NFL fans are poring over analysis of this past weekend’s draft, hopeful that the college players their teams selected will be the necessary pieces for a Super Bowl win. In most cases, the results will be disappointing. Why does the promise of draft picks still bring such eager anticipation among NFL teams and their fans? Even though potential NFL players are subjected to a barrage of tests and evaluated according to a complex calculus, their true value comes in being expected but wholly unknown – like a wrapped gift.  

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Trying to explain the appeal of the NFL draft to a non-fan is challenging. After all, it’s basically a three-day long TV show starring a series of non-descript men in suits who read out a list of names in front of a belligerent audience. Other men in suits kill time between the reading of names by talking about which name might come next. And that’s pretty much it. Nobody throws a pass, makes a tackle, or scores a touchdown. So why is the draft arguably the second-most anticipated event (after the Super Bowl) in the NFL calendar? And why, come draft time, are draft picks considered to be so valuable, especially compared with proven veteran players?

Draft picks are a classic example of the grass always being greener on the other side of the fence. A proven veteran is a known quantity, which is reassuring, but a draft pick always has the potential to become a truly great player. There could always be another Joe Montana lurking in the third round; another Tom Brady or Terrell Davis in the sixth. Of course the majority of drafted players will have mediocre or non-existent NFL careers, but this fact rarely gets in the way of teams’ (or fans’) enthusiasm. A team considering trading a veteran player for a draft pick is, in many ways, facing the same dilemma as Miss Phyllis Weaver, a contestant on the game show “Wheel of Fish” in the 1989 “Weird Al” Yankovic movie UHF. Weaver faces a tough choice: either accept a known quantity (a large and “very tasty” red snapper), or take her chances on a mysterious box. Weaver chooses the box, which is then revealed to contain “Nothing! Absolutely nothing!” The show’s host berates Phyllis for her “stupid” decision. But was it really stupid? It was, if nothing else, recognizably human. Weaver takes a chance to improve her lot, even though there is a possibility that she will be left with nothing

Like the mysterious box on “Wheel of Fish,” a draft pick is an unknown quantity, which could come with a lot of upside, but also a lot of risk. And yet, if you watched NFL experts talk about the “value” of draft picks this past weekend, you’d think that they were as stable an investment as a bar of gold. Draftniks like Mel Kiper and Mike Mayock released ostensibly objective rankings of every player selected from pick number one to 253. During the draft itself, teams’ choices were alternately criticized as a “reach” or praised as “good value,” as though this value is instantly recognizable. Back in the 1990s, former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson even created a numerical chart that is supposed tell you exactly what each pick in the draft is worth in relation to all the others, down to the decimal point.

So why is something as unpredictable and risky as a draft pick constantly described using the language of rational economics? One possible answer is that the very idea of rational economics is a myth.

This is a concept that was put forward by the French sociologist Marcel Mauss in his 1922 book The Gift. Mauss studied the exchange of gifts in societies around the world from ancient Rome to present-day Polynesia. Although economists like to believe that rational, utilitarian thinking has always informed the ways humans exchange things – thereby validating the rise of free-market capitalism – Mauss saw things differently. He argued that throughout most of human history wealth has been exchanged in the form of gifts, not commodities, and that many of the features of “archaic” gift-giving societies live on in contemporary capitalist cultures. Gifts, he argued, come with a powerful, if unspoken, need to be reciprocated. If someone buys you a gift – even something as simple as a beer – you feel a need, a subtle social pressure, to reciprocate that gift. This is not the impersonal logic of free-market capitalism. Rather, the need to reciprocate is a very real impulse, and it plays a significant role in how wealth or goods are distributed in our society.

Even though “draft experts” talk about the draft as if it were a site of rational economic exchange, in fact it has much more in common with a traditional gift economy. Numerous studies suggest that teams overvalue draft picks, especially high picks in the first round (a bias that is reflected in Johnson’s draft chart). So how would thinking about the NFL draft as a kind of gift exchange account for this widespread bias? Why do decisions made during the NFL draft fail to correspond with rational economic behavior? How is drafting football players like the exchanging of gifts?

One difference between capitalist and gift economies is that gift exchanges take place within a community, or between communities that know each other. Most capitalist transactions are impersonal and temporary. If I give $1.50 to a guy at a corner store for a pack of gum, I’m not looking to establish a lasting bond with him. The exchange happens, it’s over, and – in a lot of cases – we never see each other again. In contrast, the exchange of gifts is personal and enduring. If I give you a gift, we probably know each other. The very act of giving the gift suggests that I would like our relationship to continue.

The people in the NFL know each other. There are only 32 teams in the league, and only so many people within each organization who are in charge of making transactions. Every coach is part of a “coaching tree” that binds them, personally and professionally, to other coaches. Same goes for most general managers. So when coaches and GMs swap picks and players with each other, they are trading within a community that is well known to them. And even though they are trying to defeat their rivals (another universal feature of gift exchanges, according to Mauss), they are still connected to these rivals in a personal and enduring way.

Perhaps the most striking similarity between the NFL Draft and gift economies has to do with time and anticipation. Most capitalist transactions are instantaneous: I give you money, and you give me the thing I’ve purchased. Gifts don’t usually work this way. Typically, if I give you a gift, there will be an interval of time before you reciprocate and give me something back. Among friends, there is an unspoken but strong social expectation that the reciprocal gift should be more or less equal to the original gift. But during this interval – whether a few minutes or a few years – your gift back to me exists as pure potential. It could be anything.

When Team One acquires a draft pick from Team Two, that pick represents the potential to become something (i.e., a football player) that is much more valuable than whatever Team One gave up in the first place. Once the specific player chosen with that pick steps onto a field in an NFL game, that potential is converted into concrete reality, but prior to that moment the potential of the pick always seems powerful and impressive. I believe this is why NFL teams overvalue draft picks: they represent potential, promise, and hope, even though – objectively – most of them will not pan out. This has very little to do with the logic of free-market capitalism, where economic actors exchange money for known goods. Instead, this is the nebulous logic of the gift. By talking about the “value” of draft picks as if they were easily quantifiable commodities, draft experts cover up the true machinery of the draft’s gift economy.

I’d like to conclude with an example from my own unhappy career as a fan of the San Francisco 49ers. In 2013, San Francisco traded quarterback Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs for a second-round pick in 2013 and a third-round pick in 2014. When Kansas City was surprisingly successful in 2013, that third-round pick was elevated to another second rounder. The interval of time between the initial trade and the reciprocal draft pick only magnified the pure potential of the “gift” Kansas City gave San Francisco in return for Smith. Two second rounders for a middle-of-the-road QB! We 49ers fans couldn’t believe our luck.

Indeed, two second-round picks – as pure potential – for Smith still sounds like a good deal. But now we can see what we actually received in return. The gifts became defensive lineman Tank Carradine, who has produced only 39 tackles and four sacks in three seasons, and running back Carlos Hyde, who has rushed for a total of 803 yards and seven touchdowns in two seasons. All of sudden Alex Smith’s 142 career passing touchdowns don’t sound so bad.

The concrete reality of the gift rarely lives up to its imagined potential. This is also characteristic of a gift economy. To use Mauss’ term, there is an “agonistic” spirit to the giving of gifts, as every rival is trying to get the better of their trading partners. And so even though cruel optimism compels me to state that Carradine and Hyde could still develop into perennial All Pros, a sinking feeling in my stomach tells me what I already know: Alex Smith was a red snapper, and the 49ers, hoping for the best, decided to choose what was in the box.

 

Ross Bullen teaches English literature at OCAD University in Toronto. He’s on Twitter at @BullenRoss.