of their ire, Donovan McNabb, made the Pro Bowl five times.)

The draft qualifies as bona fide reality television. Cameras intrude on nervous, young supersized men biting their nails and rubbing their brows while waiting to hear their name called.

You want suffering and heartache mixed with joy and happy tears from young hopefuls as they strike it rich, or not, when their dream comes true, or not?

The NFL has invited 25 players, the most ever, to sit and wait in the so-called Green Room, all but guaranteeing the sight of long faces from those whose names not called in the first round.

For the slighted and snubbed, the pain is real. Tom Brady still has not got over his free-fall to the sixth round 11 years ago. The harsh memory prompted this stoic quarterback to get all weepy during a recent interview.

Now comes a draft like none other, where one reality collides with another.

A lockout by team owners that has shut down all other business, could wash out the season and make this draft the final NFL event until ... when?

Of the hundreds of handshakes between the commissioner and the new draftees on stage, never before has the exchange involved one man essentially suing the other.

Von Miller, a certain first-rounder, signed on as a plaintiff in the union's lawsuit against the NFL and Roger Goodell.

Never before has the league, hoping that nostalgia will distract viewers from its current woes, brought in retired stars to announce their former teams' second-round selections. Never before have teams been prohibited from trading their existing players during a draft, which takes quarterbacks such as Kevin Kolb, Marc Bulger, Matt Hasselbeck and Carson Palmer momentarily off the market.

Still, passers are front and centre at this draft.

A couple of QB-hungry teams will breathe deep, ignore the less-than-exceptional grades they have assigned to Cameron Newton and Blaine Gabbert and Andy Dalton, then choose them over less risky options.

If, indeed, the rock-bottom Carolina Panthers opt for Newton, with all of his baggage and only one year of major college experience, the cognoscenti will debate it as gravely as they would the presidential race.

On Monday, a judge ordered an end to the lockout, which will have no immediate impact because the NFL plans to appeal.

The ruling was an unpleasant reminder that the two sides are an ocean apart on a settlement.

That the unthinkable prospect of no - or, at least, reduced - football looms large.

For the league and its nervous, nail-biting fans, three days is not long enough for this player draft.

A more timely and welcome diversion they could not ask for.