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The NFL draft is an overblown spectacle. Thank God it’s almost here.



What will the ratings be? How high does the scale go?

To be clear: I am normally an NFL draft cynic. It’s not as much disdain as it is shoulder-shrugging. I’m interested in the results but don’t need to watch them play out live. The draft as an event? That it has become one is an indication of the NFL’s marketing genius and sheer will to dominate the sports calendar. This is a league that has drawn eyeballs to college kids sprinting 40 yards and performing the standing broad jump, which at one point seemed akin to watching grass grow. Even in normal times, the NFL has convinced a not-insignificant portion of its fan base that the chatter between selections is must-see TV.

Still, why anyone would fly to Nashville (last year) or Las Vegas (this year) to drink in a middle-aged dude reading names off a card, I can’t fathom. To boo the commissioner? To boo a team’s selection? Given the choice between watching, say, a Nationals game and following the draft on Twitter, or watching the draft live and charting the baseball game on Twitter, the decision is easy for me: an actual competition, not the roster-building exercise that impacts a season still five months away.

This year, though? There’s no Nats game. Not Thursday night. Not over the weekend. Not … well, let’s not speculate. But not for a while, at least.

What was the last thing you watched that had an impact on one of the teams you care about? WNBA fans lived through the experience last week when that league, mercifully, held its draft. At least we can envision — and talk about — what next season’s roster might look like. New developments about sports, and not about this horrific coronavirus pandemic, are welcome.

There’s another element that makes this week’s draft potentially more compelling: the possibility of mayhem. The pandemic made travel impractical and unsafe, not just for fans who might have wanted to make a weekend of it in Vegas but for team officials, whose facilities are all closed anyway.

So the draft, which once involved longtime commissioner Pete Rozelle writing picks in marker on a large white tablet in a hotel conference room, now will be a virtual connection between officials from all 32 teams and the league office. What could go wrong?

Well, almost anything. During the league’s mock draft Monday — meant to test the system that will be used later this week — there were reports that the Bengals couldn’t even get in the first pick without a technological glitch. But the NFL isn’t allowing more time on the clock between selections, which means it’s still 10 minutes in the first round, seven minutes in the second, five minutes in the third through the sixth and four minutes in the seventh.

Imagine the potential for controversy. What if a team is working on a trade, but its process is slowed because there is no longer a “war room” but instead a “war IT labyrinth.” Internal communication could easily become garbled, to say nothing of what might be going back and forth with another team — or several teams at once. The league says it will allow the clock to be paused if there are hiccups.

Still, the specter of controversy hangs over it all. Which is great.

It’s worth restating as we settle into the second month of this status: At their best, sports are a diversion. A game or a race or a tournament can be interesting — even enthralling — in and of itself, for sure. But it could also provide escapism. Lousy day? Flip on the ballgame. Maybe the pitching matchup’s good. Maybe the power play needs fixing. Maybe the Wizards will play some defense. (Sorry. It’s been a long time.)

One thing we’re missing, then, as we occupy this space between monotony and tragedy is a reliable diversion. The classic game replays were great — for a while. ESPN’s “The Last Dance” series, chronicling the dying days of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, is compelling television. There is drama, and there are small reveals about characters we already knew.

But a sports documentary can’t replace live sports. It just can’t.

There has been some debate about the propriety of forging forward with the NFL draft when so much of life is, appropriately, on pause. But the argument against it ignores its humble roots. The draft doesn’t have to be a flashy, made-for-television event with a live audience. The NFL, over decades, developed it into such.

In reality, the televising of this draft — with coaches and general managers from the same teams in different places — could serve as a reminder to viewers of the gravity of the situation nationwide. We must be responsible in keeping our distance from others, or the virus won’t be stopped. If the Atlanta Falcons can’t get together at the team facility to conduct their draft, should movie theaters in Georgia really reopen next week, as Gov. Brian Kemp (R) has proposed? The NFL’s virtual experiment will be a stark reminder of appropriate behavior.

So drink in the draft, in all its unusualness. If there’s no actual drama about Burrow going first, wait 10 more minutes, when we find out whether the Washington Redskins follow through on taking Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young. Let it play out from there, an actual sports event that will affect actual franchises in meaningful ways and impact the upcoming season — whenever it might be played.

That’s enough, in these times, to carry us through Saturday afternoon. When it ends, it will bring us to one question: What in the world will divert our attention next week?

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