The NFL Draft: An allegory of American Society

Al Bello

Some of the young men participating in this year’s NFL Draft will end up making millions of dollars over the course of their long careers, while others may only play for four years, but still make annually 10 times what the average American makes. For the vast majority however, they will come away from the game of professional football with much more modest sums of money to show for all the years of work, pain, isolation and sacrifice they committed themselves to, only to spend the next five, six, seven decades of their remaining lives facing the same obstacles, money issues and life challenges we all face.

But for a brief moment in their lives, these young men find themselves on the cusp of attaining a goal that most of them have held since they were in grade school; of fulfilling a dream most of us never dared to dream. And in this split second of their lives, as they exist suspended between being sheltered, coddled, boy/man ex-college players and fully autonomous man/boy pre-professional football players, what they are experiencing is a living, breathing allegorical representation of America and Steeler Nation; a representation of who we truly are as a people with all the faults and admirable traits our society contains.

These men are actors in an allegorical play being performed on the world's stage, but they are not two dimensional caricatures; instead they are personifications of all of us who make up the American contingent of Steeler Nation; all of our faults, our cruelties to ourselves and our fellow citizens, but also all of our good traits, our diversity, our values and our sacrifices for family, friends, and even strangers.

Within the context of this gross hedonistic moment we lay bare the very nature of our being, and both expose our basest traits as well as our fundamental qualities and beliefs that we hold as being self-evident and that resonate with the millions of people from around the world who have, or desire to, come to our shores for the opportunity to experience such qualities for themselves and their children. While we in Steeler Nation view the draft with eagerness and a longing for GM Kevin Colbert to find the next James Harrison, Aaron Smith, Troy Polamalu, Lynn Swann or Kevin Greene, we should take a moment to appreciate the greater significance of what we're watching, and one of the fundamental aspects of the game of football that makes us love it so much, even if we don't realize why.

Consider for a moment the black quarterback. Many, if not most of you in Steeler Nation reading this can remember a time in the NFL when there was a mis-guided, ignorant notion that a black man just did not have what it took, temperamentally, intellectually or otherwise to assume the most important position on a football field. And yet when Draft day arrives, as we watch these athletes await what is tantamount to voluntary indentured servitude, we do so (most of us) in a country that elected, and re-elected, a black man to serve as our Commander in Chief; to be our President and to be who we hold forth to the other nations of the world as the face of all that we hold sacrosanct as a society.

Consider for a moment the dialectic at play between the economic model of the NFL League Office as it operates its retail for-profit business, and the economic model it imposes on the group of 32 privately held businesses that make up the production side of its operations. The League wants to expand the football schedule to 18 games to make more money; it wants to establish teams in other countries, to make more money; it wants to re-vamp the very Draft we're watching to make it more marketable, more "interesting to the casual viewer" so that it can make more money; it modifies the rules of the game to tip the scales of the game towards greater offensive output because it believes that is what its consumers most want to see, in order to make more money. The NFL embodies raw unfettered capitalism in its pursuit of profits.

And yet, for those privately held 32 "business units" that are the sole producers of the product that the NFL sells; the NFL imposes a model of "social" ownership on the means of production and a cooperative management of its "economy". Television revenue is equally divided between the 32 teams, regardless of the fact that some teams generate far more of that revenue than others. Rich teams are allowed to spend no more than the poorest of teams due to the imposition of a salary cap. The "means of production", the players themselves, is regulated not by market forces (i.e. the team that bids the most gets the prized player) but instead on Parity, providing that "the Last shall be First" in order to ensure that the weak teams have the opportunity to become strong.

While we in Steeler Nation view the draft with eagerness and a longing for GM Kevin Colbert to find the next James Harrison, Aaron Smith, Troy Polamalu, Lynn Swann or Kevin Greene, we should take a moment to appreciate the greater significance of what we're watching.

