Content warning: suicide and substance abuse
CeeDee Lamb’s name rolls across the screen, announcing him as the 17th overall pick of the day, and in houses across the United States, conversations kick into gear.
“What? The Cowboys? I thought for sure the Jets were going to get him! Fantastic move. Oh, I didn’t know that’s why he wore that chain. That’s so terrible — yeah, he could be the best pick of the round, for sure.”
Jordan Love comes off the board nine picks later and the same conversation ensues.
“Oh wow, the Packers? That’s crazy! Oh — oh, no, that’s so terrible. His dad? So awful. He’s got such a great arm, dude — I wonder what Rodgers will think of this.”
That’s how the discourse around many selections in the 2020 NFL draft unfolded in my house, and likely countless others across the nation, as the first-ever virtual iteration of the event began April 23.
Too many picks were announced along with details about their recent seasons and descriptions of heart-rending situations the players had overcome in their lives. These details ranged anywhere from a family member facing addiction to losing a parent, sibling or relative, to illness, suicide or a freak accident.
Fans were quick to notice the emphasis on personal tragedies, though it was about as hard to miss as a 5-yard field goal. They didn’t hesitate to express their disdain with the league for its gracelessness in including such seemingly out-of-place and visceral glimpses into the private lives of players just moments after delivering some of the best news of their lives.
I understand everybody has a story & motivation, but ESPN doesn’t have to highlight the worst moment that happens in some of these folks lives. Am I tripping?
— Bradley Chubb (@astronaut) April 24, 2020
So why the seeming obsession with detailing every tragedy that every player has ever experienced?
In a statement to media outlet Sporting News, the league said: “Our NFL Draft coverage analyzes the prospects on the field and introduces the human side of the players by telling their stories, including the obstacles their families have overcome as part of the journey to the NFL.”
Although the NFL has since issued an apology for at least one graphic that aired, it still doesn’t excuse sharing similar stories over the multiple days of the draft.
Adversity is no doubt important to who we become, and it’s one of the paramount experiences that shapes us. But humanizing a player could easily have been realized by relating a fun fact or hobby, rather than a deeply intimate and heartbreaking description of the darkest moment the prospect has ever had to overcome.
Hitting fans and players over the head with details of hardship has problems that extend beyond sensationalizing those hardships — the implications about players of color are damaging and enforce harmful stereotypes about Black communities and other people of color in front of a record-breaking crowd.
The focus on unfortunate circumstances for draft prospects was staggeringly abundant among players of color. Watch the selection for a Black player and hear about their family being displaced by Hurricane Katrina, as with Grant Delpit, or their father unexpectedly dying of heart failure, as with Trevon Diggs. Watch the selection of a white player, however, and hear about their various academic achievements, sky-high GPA and how their siblings all have fruitful Division I athletic careers as well, as seen with Matt Hennessy and Cole Kmet.
The NFL’s attention to hardships faced by Black players seems to reify harmful and racially charged stereotypes of Black communities, with inaccurate suggestions that single-parent households, addiction and violence were normal for those communities. The league focused on very specific aspects of players’ lives, ignoring other details that provide an understanding of diverse individuals and replacing them instead with specific information that threatens to solidify racist stereotypes. With an all-time high of 15.6 million people watching, the message the NFL delivered no doubt resounded.
Yet perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the draft was how the league chose to twist the knife of tragedy in players of color for the sake of making them more relatable, while simply glossing over some of the questionable histories of white players. Patriots pick Justin Rohrwasser, a former Marshall University kicker drafted in the fifth round, bears an extremely visible tattoo of a symbol that references a right-wing paramilitary group. Although Rohrwasser claims to not have realized the association of the tattoo with the group’s tenets, the NFL conveniently gave any discussion about it a wide berth during the draft — all the more time to spend on No. 33 pick Tee Higgins’ mother’s battle with addiction.
The inclusion of tragic circumstances experienced by players of color was more than a faux pas — it fully white-knighted the NFL, portraying the league as a savior to the Black players. The NFL’s missteps have far more sinister implications than just being disrespectful; they may well have reinforced racist notions against Black players and communities across the country.
But hey, as the NFL seems to think, what’s a bit more adversity for them to overcome?