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The NFL Is Hosting An In-Person Draft For One Reason, And It Ain’t To Promote Vaccines

TAMPA, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 07: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell looks on while wearing a face covering before Super Bowl LV between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium on February 07, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The National Football League, in its role as the only corporation on earth that can fight, defy, ignore, and embrace the COVID-19 story, is holding its 2021 draft in Cleveland, and the whole thing will be outdoors for fans willing to pay to get in. They promise it'll be "large, live, and in-person," and claim they’ve decided to hold an onsite draft as ... get this for brass, kids ... a way to promote vaccines.

Well, thank the lords of the nine vectors for that. Anecdotal evidence suggests that nobody knew that vaccines were good until the NFL decided to wave Trevor Lawrence in people's faces.

The draft, April 29–May 1, will be a hybrid extravaganza, with likely first-round picks expected to be on site while the teams doing the drafting will be in their home offices. There will be the standard cheesy hats-on-draftees-while-pretending-to-like-Roger Goodell optic, there will be overpriced retail schmatta everywhere, and even an exhibit for Super Bowl halftime shows, which no human has ever asked for. The details are all in Ben Fischer's Sports Business Journal piece, delivered via straight face and earnestness as all NFL stories must be.

The mercantile parts, in which we are told that there be lots of ways to separate fans from their money, are laced throughout, as they must be. No sense in opening a store without telling folks what's on the shelves.

But you already know the NFL will sell anything that's not buried too deep underground and too expensive to excavate. That's always been the mandate for the army of suits who can hear a dollar bill hit a down pillow and charge three bucks to pick it up. We all get that.

It's the social conscience posturing that makes this a thing, though. The league wants to promote getting the jab to a nation that either already knows it wants the vaccine or refuses to take it because it's the first step to mind control. You know, like the NFL.

According to Fischer, who has merely given you the facts here so stop laughing at him, "The event will push a pro-vaccine message, emphasizing that shots are important both to ending the pandemic itself and as a way for fans to regain access to sporting events more quickly." He also quotes NFL Executive Vice President for Club Business & League Events And All The Ships At Sea Peter O'Reilly, who tells us medical heathens, “It’s important to highlight and emphasize that getting vaccinated does come with the ability to have the types of experiences that hopefully we’ll all get back to soon.”

In short, the message here is so perfectly NFL. Get your shots so we can all get back to our old normal, in which you give us money and we take it.

The general public, vaccinated or no, will be allowed into the Draft Experience in the Browns stadium and a nearby plaza, but anyone who wants access will have to download the NFL OnePass app, which includes a mandatory COVID health survey. "Do you want to be sick? A, No, not really. B, I don't like needles but OK. C, What kind of commie question is that? D, Go Browns."

There will also be a stage and theater just off Lake Erie, where attendance will be limited to invited, vaccinated guests, and the likeliest draft prospects who aren't also virus-o-phobes will be given their own green room with space for about 10 close family or friends, distanced and divided from other prospects. And 384 vaccinated fans, 12 per team, will have a separate section near the stage where Goodell will hug a series of large men, perhaps masked, perhaps facially au naturel. Fischer's story emphasizes that mask wearing, social distancing, and capacity limits will be enforced, though the attempts to get coaches to wear one have had only limited success because as we know, coaches don't get or spread germs until they tell you months later that they already had COVID and it was no big deal.

“This draft in particular feels like it represents hope beyond that, because we hope to role model and showcase a bit of what a brighter future continues to look like, in terms of being able to do live, in-person events safely,” O’Reilly is quoted as saying. He could have been wearing a bright red blazer and straw hat and working at Disneyland for all that, but the messaging flies in the face of Greater Cleveland Sports Commission head David Gilbert who claims to be confident that "many thousands of people" will have access to the open-air portions of Draft City that would be the largest event in the city since the darkest days of the 2016 Republican National Convention, the result of which helped make all this vaccine proselytizing necessary.

In short, this is your standard NFL cavalcade of mixed messages: Come gather, but stay far apart. All are welcome, but you folks without the shot stay over there. Wear your masks but smile for the cameras. We want the old normal, so bring your wallets. Just remember to be slightly less than an arm's length away from the credit card stations at all times. The league which made "full steam ahead" its mantra during the height of the pandemic is now working diligently to seem not only socially responsible but your brazen guide to safe gathering. "We are part of the problem, now give us credit for helping solve the problem."

That is, if you understand the problem for what it is: the NFL's oven-mitt-handed attempt to be all things at all times to all people when in fact it is just about one thing, and that is staging large events over multiple platforms for ridiculous sums of cash. Appearing socially conscious is one of the things it does worst because it is only done when absolutely necessary, always half-heartedly, and solely with empty speeches and fake solicitation that doesn't obscure the pay points.

And the only reason they really bother is because a segment of the bill-paying population still thinks that "Don't be such a candy-ass. Come on up and buy something; whatever you catch, there's only a mild risk of permanent damage" is bad for the brand. You'll know that the first time they show an aerial shot of the plaza they hope will be crowded with people, including those jostling each other to mug in front of a camera, some without the masks the league insists they all have to wear.

This, then, is the NFL's messaging for Draft Night: "Be safe if you really feel you have to, but the show's what we're all about, so don't screw it up. Behave yourselves at least until it's your team's turn to pick. And buy many things. We cannot emphasize that last one enough. And now let's get back to the podium where the commissioner is pretending to like some carefully selected strangers he thankfully will never have to clap eyes on ever again."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said that David Gilbert was the son of Dan Gilbert. The two are not related.

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