As I write this, there are four days, six hours, twenty minutes, and thirty seconds until the 2016 NFL Draft. I know this because there is a live countdown on ESPN’s webpage, as I assume is the case all over the web. For the uninitiated, this may sound surprising. Theoretically, the NFL Draft is, for lack of a better word, boring—a smattering of rich men in suits and ties approaching a microphone and announcing whom they’ve chosen to draft with their first round picks. This lasts for a total of four hours (or more) and includes 32 total selections (well—this year, 31 total selections). The process should not warrant weeks of pre-draft analysis and four hours of slated live television.
And yet, here I sit, joining football fans across the United States in counting. Four days. Six hours. Thirteen minutes. Twelve seconds.During the draft process, the NFL is often exclusively concerned with a person’s functional worth. Is this justified? I’m not sure.
The Draft is an occasion of pomp and circumstance. On Thursday night, many of the suspected first round picks will don their best duds to Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre, hoping to hear their names echo around the packed space. Cameras will pan across eager faces, many of them just twenty-one years old. Meanwhile, a brood of ESPN analysts will dissect the prospects for fans’ viewing pleasure. They’ll discuss everything from their combine performances to their family and upbringing—the spectrum of topics is always broad, with few if any off limits.
At its heart, this analysis, a form of storytelling, is why the NFL Draft is entertaining. Some stories are inspirational (“He’s going to buy his mother a house!”) while others are borderline defamatory. All, however, are framed within the context of risk. Will this prospect be a good fit for the team, or won’t he? What factors might contribute to this risk?
For years, the line between a thorough evaluation and an invasion of a prospect’s privacy has been growing fainter and fainter. An Atlanta Falcons coach, for example, recently asked former Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple if he was attracted to men. Dez Bryant, a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, was asked if his mother was a prostitute. Robert Nkemdiche, who just ended an All-American career at Ole’ Miss, has been pressed on whether his older brother plans to follow him to the city that drafts him. It might seem like a benign question, but it’s also a demand disguised as an inquiry: if you want to join our organization, you must be willing to bar your brother from your daily life.
Beyond the very real question of privacy, however, there is another ethical tension implicit to the draft process—that between a person’s function and a person’s value. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our bodies are temporal, finite resources that we utilize in a variety of ways. Human bodies bear life and toil the earth. They are designed with circulatory, respiratory, and neurological systems that allow for a degree of self-sustenance. They grow strong for a time, and soft at others. The human body gives human beings the capacity to be useful—something that colors the way we relate to other people. When we live in community, we offer others access not only to who we are, but also to our functional usefulness.
Christian teachings, however, make clear that human beings are born with not only utility, but also innate value. Each one is crafted in God’s own image and is thus, in some ways, reflective of God’s nature. The mingling of existential and functional value can seem like an unnatural harmony. We are, sometimes rightfully, uncomfortable with the idea of being used. It sounds dehumanizing. It often can be.
Relying on someone’s functionality is not inherently wrong, though—not when upholding that person’s intrinsic value simultaneously. Healthy communion depends upon this facet of relationship—between mothers and children, husbands and wives, and even between employers and employees. But the balance is an easy one to disrupt. And when it is disrupted, we stand to lose sight of our neighbors’ personhood.
During the draft process, the NFL is often exclusively concerned with a person’s functional worth. Is this justified? I’m not sure. The NFL is, admittedly, a business—and, as far as the draft is concerned, a business seeking to employ hundreds of employees for millions of dollars. It follows that their primary concern would be a prospect’s usefulness to their organization. But they also don’t limit the scope of their investigations to a prospect’s performance. Nothing is out of bounds—not brothers, or mothers, or even someone’s sexuality. This process and others like it deepen the tension between existential and functional personal value. The human condition, already fragile in so many cases, is made more vulnerable as we continue to grapple with a recurring question: how much of who I am is wrapped up in what I do?
On Thursday night, we will face this question again. We will witness the expressions of anxious men waiting to know if the NFL draft has found them worthy. After 31 hats have been placed like crowns upon bowed heads, after the lights dim and the analysts retreat, the drafted and undrafted alike will still be what they were: men, both useful and valuable. Perhaps that’s the wrinkle that makes the draft hopeful: the fact that it does not end in total triumph or defeat, but some strange combination of the two—an unconsummated narrative that somehow leaves room for both human strain and godly redemption.