Fair warning: Spoiler alert.
The most cutting reviews of "Draft Day" suggested it was nothing more than a big-screen NFL infomercial, a modern-day NFL Films-like effort to glorify and dramatize what is now a $10 billion industry. That interpretation piqued my interest in ways that a movie about draft trades and team building did not.
So as I plunked down my $5.50 this week -- no free screenings for this hack -- I wanted to know: How does the NFL see itself? Or at least, what would the NFL look like if it could leverage its own portrayal?
After all, the NFL received a rights fee and a percentage of revenues for allowing its logos and team names to be used in the film, according to ESPN's Darren Rovell. It also exerted editorial control in at least one instance: Star Kevin Costner told reporters that the league nixed a scene in which angry fans hung a team official in effigy.
The league didn't write, direct or produce the film. In fact, director Ivan Reitman is the same guy who brought us "Animal House." Still, the NFL's cooperation and tacit approval was vital to the extent of the realism that its logos, access and cameos provided. The chief defender of the NFL shield, commissioner Roger Goodell, appears frequently.
Now then: What does an NFL-endorsed movie show us? Basically, a general manager who wants to please fans and players who aren't the character risks they might otherwise seem.
Costner’s Sonny Weaver Jr., the Browns’ fictitious general manager, wants nothing more than for the team to have a great draft because, as we hear a radio host intone, sports are all Cleveland has. Weaver’s goal is to lift up the city and its people with draft excitement. Any and all distractions must be set aside. Making good with his secret pregnant girlfriend (Jennifer Garner) must wait. Sorry. Spreading his father’s ashes must go on without him.
There is nothing subtle about the intent and motivation of high-ranking team officials in this movie. The fictitious Seattle Seahawks general manager, Tom Michaels (played by Patrick St. Esprit), is shaken when he sees fans protesting a trade outside his office window. Weaver leverages the presumed fear of fan rejection -- and the glory of their appreciation -- in several negotiations. Browns owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) is driven mostly by the adoration received in making a draft splash; ensuing profits are presumed but go unmentioned.
The rousing final scene of the movie, in fact, is set at the Browns' draft party. Molina, Weaver and the Browns' coach (Denis Leary's coach Penn) appear on stage with the team's top two draft picks. There is no greater reward, we sense, than making your fans happy.
None of the players in "Draft Day" are angels, of course, but the two selected by the Browns are overtly exonerated by circumstances. The malfeasance, we're shown, was not their fault.
One player's reputation as a hothead is debunked upon further review of game tape. At first glance, he appears to have thrown a ball into the stands, was subsequently penalized, and then ejected for bumping an official during a protest. We soon learn he had, in fact, simply handed the ball to his dying sister, excusing his subsequent tantrum, in Weaver's eyes. We then understand why this player spends draft morning driving his nephews to gymnastics practice.
The second player -- a running back portrayed by the Houston Texans' Arian Foster -- blurts in one of his first lines that he is not a gang member. He acknowledges he was involved in a violent fight, but we are strongly led to believe he didn't start it and that his hospitalized antagonist was an adult who should have known what he was getting into.
Meanwhile, the Browns pass on drafting a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback largely because he is too slick and his teammates don't appear to like him. Instead, they stick with an incumbent who has worked hard to improve his strength during the offseason and who is so passionate about winning that he trashes Weaver's office upon hearing rumors he might be replaced.
And that, we're told, is what the draft and playing football are all about. It's about team and sacrifice and heart and the whole being more important than the parts. It's why one of the great evils of "Draft Day" is trading away future draft choices. One player can't be better than three. (It's odd to hear this addressed most frequently by Leary's character, given how rarely NFL coaches worry about the state of the team two or three years hence.)
I can only presume this underlying theme explains why the impropriety of Weaver impregnating his salary-cap manager (Garner) is never addressed. They're both on the same team, right? They worked together to have a great draft, didn't they? What's the problem? (Fortunately, she tells Weaver repeatedly that she is not upset with his inattention.)
I'm no film critic, so this post isn't meant to tell you whether "Draft Day" was good or bad, or whether you should see it or not. I watched the movie through the lens of product portrayal. The movie tells us that the NFL draft is all about making fans happy, with players who aren't as bad as they're being made out to be and with a team concept that emphasizes the whole over the parts. (What it's not about: Medical issues of any kind. No injury histories and not a single doctor was invoked in this film.)
"Draft Day" comes at a time of great paradox in the industry. Its business has never been more prosperous, yet debate on its future remains fierce. How does that look when you can buy Hollywood influence? I can think of no better way to express the answer than through the lyrics of "Born to Rise," a little ditty featured in the closing credits that puts the best of "Rocky" training montages to shame:
What you know about standing up when the odds get stacked?
Time stands still, ain't no turning back
When everything you're worth is under attack
What you know about heart? What you know about that?
Write it off as criminal, a place to cast a stone
On and on we carry on when one is not enough.