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How the NFL is trying to give players their draft moment during remote broadcast

Ruggs had waited for his moment, for one of the flashbulbs to capture his photograph. He knew now he would never see it.

The NFL draft will begin Thursday night in unprecedented fashion befitting unprecedented times. Commissioner Roger Goodell will announce selections from his basement rather than an elaborate platform in the middle of a fountain on the Las Vegas Strip. Team executives will bunker alone in their homes, creating virtual draft rooms over video conferences.

The draft has grown into a colossus on the sporting calendar, a spectacle capable of drawing hundreds of thousands of fans to a few city blocks. This year, it will be executed with the same fanfare of old college roommates picking their fantasy teams, only broadcast live to a nation thirsting for fresh sports content.

The constituency most affected may be the players. For league officials and fans, this year’s surrealness hopefully will be remembered as a one-year blip. For the draftees, it will be a series of moments long dreamed about that won’t happen: no stage to strut across, no smiling commissioner to greet, no 50-deep gatherings afterward. Even for late-round picks, heavily attended draft parties were a part of the experience.

Those involved say nobody is looking for pity or lacks awareness of where NFL draft night fits into the global crisis caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Agent Chris Cabott of Steinberg Sports, which represents top prospects Tua Tagovailoa and Jerry Jeudy, among others, praised his clients’ maturity in adjusting and understanding the broader picture. He has advised clients to stay at home with immediate family, no more than 10 people at a party. One of his clients plans on hosting a party via Zoom.

“It’s still the same joy and jubilation that you’ve always thought of, you’ve always dreamt of, everything like that,” Cabott said. “We’re still operating very similar terms as far as operations for draft night. Clearly, we’re dealing with a pandemic. In the past, where … you didn’t go to the draft because you had 100 people that were involved in your life, you’d like them to all be in the same room with you. Well, this year it’s obviously different.”

‘The day is still going to go on’

When the NFL realized the coronavirus would upend the draft, league officials started discussing the players’ experience. They viewed draft night as an important moment to bolster community and celebrate players as they enter the league. They thought about players such as Ruggs.

“We wanted to make sure for guys like that there isn’t a disappointment, that we deliver something in the state that we’re in,” said Tracy Perlman, the NFL’s senior vice president of football communications and marketing.

Perlman and her staff started contacting agents and players, asking them what they would miss and trying to determine a way to approximate it on live television. The NFL enlisted 58 top prospects to participate in a virtual draft, which required a sprawling behind-the-scenes effort.

At home in their garages, members of the NFL’s IT staff bundled technology kits to ship to prospects, who will use them to broadcast themselves. Once they’re picked, the players will pull on a hat with the logo of their new team because the NFL also sent those 58 players a package of all 32 team caps.

ESPN will interview the players after they’re picked, and then they will have “talkback” with Goodell, Perlman said. The NFL asked players what their walk-on song would have been had the draft taken place in Las Vegas. It also asked them what they had planned to do when they met Goodell. Shake his hand? Dap and hug? One player said he would leapfrog the commissioner.

“It was actually pretty funny because a lot of them obviously thought about it,” Perlman said. “They have all of the answers to the questions that we ask. So we are trying to give them a semblance of: ‘Okay, if I was in the green room, the camera would be on. If I got picked by X team, the hat would be handed to me. I would have an experience with the commissioner as soon as I get picked. I would be getting interviewed by someone as soon as I get off that stage.’ That’s all going to be there.”

Many draftees will find creative ways to incorporate those important to them. Ohio State defensive end Chase Young, who many expect will be selected by the Washington Redskins with the second pick, told CBS Sports he will not have more than 10 people in his house in Maryland. But he will use a projector to display the draft outside, so those close to him can watch from their cars.

Beyond the 58 players participating in the draft broadcast, nearly 200 more will celebrate away from public view. Keith Ismael, an interior offensive lineman from San Diego State projected to be taken in the late rounds, will host immediate family and close friends at his place in San Diego. They plan to feast on ribs, chicken, sausage, macaroni salad, brisket — a mix of soul food and island food that represented his parents’ backgrounds.

“My family, we get down,” Ismael, who is listed at 309 pounds, said with a laugh. “We’re big people, and we like to eat.”

Ismael pared down his guest list, but he said around 20 people will still be coming in and out of his house over the weekend. They will take precautions, such as Ismael’s mom marking attendees’ plates so they don’t get mixed up and using his backyard to extend the party outside. They also will have masks ready.

“None of my family has been sick, thank God,” Ismael said. “It’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime moment for me. My family told me, ‘We’ll sacrifice risking coming to see you and gathering together for this big day.’ … It’s definitely not the way I thought it would unfold. The day is still going to go on.”

‘We’re all in it together’

The NFL has turned the draft into a spectacle in recent years, which gives this year’s version a dose of irony: With an audience stuck at home and desperate for any form of live sports, it stands to reason more people could watch the draft than ever while the league is forced to produce it remotely.

Relying on 58 college-aged football players to follow detailed instructions and secure Internet connections during a live broadcast presents its own potential pitfalls. The NFL has prepared for those, too.

On a typical draft night, the NFL assigns a handler from its football operations department to each prospect to lead him to the right place — from the green room to the stage to a family picture to an interview. Those handlers are now assigned prospects to assist through the virtual process, making sure they are looking at the camera, guarding against an Internet mishap and serving as a go-between for the player and the NFL’s IT team if a problem arises.

“The IT has a backup system just in case,” Perlman said. “We’ve also [said], ‘Hey, look, if something goes wrong here and we need to FaceTime, we’re going to FaceTime.’

“We’ve tried to think of every scenario,” Perlman added. “But live TV and in a scenario where everyone is at home, we’re going to be just going and hoping we get it the way we need and want it. But if it doesn’t happen that way, we’re all in it together.”

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