Put ESPN In Charge Of America’s Wars

The NFL draft is back on ESPN with blanket (read: suffocating) coverage, which always makes me think: What if Americans cared about their wars as much as they cared about the NFL? What if decisions were fact-based and results-oriented? What if everyone was well-informed, highly motivated, and committed to excellence? What if the media provided honest, often outspoken, and comprehensive commentary about our wars, coverage that lasted for months and months, featuring clear-eyed metrics based on relentless analysis? I know ― dream on.

If you’re not familiar with NFL football or ESPN coverage of the same, you should be, because it says much about the American moment. The first round of the draft kicks off on Thursday night in prime time, followed by the second and third rounds on Friday night in prime time. The draft concludes on Saturday with rounds four through seven, roughly 250 total picks.

Yet this quick summary vastly understates the coverage devoted to the draft. From the end of the Super Bowl early in February to the draft itself at the end of April, coverage of the draft on ESPN is virtually non-stop, with innumerable “mock” drafts for each team and a parade of “experts” speculating about the prospects of each player and team. Exhaustive (and exhausting) is the word to describe this coverage.

When Round One finally kicks off, it’s essentially a parade of soon-to-be millionaires. These players, selected from various college football teams, can count on multi-year contracts and signing bonuses in the millions of dollars. ESPN and the NFL stage-manages the selection process, turning it into an extravaganza complete with musicians, cheering (or booing) fans, and plenty of past NFL greats, along with the draftees and their families and friends. Coverage includes shots of the “war rooms” of the various NFL teams as they decide which players to pick, which draft picks to trade, and so on.

The war room — isn’t that a telling phrase?

Indeed, let’s push that further. Most red-blooded NFL fans would be hard-pressed to find Iraq or Afghanistan on a map, but they can tell you about their team’s draft picks, rattling off statistics such as times in the 40-yard dash, vertical leap, even the size of a player’s hands (considered especially pertinent if he’s a quarterback or wide receiver). What astonishes me is the sheer wealth of detail gathered about each player, the human intelligence (or HUMINT in military terms). Players, especially those projected to go in the first few rounds, are scrutinized from every angle: physical, mental, emotional, you name it.

With millions of dollars at stake, such an exhaustive approach is not terribly surprising. Yet even with a wealth of data, each year there are major draft busts (e.g. Ryan Leaf, a quarterback selected #2 overall in the first round and a flop) and major surprises (e.g. Tom Brady, a quarterback selected late in the 6th round as the 199th pick, meaning not much was expected from him, after which he won five Super Bowls). Results from the NFL draft should teach us something about the limits of data-driven “intelligence” in wars, yet our nation’s intelligence agencies (17 of them!) continue to believe they can quantify, predict, and control events in places we and they know little about.

But again what wows me is the thoroughness as well as the slickness of ESPN’s coverage of the draft. When a player is selected, ESPN instantly has video of his college highlights, together with his vital statistics (height, weight, performance at the draft combine in various drills, and so on). Video and stats are backed by interviews with a draftee’s previous coaches, who extol his virtues, along with interviews with those “war rooms” again as to why they decided to draft that player and not another. Once the draft is completed, teams are then awarded “grades” by various commentators, even though these players have yet to play a snap in the NFL. (Imagine if your kid received an instant grade in college — before he attended a single class or completed a single assignment — based upon his performance in high school.)

You have to hand it to ESPN: their coverage of the draft is an exercise in total information awareness. It’s blanket coverage, an exercise in full-spectrum dominance. It’s slick, professional, and driven by a tireless pursuit of victory by each team (and a relentless pursuit of ratings by ESPN).

So, a modest proposal: To win the war on terror, let’s put ESPN in charge of it. I know: It’s a frivolous suggestion to treat war like a sport. But is it? After all, America currently treats the NFL draft with all the seriousness of a life-and-death struggle, even as it treats its wars with comparative frivolity. Small wonder America continues to lose its wars while fielding some winning NFL teams.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), history professor, and football fan, blogs at Bracing Views.