The first NFL draft was held in 1936 behind closed doors in the ballroom of a Philadelphia hotel, without TV cameras and fans (why would anyone want to watch such a thing anyway?). The first player drafted was Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger, by the Philadelphia Eagles. He demanded a whopping $1,000 a game (players were paid per game in those days). Negotiations failed. He sold rubber for a living instead and never played pro football.

Things are a little different now. The draft, which will begin today, has grown into a three-day Hollywoodish event, like Oscar night without anybody getting slapped (yet); there are limos and lights and live audiences and TV audiences, and players are paraded to the stage as their names are called, their futures instantly secured by rich contracts that will soon follow. It’s a traveling road show now.

The 2019 draft in Nashville reportedly drew more than 500,000 fans, all of them coming to see what is essentially an exercise in choosing up sides on the playground. This year’s draft is being held in Las Vegas, where they will have “watch parties” and “football theme parks” and various events for fans (a 40-yard dash, vertical jumps, field goal kicking, but, alas, no option read or tackling drill). 

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Las Vegas police expect the 2022 draft will attract 600,000 fans — 200,000 per day — making it the biggest event ever held in Las Vegas. Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard will be closed to traffic for the draft.

Like everything else in American culture, the draft suffers from excess (please, see Super Bowl).

If you were to meet a visitor from the other side of the world, how would you explain the phenomenon known as the NFL draft?

So, it’s like this: Each spring Americans sit in front of the TV or travel to a large city and, uh, um, well, watch businesses hire new employees. It’s considered very entertaining, a spectator sport. No, really.

How would you explain the intense interest in the NFL’s hiring process for college kids? You could spend the rest of your life reading nothing but NFL draft speculation on the internet and you wouldn’t be close to covering it all — last year’s draft, this year’s draft, next year’s draft, and how they would re-draft past drafts if they could do it again knowing what they know now (surprise! Tom Brady wouldn’t be drafted in the sixth round), and the endless mock drafts past, present and future.

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There are people who devote their entire professional careers to guessing what will happen in the upcoming draft and get paid to do it even if they have a bad batting average (I’m talking to you, Mel Kiper, who guessed six out of 32 first-round picks correctly last year; you could probably do the same thing by throwing darts at a list of players). The media even covers the interview/audition process — the NFL combine (yawn).

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The draft has become such a big event that Hollywood made a movie about it: “Draft Day,” with Kevin Costner playing his customary grumpy role (he’s been playing Grumpy Guy since “Field of Dreams”).

Let’s break down exactly what we are watching when the NFL draft unfolds. Young men who are just graduating from college — actually, that isn’t true anymore, so let’s call them college dropouts — are being hired by large corporations in front of a large audience and given a seven-figure contract for a job in which employees have the shelf life of bananas (they remain in the league an average of 3.3 years).

No one ever talks about this, but for every player drafted, another player — one who has toiled in the league for some time — loses his job to a kid. If seven players are drafted, seven players could be cut. This is not mentioned during the draft for some reason, but the short-lived job stills pays better than selling rubber.

The hoopla around the NFL draft is proof of one thing: this country is nuts for football.

A logo of the 2022 NFL football draft is projected at the Fountains of Bellagio on Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Las Vegas, the day before the draft. | Jae C. Hong, Associated Press
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