Sleepers, Busts and Franchise-Makers (Preview Publishing, 1983)
Cliff Christl and Don Langenkamp
Out of print: hard to find
It’s the way children allocate talent on the playground, wrote journalist Rich Koster of the St Louis Globe-Democrat in 1975. Captains are appointed and each takes turns to pick players until the sides are complete. Koster, quoted at the conclusion of Sleepers, Busts and Franchise-Makers, argued “it’s the only way to ensure competition”.
One of the central contradictions of the NFL Draft is that it is about both ensuring competition and limiting it at the same time. Giving last year’s worst team the first pick of this year’s rookie talent in theory offers them the best chance to improve. But it also limits the rights of players to negotiate. With the players unable to take a better offer elsewhere, teams can keep their wage bills down.
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If the draft is good at managing that second purpose – controlling rookie wages – then it has a mixed record on the first. The team with the first pick still has to choose wisely, which is not easy. Cliff Christl and Don Langenkamp’s excellent and entertaining 1983 book is about that process.
The NFL’s decision to introduce a draft in 1936 was driven by the precarious state of the league. Running a professional football team in the 1930s was not lucrative and bidding wars for the top talent didn’t help. The draft gave teams the upper hand. Christl and Langenkamp quote Curly Lambeau, founder of the Green Bay Packers, who said after the 1936 Draft:
“There’s no need to hurry now. These men will play with Green Bay or not at all. And we have no desire to rush them into signing contracts before they are ready to do so.”
Early drafts were primitive. The teams, often informed by little more than magazine reports about players they had never seen, got together in a room and picked players for hours on end. Christl and Langenkamp detail how the process was slowly professionalised. Teams began to gather information on players, first by calling college coaches, then by hiring scouts, and each year the stacks of paper they brought to the draft got ever-larger.
In the 1950s, Dan Reeves and Eddie Kotal at the LA Rams played a significant role in professionalising the process, particularly in the development of scouting. In Cleveland, Paul Brown’s coaching contacts were an enormous help to the Browns. However, the authors write, Washington and Pittsburgh lagged behind, reluctant to invest in scouting.
The book provides a good account of the talent war between the NFL and the AFL in the 1960s, with each league finding increasingly devious ways to poach the best players. Ultimately, of course, the AFL drew talent simply by paying more. Here again growing wage pressure led to innovation in professional football: the NFL-AFL merger was largely forced because competition was becoming too expensive.
By the 1970s some quality teams had been assembled, notably the Steelers, Cowboys, Raiders and Dolphins, and the book digs into the different approaches that brought them together. Along the way there are some excellent anecdotes of the life of scouts on the road, teams picking players by mistake and some of the great ‘busts’ and ‘sleepers’ that give the book its title.
It’s interesting to note how much more professional the process has become even since Christl and Langenkamp were writing. They discuss the role of scouting combines, which were then split into competing groups. The NFL Scouting Combine as it exists today – another cost-saving measure – did not begin until 1985. There’s also a chapter on ‘draftniks’, the self-taught draft experts, then a scattering of eccentric individuals, rather than the booming media industry that they represent today.
The final chapter concerns legal challenges to the draft. Jim ‘Yazoo’ Smith, who had been drafted by Washington in 1968, took the league to court in 1971 after his career was ended by injury. He argued that the Draft illegally constrained his right to negotiate for a better deal – and the court agreed, awarding him damages, after appeal, of $12,000. The case dragged on for years. The appeal happened in 1981 and by the time the book was written, Smith still hadn’t got his money.
His wasn’t the only legal challenge to the draft, so it’s no surprise that the authors felt that the book needed to close with a chapter weighing the concerns. Ultimately, they close with Koster’s assertion that it is the best way to ensure fairness. But before that, they acknowledge a practical point: players have not maintained legal pressure for a better deal from the draft because once they have gone through it and entered the league, they have other concerns to fight for.
By the time Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport wrote their book about the Draft, On The Clock (2015), there was no need for a chapter on legal challenges. The Draft’s status was unquestioned. What began as a little-reported league meeting at a hotel in Philadelphia had become a prime-time TV event and an unimpeachable fixture on the football calendar.