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Mel Kiper Jr., NFL draft are an oasis in current sports desert



Could Towson quarterback Tom Flacco, brother of former Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco, get drafted, asked ESPN’s Jamison Hensley. Kiper was dubious: “He’s an athlete, was a baseball player as well. … But he’s going to have to battle his way into camp.”

The draft begins Thursday night, but the whirring content machine has been at full capacity for weeks. Kiper is on his normal perch at the center of it, with his “SportsCenter” specials, nationwide ESPN radio hits, mock drafts — and, of course, the media conference calls.

In a typical year, the lead-up to the draft can feel overly breathless, from debates over quarterback hand size to leaked Wonderlic test scores. This year, though, with sports on hold because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the draft — and, by extension, Kiper — is an oasis in the sports desert.

“You always want to get Mel, but this year you get that email for the conference call and it feels like a lifeboat of a story idea,” said Chad Leistikow, a Des Moines Register reporter and columnist.

The NFL has forged ahead with the draft — confidently — despite the pandemic, much to the relief of many, from fans to reporters to TV networks. There have been dissenting voices, from inside front offices to one of Kiper’s colleagues: High-profile NFL reporter Adam Schefter a few weeks ago questioned the wisdom of moving forward while there is “carnage in the streets.” But Kiper said he always held a rosier view.

“There’s a lot more important things going on in the world than picking players,” he said through an ESPN spokeswoman. “Hopefully, it’s a way to entertain the fans over those three days, give them something to focus on and have a little bit of an escape and a little bit of a back to normalcy. I’m on the phone all the time. … I haven’t spoken to one fan who wanted it postponed or delayed.”

(Asked how he might spend this time if the draft had been postponed, Kiper said it would have been a good opportunity to watch more game film.)

In a sports universe shut down by the pandemic, there are no live sports to cover. The best replacements so far have been last week’s WNBA draft and the premiere of ESPN’s long-awaited Chicago Bulls documentary on Sunday. But mostly there is constant speculation about when and how sports will return, and also when sportswriters can get back to their jobs.

Leistikow would normally be covering spring football and would have just wrapped up Iowa’s basketball season. Now he is part of a group of reporters on part-time furlough, with the draft the only remnant of his old job.

“With the draft, I’m enjoying covering stuff that I’ve done in the past, something I know I can cover well,” he said. “And I’m certainly rooting for the return of sports so I can have a place here in the newsroom.”

Added Bill Rabinowitz, who covers Ohio State for the Columbus Dispatch: “The draft has always been big, but you’ve got no baseball, no NBA and NHL playoffs right now, so the draft is the only game in town. That means people like Mel take on an outsized role. He must feel like a king.”

For Kiper, there is a certain irony to the moment. In a world turned upside down, his routine is remarkably unchanged. He is hunkered down at his home in rural Maryland watching, writing and talking — a lot.

“Nothing has changed in preparation,” Kiper said. “I can’t speak for everyone else. I’m doing the same radio hits, same TV segments. You’re looking at more [players’ game tape] because you are at home and you don’t have to travel and be in other places.”

Stuck at home, Kiper is as ubiquitous as ever, his iterations of mock drafts spawning their own news cycles and debate segments on ESPN and across the Internet.

On Boston radio station WEEI’s website: “Mel Kiper Jr.: Patriots like Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts.”

On the Detroit Lions’ team site: “Highlights from Mel Kiper Jr.’s conference call.”

Come Thursday’s first round, he will still be at home, participating via webcam on ESPN’s mostly remote draft telecast. But if the broadcast will look unfamiliar, Kiper will be anything but. He will assuredly have his hair slicked back and deliver his patented analysis, sounding like a mix of auctioneer, day trader and professor.

However, by the end of the seventh round Saturday, the sports world will be right back where it has been, waiting for a safe return to livelihoods and fandom.

“[Fans] will miss it when it’s over,” Kiper said. “What do they have to look forward to when it’s over? We don’t know when these other sports are going to start up.”

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