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  • Writer's pictureDr. Tré Watkins

On the Draft Block: How the NFL Draft Feels More Like a Slave Auction

An eyewitness account of the preparation for a slave auction:

"The slaves remained at the race-course, some of them for more than a week and all of them for four days before the sale. They were brought in thus early that buyers who desired to inspect them might enjoy that privilege, although none of them were sold at private sale. For these preliminary days, their shed was constantly visited by speculators. The negroes were examined with as little consideration as if they had been brutes indeed; the buyers pulling their mouths open to see their teeth, pinching their limbs to find how muscular they were, walking them up and down to detect any signs of lameness, making them stoop and bend in different ways that they might be certain there was no concealed rupture or wound; and in addition to all this treatment, asking them scores of questions relative to their qualifications and accomplishments.” - Excerpt from A Price for their Pound of Flesh

This weekend, the National Football League holds its annual parade of the future as 300 top college athletes descend on Indianapolis to participate in the scouting combine. Over the years, the spectacle has grown exponentially, with every major sports network, journalist, and blogger giving up-to-the-minute coverage.  During the combine, athletes participate in many physical and mental tests to provide scouts and front-office personnel insights on who could be the team’s future franchise player.  In 2017, Adidas went as far as offering an island (valued at $1 million) to any athlete who broke the 40-yard dash record.  Although Cincinnati Bengal wide receiver Jon Ross ran a 4.22, breaking the previous record of 4.24 held by running back Charles “CJ2K” Johnson, he could not claim his island prize because he competed in Nike shoes. 

Last year around this time, I wrote about the flaws of the draft process and why I was rooting for Josh Rosen to succeed in the NFL despite criticisms that his socio-intellectual interests were in direct competition with a football career. Rosen was drafted tenth overall and had a decent rookie season for the struggling Arizona Cardinals.  While quarterbacks are always high on the pecking order of talk topics regarding the draft, Rosen again finds himself involved in combine talk. Still, this time, it's because of the star quarterback who might replace him, former Oklahoma Sooners signal-caller and Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray.  

Kyler Murray burst onto the national scene in 2015 after an undefeated prep Texas career, committing to Texas A&M as the number one ranked dual-threat passer in the country.  But after only one semi-successful season as an Aggie, where he shared time with another high-profile QB recruit, Murray opted to transfer to Oklahoma.  After sitting out the required year for transferring and spending a season as the backup to another Heisman trophy-winning QB, Baker Mayfield, 2018 was finally Murray’s time to show what he had. 

Coming into the season, much of the conversation surrounding Murray focused on whether he should play football.  Murray, a true dual-sport star, was drafted by Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics in 2018 as the ninth overall prospect and signed a minor league deal with a $4.66 million dollar signing bonus.  Some, like myself, questioned  Murray’s decision to play college football, citing the sport’s dangers for an athlete who had already secured a financially lucrative future in another field.  Luckily for all football fans, Kyler Murray did opt to play and lit the college football world on fire, throwing for 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns while leading his team to a second straight College Football Playoff. And I haven’t seen a more electric college football player since another OU legend,  running back Adrian Peterson. 

Unlike conversations a year ago about Josh Rosen’s draft stock, the talk of the sports world today was Kyler Murray’s size. On the first day of the combine, athletes typically get measured. One by one, they step onto the platform in Under Armour tights in front of a crowd of NFL staff and media and have their height, weight, and hand sizes noted and certified as official measurements.  

It is typical of the football world to make a big deal about an athlete’s size.  The big knock on Murray was that he was too short and slight to survive professional football’s brutality.  Measuring 5 feet and one-eighth, 207 lbs, and a 9-inch throwing hand put those sentiments to rest as talking heads raved that this secured his spot as a top draft pick.  But the account of  ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter caught my attention. Schefter was out of breath when his spot began and noted that he had just rushed from the Murray measurement room.  He described how chiseled and defined Murray’s body looked, the tights he wore, and how these physical measurements made him a much more valuable commodity.

In 40 Million Dollar enslaved people, William Rhoden argues that despite being paid large amounts of money to play sports, athletes are on the short end regarding power dynamics in professional sports.  Using the metaphor of a plantation, Rhoden asserts that professional athletes are handsomely paid plantation workers, with owners representing their domineering enslavers. A common retort to a statement like this is the point of how much professional athletes make.  It confirmed that today’s star athletes make much more money with less social responsibility than previous generations. However, as Rhoden  states, “the heart of the the quest for power, power as illustrated by on-the-field representation, power as demonstrated in off-the-field control…”  Regarding power and control in American professional sports, power lies in the hands of rich white men.  

32 of 32 NFL owners are white, while only one NBA team has a majority Black owner (who just so happens to be the greatest to play the game).  Broken down further, positions of power such as President, General Manager, and Head Coach are also overwhelmingly filled by white men, creating a power vacuum excluding the majority Black labor force. Add to the equation that on issues concerning management-player relationships, the leagues have convinced the sports fans to take the side of ownership.  Athletes like Lebron James, who assert autonomy over their careers, are labeled as disgruntled. Former starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been simultaneously criticized as selfish and a sell-out for igniting the anthem protest and his subsequent legal victory over the NFL in his collusion case. Adding a historical lens, baseball pioneer Curt Flood, who sued Major League Baseball for the rights to free agency, never played the game he loved again. 

Given the historically racialized context surrounding American professional sports, it is no wonder that athletes are viewed in terms of what their bodies can produce, be it yards, 3-pointers, or dollars.  NFL athletes with the shortest average career span, lowest average salaries, and non-guaranteed contracts are held to astronomical standards regarding their physical preparedness. Stars often have their contracts renegotiated or outright terminated when it is deemed that their production or physical attributes no longer justify the financial investment.  Fans also get in on the action with fantasy sports. It gives average Joe the ability to play owner and decide which athletes can produce the most for their team. All while ownership reels in record revenue dollars each year. 

Viewing Black people through the lens of how much value their bodies produce is an established American tradition.  Whether or not Kyler Murray can translate success onto the professional level, it is irresponsible to think that the fetishization of Black athletes’ bodies does not harm the Black general public. Esteemed sports sociologist Harry Edwards describes how perceptions of Black athletes as being “dumb jocks” are often generalized to include all Black men on college campuses. Black athletes who choose not to stay quiet on social issues are told to “shut up and dribble.” Stated differently, “your body is the only thing that is important, not your voice.”  Today, the headlines tell the world that Kyler Murray’s precise physical measurements secured him a shot at following his dream of being a professional athlete. They also reassured the white owner that he would make an intelligent investment by drafting him.  It also fueled sports media to thrive in an otherwise dull news day.  The procession of Black flesh for financial exploitation is alive and well.  I am eager for the next trade rumor or scandal to hit the sports scene so that the topic can shift to something less racist.  As a great philosopher once said, “Do better tomorrow.”

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