As any U.S. sports fan knows, the National Football League’s annual draft took place on April 25–27. As a lifelong Detroit Lions fan, I followed the extravaganza with intense interest.
So did millions of other sports fans, including a quarter of a million people who traveled to this year’s host city, Nashville, Tennessee, to enjoy the occasion in person.
At one point during the event, my wife asked me, “Why do so many people care so much about this?” That simple question is actually quite profound. The popularity of the NFL draft says a lot about Americans and U.S. society.
Obviously, people care about the draft because they care about football. The draft itself is the annual New Year’s celebration in the football world. Although the official, legal start of a new football year is in mid-March, it’s the April draft that provides the first structured event of the NFL year that all football fans can witness together.
Like our national New Year’s holiday, the draft gives us hope that the coming season will be better than last season. The sense of hope and renewal is palpable, as each team receives an infusion of promising new talent from the college ranks.
Why has football become Americans’ favorite professional sport? I don’t presume to have the complete answer, but the following are some of the reasons.
Americans love competition. Competition inevitably results in winners and losers. In an age when “participation trophies” are given to youngsters, millions of Americans reject that timid denial of reality. We relish competition. It helps us feel more fully alive. Just as a baby bird must be allowed to gain the necessary strength to survive by struggling to peck its way out of its own shell, so human beings need to struggle and compete against inner and outer obstacles in order to fully develop our potential.
We don’t always win, and that’s OK. We strive; we develop; we grow. Competition is an inescapable fact of life, a sometimes-challenging adventure filled with ups and downs, and it strengthens us. Just ask any professional football player, and he will tell you the reason he’s as good as he is: Competition from other players forced him to work harder.
And what competition could be more intense than professional football, where victory depends on superb physical prowess, brilliant mental strategizing, and unselfish teamwork to emerge victorious from the most strenuous hand-to-hand combat?
One aspect we love about football is that the competition is fair. During an era when an intrusive government interferes chronically with free markets and bestows unfair, unearned favors on special interests, football teams compete within the same framework that our founders chose for our constitutional republic—fair competition under a fixed set of rules impartially enforced—and may the best team win!
Football isn’t perfectly fair due to human error, but it’s the fairest fight around, and that’s why Americans cherish it so deeply.
Excellence and Emotion
Americans admire achievement. We know how hard one has to work to achieve success, and we respect achievers. We rebel against the facile, false egalitarian notion that we’re all the same. Put me on a basketball court with LeBron James, next to Jimmy Page with a guitar, or in a business competition with Jeff Bezos, and I’ll prove to you instantly that we’re not all the same.
Achievement is gained by excellence, and in professional football, we see the hard-won excellence of superb athletes.
Americans do not fear excellence and its consequent achievements; rather, we embrace and applaud them. The excellence of professional football players inspires and thrills us.
Football also provides a (generally) healthy emotional outlet for fans. Watching a football game can be cathartic. Maybe you’ve had a bad day at work, and then you see your team make a crucial mistake. Better to yell at your television than to kick the dog or growl at your spouse and kids.
The old “ABC Sports” motto contrasting “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” beautifully encapsulates the emotional gamut that football fans experience. The emotional high we get when our team wins a hard-fought victory or makes a great comeback is the great payoff for all the earlier disappointments and frustrations we have experienced.
This same rollercoaster of passionate emotions is part of the annual draft experience, too. As a fan, one may experience disappointment when another team drafts a player you covet for your own team. Fans may either bewail or grant grudging respect to teams such as the Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, and, yes, the champion New England Patriots that appeared to “ace” the draft by putting together a string of astute choices.
I have felt elation when the Lions have picked a player I wanted and consternation when they have made a pick that I didn’t understand.
Another reason for the NFL’s popularity is that we Americans are social beings with a need for community.
Professional sports teams promote a feeling of fellowship and solidarity that promotes a sense of belonging to a community. The fan in the seat next to you may be your polar opposite on political, religious, cultural, or ideological questions, but in the stadium, you leave those differences outside; while you root for the same team, he is your brother and friend.
I recall vividly how many of the social wounds felt in the Detroit area after the 1967 riots were partially healed when the 1968 Detroit Tigers won baseball’s World Series.
The NFL draft has become big-time show business. Americans’ insatiable thirst for football has led to the draft evolving into an elaborate rite of spring, with coverage from three networks—ABC having joined ESPN and the NFL Network in broadcasting the event.
While I shunned most of the TV coverage, I followed the teams’ selections closely. Like millions of other fans, I can’t wait for the next season of this all-American sport to start in September. Go Lions!
Mark Hendrickson is an adjunct professor of economics and sociology at Grove City College. He is the author of several books, including “The Big Picture: The Science, Politics, and Economics of Climate Change.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.