Or, consider for a moment the individuals involved; the players. From the first time they showed a glimmer of athletic ability, they have been coached, monitored, pampered and flattered to a degree those of us who have never experienced it can barely imagine. And as a result of all that pampering and "allowances" for the breaking of rules resulting from their ability to throw, run, or catch a ball, many never developed a sense of character, morality or ethics, and thus grew up believing that they were indeed allowed to exist outside the rules, to satisfy their every carnal whim.

We in Steeler Nation have several examples of this we may reflect on; Santonio Holmes' and Mike Adams' disregard for society's determination that a certain weed shall not be smoked, or Chris Rainey's childish lack of control of his inner anger, or Alameda Ta'amu and his alcohol induced black-outs that resulted in behavior that now has him facing federal criminal charges.

And yet, for every one of these players who personify the worst in ourselves, there are others who show the best of what we can be; they resisted the temptations placed in front of them, ignored the license granted to their indulgences by others, overcame the same adversities life throws in front of us all. Whether they came from wealthy or middle class homes or from poverty, they held onto the guidance of their parents, grandparents, coaches or mentors. They shed the friends, the girls, the relatives, the strangers who fed them false flattery to curry favor; they fought the social pressures of "how dare you try to achieve" by those who needed to tear them down to feel good about themselves. They continually worked their crafts to reach the highest levels of accomplishment in their chosen field. And we in Steeler Nation have examples of these men as well: Troy Polamalu's quiet profession of his faith amidst the chaos on the field around him, Curtis Brown's overcoming heart rending personal losses and adversity to reach the NFL; Cortez Allen's humble and dignified demeanor despite having the right to brag about being only the eighth player ever to make it to the NFL from The Citadel, being just three.

They all come to the draft, this staged event to stand before the gates of the NFL facing 32 teams' GMs, head coaches and others collectively playing the role of Anubis, weighing the supplicants' hearts and their bodies to determine whether they may pass on to the afterlife they all dreamt of, and were told was theirs for the taking. They bring with them their individual and very personal stories that in truth merely mirror what all we in Steeler Nation endure or experience in one degree or another. They bring with them their accomplishments and their failures, and we watch and judge and applaud and criticize as they perform in anticipation and fear of being discovered. For their trials have not ended, but are only beginning.

Some will find their best efforts up to now will have been for naught; that while being some of the few chosen to participate in the Draft, they are not one of those even fewer yet who can make the final transition to the NFL. They will either be undrafted and will fade quickly from our consciousness, or will be drafted but soon discarded. Others will be drafted, but will suffer the betrayals of bodies unable to withstand the violence and rigors of a professional career.

Some will succeed, and having made the final leap into the rarified air of the NFL, will become modern versions of Icarus, ignoring the instructions of their fathers or mothers by flying too close to the glare of the money and fame their long sought goal brings them, only to find themselves falling from tremendous height back to the mundane world from which they leapt.

Others will succeed, and as a result of their success go on to do great things for themselves and others; they will give back to the people and places that aided them on their great journeys, they will be guideposts for the next generation of aspiring athletes to follow, and for those of us less athletic to nonetheless emulate.

For those fates are what befall all of us, to one degree or another. Replace the Draft with college, culinary school, the military; replace players' careers in the NFL with our careers in education, manufacturing, the media, and you will find the same spectrum of results. Some of us may have found high school or college so easy we never learned to push ourselves academically and thus didn't make ourselves stand out from the thousands of other graduates the top employers had to choose from. Or maybe we did.

Or maybe we chose another route, and decided to focus instead on pursuing a career with little material compensation, but it fed our yearning for something more spiritual. We heard a calling and dedicated our lives to answering it, like an artist, a teacher, or a clergyman or not-for-profit business owner; we strove to become what we desired most, and some failed, while others succeeded.

So enjoy the Draft, to the degree that you're interested in it. But while you watch and evaluate; while you compare and judge these men's' performances and weigh the good and the bad you know or think you know about them, and guess how they might or might not benefit the Pittsburgh Steelers, take a moment to compare the story of your own life's journey with the stories of the men you are watching, and look for the commonality of character traits, of successes and failures, on display with your own, and with Steeler Nation as a whole.


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