NFL Draft Moves Online Amid Pandemic

Apr 23, 2020
Originally published on April 23, 2020 7:27 pm
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The coronavirus outbreak has obliterated the sports calendar in the U.S., but one big event is on schedule. The NFL draft starts tonight. Of course, college football's top prospects won't gather in Las Vegas as planned. Instead, as NPR's Tom Goldman reports, they will take part in the NFL's first ever virtual draft.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The NFL draft actually is the second recent example of sports marching on. Last week's WNBA draft, another virtual event, was a success even though there were glitches. When Chicago picked the University of Oregon's Ruthy Hebard, ESPN flashed to a living room where she and her family sat silently staring at the TV.

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RYAN RUOCCO: Ruthy was just waiting for the official announcement. I promise you she hadn't heard it yet.

GOLDMAN: The NFL's Peter O'Reilly is bracing for the dreaded satellite TV delays.

PETER O'REILLY: I'm sure we'll have some of those as well. And you just try to think through the sequencing of elements and shots.

GOLDMAN: O'Reilly is the executive vice president of league events, and he's been thinking through a lot in the run up to the draft, a three-day happening that's now become a massive undertaking. With all those involved in selecting players dispersed around the country, redundancy, O'Reilly says, will be a key to avoiding technological meltdowns.

O'REILLY: We not only have three different modes of communication to get a pick in or to communicate trades.

GOLDMAN: They also have three people from each of the 32 teams authorized to communicate with league officials.

O'REILLY: So if somebody went down - you know, a power outage given a storm at a certain home - the opportunity to have at least two other backup people to get that selection in.

GOLDMAN: The guys getting selected are being asked to do their part, too. Ezra Cleveland is an offensive tackle from Boise State who's gotten a crash course in video production. He's one of 58 prospects the NFL sent smartphones, tripods and lighting to record their big moments.

EZRA CLEVELAND: So there's an always-on camera that's going to be filming, like, the living room. And then the other camera, that's used for interviews after you get drafted.

GOLDMAN: The NFL hopes all the planning will make it easier to focus on the moments when hulking young men realize their football dreams. Twenty-one-year-old Cleveland isn't sure what he'll do, but he does predict spontaneity.

CLEVELAND: For sure no dancing - not sure on the crying. I don't know if it'll all hit me at once or not. We'll see.

GOLDMAN: We know how fans react on draft night.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Boo.

GOLDMAN: Whether it's snarling New York Jets fans or everyone laying into the NFL commissioner, booing has become a highly anticipated draft tradition, and it will continue virtually. A campaign to raise money for COVID-19 relief asks fans to record their boos and post the video with the hashtag #BooTheCommish. Thanks to Colgate University senior Caio Brighenti, we'll know when there's cheering, too.

CAIO BRIGHENTI: My initial idea was just, you know, let me measure how angry or happy each fan base is during the draft.

GOLDMAN: Brighenti developed a computer program that will instantly collect online fan reaction, and he'll stream it live.

BRIGHENTI: I kind of had that idea before everything got shut down because of corona, so it ends up making even more sense now that there's no live audience.

GOLDMAN: Commissioner Roger Goodell, who'll announce picks from his basement, says he pushed to keep the draft on schedule because he wanted to provide hope. At least it'll offer a few days of diversion as NFL fans dream of how a Joe Burrow, Chase Young or Ezra Cleveland will help their team whenever they actually get to play.

Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.