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A draft amendment

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Mihir Bose | 16:02 UK time, Tuesday, 29 April 2008

American sports have always been a foreign country to me, so much so that whenever I visit the United States I am forced to change my newspaper reading habits. I grew up reading papers from the back, but when I go to the USA I start reading them from page one as most of the sports they report on make little sense to me.

The insularity of US sports reporting does not help either.

Yet this last week I have been fascinated by the insight the sports pages have provided me on how Americans run their sports.

For example, this weekend was dominated by the NFL draft.

The NFL has always been that American curiosity where, in the land of the free market, the biggest sport is an advertisement for red-blooded socialism. The NFL, as one owner once joked, is where Republicans come together for sports and behave like communists.

Unlike the English football's Premier League, everything in the NFL is pooled, not just the television rights. There's also a salary cap for good measure. But perhaps the most important socialist measure is the draft, where the team that finishes bottom gets the first pick of the best of that year's college players.

It is a compelling event, both very visible and open to scrutiny, and, in many ways, the NFL draft mirrors the way Americans run their primary elections campaigns, of which there is no equivalent in our Westminster model.

In contrast, transfers in English football come across as cloak and dagger operations.

This year's seven-round NFL draft was held in New York's Radio City, a two-day affair shown live on television and endlessly analysed by pundits in the manner in which political experts would analyse election results.

As in most years, the top college players were also invited to Radio City to be guests of the NFL. As the drama unfolded, their families watched on television as if watching their child attend school for the first time.

The draft is a sporting ritual of the kind no other country stages, and, in the days and weeks leading up to it, the press endlessly debates which player will be picked by which team, analysing their strengths and weaknesses in the process.

The fans also get involved. This is not to say they decide which player their team boss selects - that is still the privy of the owners and the coaches - but they can voice their opinion in advance of selection, not after it as in England.

But the draft still pays homage to the essentially capitalist nature of American sports.

Being chosen in the early rounds means huge money for the lucky players.

Jake Long at the NFL draft

For example, offensive tackle Jake Long, who was the first pick in this year's draft, signed a five-year deal with the Miami Dolphins worth $57.75m, $30m of which is guaranteed. For someone who has just left college that cannot be bad.

In fact, the draft is so important to college players that there are now academies where they can go to increase their chances of being selected.

The draft, which this year saw 252 college players signed by the 32 NFL teams, is also marked by what Americans call "trades".

The worse a team has performed in the previous season, the higher its draft number. However, that number may give it the option to sign a player it does not want, like a wide receiver when it needs an offensive lineman.

To counteract that, a team will sometimes trade its number with another so it can sign a player it wants. Such trades only surface as the draft unfolds live on television, often providing the element of surprise and heightening the drama.

All this works because the NFL is a closed league - no promotion or relegation - and there is a college system providing a pool of rookies.

The system is unique even in American sports - baseball, basketball and ice hockey do not just recruit from colleges.

Nevertheless, the Premier League was created by people like David Dein, former Arsenal vice chairman, because they were convinced it would be a success. But in typical English fashion there was a compromise. A few ideas were borrowed, but certainly not the open, very public scrutiny of transfers the NFL provides.

Supporters of the English system would argue that Arsene Wenger's recruitment of young hopefuls would not be possible if there was not a certain element of cloak and dagger - not that Wenger is unique. All English managers try to keep transfers secret until they have to be unveiled - but something of the openness and razzmatazz of the NFL draft system could be brought into our transfer system.

Can it seriously be argued that the Carlos Tevez affair could have taken place if we had a more open way of doing things?

It is this lack of transparency that has convinced many people that there is more than a whiff of corruption about football transfers and led to the ongoing City of London police investigation.

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  • 1. At 7:39pm on 29 Apr 2008, Gareth wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 2. At 7:53pm on 29 Apr 2008, lordsimmonds wrote:

    I think to suggest an NFL style draft in the premiership is ludicrous. How can you draft people from all over the world. American Football is only played in one country with a proper competition unlike football. Can you really see young Argentine and Spanish players signing up to an English draft? How would clubs in Europe buy players in England and vice versa. This type of transfer system could never work for football as it is a truly global sport, unlike the NFL where this year's draft only caught the imagination of the Americans.

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  • 3. At 8:41pm on 29 Apr 2008, Dave Harris wrote:

    The author clearly doesn't understand American sport very well. The NFL draft is a stage-managed affair that only works because of the exclusivity of the system - the USA is the only country that plays Amercian Football competitively, and the only one that has the infrastructure in the college system able to provide the players: College Football is such a huge draw in the US that the colleges often get higher attendances at their games than in the Pros.

    I should add that the NFL draft is not unlike those for the NBA or MLB either, contrary to the author's opinion - the only reason that the NFL drafts exclusively from College Football is because of the physical demands required of the game. The NFL prevents players any younger than those completing their Junior year at college from entering the draft on safety grounds, wheras the NBA and MLB do not have such a requirement.

    The transparency of the system is something that could be admired, but is something that has developed because of the extensive media involvement in US sport (and again, this is not something that is limited to the NFL). Compare, for example, the way in which the NFL draftees conduct themsleves in media interviews with the way that players in Football do, or indeed, compare the openness and fan-friendly atmosphere is NASCAR with the closed-door secrecy of Formula 1. It's a cultural thing.

    Despite the increasing profile of the NFL in the UK and Europe, it is still a sport that is alien to the majority on this side of the Atlantic. Of those who do watch on a casual basis, how many understand it, and how many understand the college system behind it? As with many of the USA's cultural products, overseas exposure is only of economic significance when the domestic market becomes over-exposed or jaded (witness professional wrestling). The US has such a significant domestic market for its cultural products that it doesn't need to change them for our tastes.

    The same can be said for football. It doesn't need to change its spots at the moment because it is so hugely popular; when things start to fade (if ever) then maybe we can start the cultural revolution, and begin to take on some of these suggestions.

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  • 4. At 1:28pm on 04 May 2008, jtcmurphy wrote:

    I don't think that Mihir is suggesting that we have a draft - the development path for athletes in the US is different and its this that forms the logical basis for the draft system.

    The two key points are:
    1) the openness of the system - at least this part of it - although its less significant, if greater entertainment, than it once was as its now far easier for players to move between teams and hence for teams to build with money rather than by recruiting well over time.

    2) The level of control enforced by the league over the transfer process - not just at draft time, but throughout because, if memory serves, all the contracts and all money goes through the league (and agents can only represent players and can only be paid by the player).

    The draft is not relevant to the premier league but proper management of and oversight of the contracts and the whole transfer process is another matter entirely.

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