This piece was originally published in The Athletic....
Professional sports drafts are dumb.
I’m not talking about drafts as staged, made-for-TV events – in that regard, they’re actually quite cool. I’m referring to how drafts are mechanisms by which new employees enter a specific workforce. Only in the field of pro sports are new hires told where they’ll be moving, for whom they’ll be working and almost exactly what they’ll be making for a predetermined period of time. We’re told that sports leagues need drafts, of course, because they help maintain “competitive balance,” when really a draft is just one of the most popular methods that team owners use to suppress player salaries.
The biggest issue with drafts though is that they reward terribly run franchises, even at times providing an incentive for them to lose. Even as a lifelong New York Knicks supporter who spent last winter salivating over Duke’s Zion Williamson, I found it fitting, poetic even, that two decades of horrible mismanagement wasn’t rewarded with the kind of restart the most talked-about draft prospect in years would have afforded. As a fan of the Bengals, whose frustration with his NFL team is only rivaled by what his NBA team forces him to endure, I found it sad that we spent this past season’s final weeks openly rooting for the prize that comes with losing the most.
The Bengals are getting a league-sponsored bailout from their own incompetence as holders of the top pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Years of poor decision-making, outdated philosophies and stubbornness resulted in the unmitigated failure that was 2019 when the Bengals went 2-14 while fielding one of the blandest rosters in their franchise’s history. They lost in almost every way imaginable, armed with one of the least-talented groups of players in the league as they dragged the remaining fans that cared through the muck of an autumn that felt as pointless as it seemed endless.
The Bengals are being rewarded with Joe Burrow, LSU’s national championship- and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback whom they’ve stumbled into the way a spoiled high school dropout might fall into an inheritance of his daddy’s fortune. Their unrelenting ability to avoid victory has earned them an opportunity to draft a player believed by some to have the most complete set of NFL-ready skills since Andrew Luck, and a young man who’s apparently been blessed with the kind of charisma and personality that can win over teammates and give a franchise someone its public can rally around.
The rules may say that the Bengals have earned the top pick in the draft, but they don’t really deserve Joe Burrow.
Fans of the Bengals, however, could not be more deserving.
Rooting for this franchise encompasses a lot of things. There are the barbs and taunts from fans of rivals, the pitied looks from folks who long ago moved onto something else, and the increasing sense of despair that comes with continuing to care about a team that never delivers any kind of real payoff. There’s the unyielding unease that comes with always preparing for something bad, then bracing again for something worse.
Mainly though, being a Bengals fan involves the small potatoes feel of the entire experience. Conversations about this team are never framed around winning championships; instead, we merely cling to the notion that perhaps one day in our lifetimes, we’ll feel what it’s like to watch them win one stupid playoff game, imagining the hell that would break loose if they simply advanced to the divisional round. We rarely even pause to consider that the really good teams get to avoid playing in wild-card games entirely.
We don’t ask for much, really. It would be nice to see the Bengals beat the Steelers occasionally. It’d be cool to hear them mentioned, even in passing as the other team in Ohio, when national pundits peruse the latest news from the AFC North. We know not to ask for too much when they get to the big stage in prime-time, hoping instead for a routine loss instead of a total embarrassment.
The really fun part of the NFL eludes us. Free agents don’t come here, at least the ones that anyone cares about. Impact trades occur with the frequency of presidential impeachment trials. Roster turnover is glacial. Expectations are always tempered. Enthusiasm is constantly doused with cold splashes of reality.
In Cincinnati, hope withers eternal.
To read the entire piece, go to The Athletic.