Emtman will be first, but draft could be the last NFL DRAFT

THE FINAL NFL GO-ROUND?

April 26, 1992|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

From Berwanger to Emtman.

That could wind up being an appropriate title for the history of the NFL's collegiate draft.

Jay Berwanger, the first Heisman Trophy winner, is known to trivia experts as the first player selected in the NFL's first draft in 1936. He was so overwhelmed with the honor that he passed up pro football for a business career. There wasn't much prestige or pay in playing in the NFL in those days.

Steve Emtman, the University of Washington defensive tackle, is likely to be the first player selected today by the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL's 57th draft.

He could be the last player to get that honor.

It may seem hard to believe, but the NFL's college draft, which has grown to be the most popular off-the-field event in sports, could be an endangered species.

When the NFL hammered out a collective bargaining agreement in November 1982 at the end of a 57-day players strike, the NFL Players Association agreed to extend the draft for 10 years.

Since the basic labor agreement was only for five years, that action seemed to extend the draft indefinitely. It was assumed a new labor agreement would be negotiated long before the draft expired.

Instead, the two sides haven't been able to reach a new agreement since the 1982 contract expired in 1987 and are headed to court June 15 for an antitrust case in Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, the 10-year draft extension expires after this year.

Does that mean this is the last draft?

As usual, the two sides have different answers.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue says it still will be legal for the NFL to conduct a draft "by any reasonable legal standard."

At the owners meetings in Phoenix last month, he was defending the legality of the draft when he was asked if he was suggesting there would be a draft next year.

"I'm doing more than suggesting that. I'm saying that," he said. "Yes, we're going to have a draft in 1993."

If they try to hold one without getting an agreement with the players, though, it's a good bet the players will file another lawsuit.

Jim Quinn, an attorney for the players, said: "I think that would be a safe bet. Were I a betting man, I think I'd put $2 on the nose on that one."

That means that, barring a settlement, the future of the draft will be decided in court.

From the owners' standpoint, the ominous thing is that they haven't had much success lately getting the courts to agree with them.

For example, the owners instituted a six-man, $1,000-a-week practice squad in 1989. The players went to court and charged the owners with price-fixing. The players won the first round in court, although Tagliabue says they'll win on appeal.

On the other hand, it's difficult to imagine the courts simply throwing out the draft.

The draft has taken on a life of its own. It's an integral part of the American sports scene. It's so big as a television spectacle on ESPN that it's been shifted from Tuesday to Sunday to get a wider audience.

This year, the start has been moved up from noon to 11 a.m. (8 a.m. on the West Coast, where it might be called Breakfast with the Draft) because ESPN is scheduled to start its America's Cup coverage at 4:30 p.m. and still wants to get in 5 1/2 hours of draft coverage.

"It's the most interesting non-event in sports," said George Young, general manager of the New York Giants.

It's come a long way from the first draft in 1936, which went nine rounds and got virtually no public attention. Although the late Bert Bell, a former owner and commissioner, is generally given credit for starting the draft to balance the league, the story of its origins have been lost in the mists of history.

The draft started to get a lot of attention in the 1950s and 1960s, especially when the NFL had its first common draft in 1967 after the merger with the American Football League, but two unrelated events in the late 1970s helped make the draft what it is today.

The first was that in the 1977 collective bargaining agreement with the players, the two sides agreed to move the draft from February to April. The idea was to give free agents time to sell themselves before the draft.

It turned out there wasn't much of a market for free agents, but the later draft gave the teams and the news media more time to focus on it, and that led to more coverage, including analysis by the draftniks who started publishing books on the subject.

The second factor came 12 years ago when a new sports cable network called ESPN was desperate to fill time and started televising the draft live. The draft ratings are now higher than some actual sports events on the networks.

It was symbolic that the Sports Illustrated feature on the draft this week wasn't on a player, but on ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. of Baltimore. He's better known than most of the players.

The strange thing is that the one thing the draft doesn't accomplish is supposed to be the reason for its existence: to spread out the talent and give the league more parity, by allowing teams with poorer records to pick before teams with better records.

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