Starting today, the National Football League holds its annual draft of collegiate stars. ESPN and other sports news outlets have spent the past weeks breathlessly analyzing top prospects.
The NFL’s player draft wasn’t always so glamorous or so well-publicized. Many of today’s fans may spend more time and effort studying the draft than NFL owners did during its early years.
Consider the experiences of Bert Bell, the owner of the woebegone Philadelphia Eagles in the 1930s (the team had a 9-21-1 record during its first three seasons). Each time he hoped to sign a promising player, a wealthier owner would swoop in and offer more money and a chance to play for a winning team. Stuck at the bottom of the rankings, Bell proposed a reverse-order draft in 1935, in which the last-place team would get first choice. The league minutes blandly stated that such a draft was approved; they don’t include any record of the discussion, so the other owners’ motives are unknown.
In later years, when he was NFL commissioner, Bell would extol the draft for its salutary effect on competition. Having the right to the best collegiate player, he claimed, could lift a woeful team to mediocrity, maybe even beyond.
The idea that the reverse-order draft would foster a competitive balance is intuitively appealing. Basketball fans will certainly remember how, in the National Basketball Association, No. 1 picks such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, reversed their teams’ fortunes. In the early years of the NFL draft, though, the competitive balance was little changed.
According to the historian Craig Coenen, four pathetic teams -- the Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers -- won 35.2 percent of their games from 1932 through 1935. In the 10 seasons after the implementation of the draft, these four teams won 29.1 percent of their games.
Why did they fail to improve? The answer may be that many of these draft choices never actually played in the NFL. For example, the struggling Eagles failed to sign any of their nine draft choices of February 1936. During the league’s first three drafts, fewer than three-fifths of the players drafted in the first five rounds played in the NFL. This proportion rose to more than three-quarters by 1956-58.
Even teams that selected and signed players weren’t assured of success. In fact, many of the era’s best players were overlooked in these early draft picks. Of the 155 players voted All-NFL in the 1950s, 66 had been selected in the fifth round or later. Eighteen were never drafted at all, including Hall of Fame players Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, Dick “Night Train” Lane and Emlen Tunnell. All three were black, and scouts didn’t investigate such players as much as white players.
The Washington Redskins, for example, had plenty of good draft positions in the 1950s, but refused to sign black players. Partly as a consequence, Washington draftees were selected to the All-NFL lists only eight times from 1950 to 1960; the Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants, by contrast, each had 52 selections to the All-NFL list during the same period.
Bell often lauded owners of successful teams for their benevolence toward their less-fortunate peers. The owners of better teams, however, weren’t always so altruistic and wanted to have an occasional first pick in the draft. The league instituted a lottery system, which enabled one lucky team to make a pick before the regular draft. Once a team received a lottery pick, it was ineligible for another until every team received one.
So if the draft wasn’t effective in fostering a competitive balance, why did the owners maintain it? Economists suspect a less benign motive for the reverse-order draft: By forcing young players to negotiate with only one team, team owners gained bargaining leverage, enabling them to suppress salaries.
In no other industry is such a violation of a person’s right to their labor tolerated. A reverse-order draft of young law-school graduates, for example, would immediately incite outrage. Why parents allow their star football-player sons to be subjected to such a rigged market is hard to explain; perhaps they are taken in by the trappings of honor and glory surrounding the draft.
Bell and other early owners would have been flummoxed by the hype that has come to surround an event that, even today, rarely transforms teams that get the first pick.
(David George Surdam is associate professor of economics at the University of Northern Iowa. This post is adapted from his book, “Run to Glory and Profit: The Economic Rise of the NFL During the 1950s,” to be published by the University of Nebraska Press. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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