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Fear and Loathing at the NFL Draft

Exploring the New Religion
Crowd gathered at the NFL draft stage in Detroit.

The NFL draft in Detroit. I know nothing about football, but from what I can tell, the sport amounts to a new TV religion—it takes men, pits them against each other, and, through highlights and instant replay, transforms them into demi-Gods. Americans seem to really like this.

I’m even more confused by the fans. By the end of the weekend, over three quarters of a million people would come to the draft in Detroit to watch selections from bureaucratic committees play out on stage. Shattering every previous record, eight times more people came to Detroit for the draft than for the Super Bowl when it came to town in 2006. Economists estimate $165 million “net economic impact” from the event, compared to a projection from the same group of just $49 million in 2006.

What could possibly explain this demographic shift? Why would more people come to Detroit to watch a very boring draft than for the biggest game in the country and basically a national holiday? And in only twenty years’ time?

A religious instinct funneled into entertainment. A search for meaning. I can’t quite make sense of it.

So, I sat my ass down and listened…

…to a small blond girl and her they/them friend explain the importance of the NFL draft.

Crowd gathered at the NFL draft with two women in cheerleader outfits at center.
Photo by Mitch Miller

She’s been studying the history of her team. Analyzing strengths and weaknesses. Crafting a draft strategy. Would her choices match those of the scouts and team executives? She would see.

She uses first-person pronouns. “We have to select more offensive players this year.” “With the right picks, this could really be our year.” I suppress my smirk whenever she describes the present-day coffle of muscular athletes won in bids and traded across the nation for home entertainment as “my team.

She and her friend are obvious outliers. The draft attracts mostly middle-aged men, who bring their families to participate in this special occasion. They wear the same jerseys and, as far as conversions go, I don’t come across any who have adopted their wife’s favorite team.

These men have that peculiar type of obsession with the smallest details of performance, which they constantly analyze and debate amongst themselves, like car parts or insurance coverage. Endless memorized spreadsheets of numbers and statistics that they flaunt like Talmudic knowledge.

Detroit is a beautiful city. An empire’s capital constructed with brick and stone, bronze and steel. A strong foundation the drafting teams hope to emulate. Everywhere the structures have sharp lines, metal chandeliers, giant gargoyles, vaulted ceilings, ornate frescos, and sculptures of Greek and Roman mythology. Whatever the architectural inspiration—Art Deco, Beaux-Arts, Romanesque, Gilded Age, Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Gothic, Neo-Classical, etc.—one thing is certain: Detroit was built with an American confidence and pride that once defined the nation at its height.

Art Deco bronze statue in Detroit in Detroit Lions Jersey, with “Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” biblical passage from 2 Corinthians etched behind it.
Photo by Mitch Miller

The draft site is downtown just by the water. There, it’s divided into two sections: the Draft Experience, where immersive activities are set up, and the Draft Theater, where the announcements are made. I walk around the Draft Experience where thousands of people line up for a sports-museum “experience.” Everything is an “experience” or an “activation” or an “immersion.” Several immersions feature the vicarious experience of posing as your favorite NFL player: you slot your head in the decapitated mannequins of stars. You stick your torso in the comically oversized helmet of your favorite team. You pose in front of their locker. Then there is a booth to gape at Super Bowl rings and another for the Vince Lombardi trophy. If these exhibits are not enough, for $45.99 you can buy an official NFL Draft T-shirt to signify to everyone back home you were really there.

Aside from this “fantasy football,” the rest of the scenery is made up of advertisements. The main sponsor of the draft is Bud Light. It makes sense. The label complements the blue color of the Detroit Lions. It also helps rehabilitate the brand; a great opportunity to demonstrate Bud Light’s detransition journey. Just look at how much we love football! We can’t be THAT woke.

Weed advertisements behind planes circling detroit for “zaza cannabis”, “leaf and bug big sale”, and “leaf and bud mark savaya collection”
Photo by Mitch Miller

Single-engine airplanes encircle downtown Detroit from morning to night like hungry vultures. They tow massive banners. Out of six aerial billboards, I count four for cannabis and one for red wine. The wine company targets the demographic niche of sassy middle-aged women. Who else would be courted by “dangerously delicious semi-sweet, semi-sparkling red wine that will bring out your inner femme-fatale?”

As soon as you pass through the metal detectors and airport-style security, dozens of uniformed workers wait to greet attendees. They wear the same enthusiasm as the staff of an all-inclusive resort. The stage is massive, with more elaborate lighting than your typical concert. When the draft begins in earnest, sound effects and music blast throughout the city core. Americans are truly masters of entertainment. The most trivial of events become almost biblical. Only 13 football players have come to Detroit to be actually present during the draft, but Eminem is here. Not to perform, but to hype up the city. He screams, “DETROIT!” into a microphone a few times, with about the same level of authenticity as a bottle service girl singing happy birthday to a subcontinental tech bro.

Just when I started thinking that everyone here is mesmerized by cheap tricks, the spell is broken. Governor Gretchen Whitmer gets up on stage to announce a draft pick and gets savagely booed. Michigan, there is hope.

I notice an Islamic prayer center subtly indicated on the map with the star and crescent. When I go to the location, I only find picnic tables and a bar selling cans of beer. Maybe they moved it? It’s not the only connection between devotion and football. A picture of a new sort of quasi-religion emerges. That over 750,000 people have concentrated in two public squares—having taken time off work and spending thousands of dollars earned by toil. These fanatics are less like fans and more like pilgrims. So many Americans had descended onto Detroit that I had to sleep in a hostel with nine other men, snoring and farting their way through the night. They had driven over 1,000 miles. In football Mecca, like real Mecca, the greater the ordeal, the stronger the devotion.

In football Mecca, like real Mecca, the greater the ordeal, the stronger the devotion.

The most committed are the superfans who made themselves into spectacle. In such elaborate costumes and wearing so much makeup they easily outdo the drag queens of Detroit brunch hour. Who are the superfans trying to impress? They yell into the sky pledging their loyalty to…some kind of abstraction.

The most committed are the superfans who made themselves into spectacle. In such elaborate costumes and wearing so much makeup they easily outdo the drag queens of Detroit brunch hour. Who are the superfans trying to impress? They yell into the sky pledging their loyalty to…some kind of abstraction.

Yes, through honest eyes, the draft does not feel like a secular event. Maybe not so metaphorically: the football players are Gods; the fans are worshippers; and the draft is ritualized deification, whereby ordinary athletes are inducted into a sacred realm. It then makes sense why nearly one million souls traveled across the nation to stand idle for many hours, over multiple days, and subject themselves to every misery known to crowds. They have come to bear witness to a miracle—and specifically the miracle of creation. 

The NFL is of course only too happy to fill the religious void. The games are on Sundays.

These theological similarities also extend beyond ritual. The draft tried to satisfy man’s longing for narrative. Many people who watch the NFL also watch college football and have been following these kids for years. Now the boys are becoming initiated into men, and like the children of foster parents or proud cuckolds, they are cheered for entering the next stage of their lives. On the second day of the draft, I watched a pre-recorded sentimental story about a young black man who had been raised by his grandmother, which implied he had no earthly father. Now his future was certain; the NFL his deliverance.

Okay, before I get torched for being a limp wrist sports-hater, let me be clear. My wrath is not for the game but for the sorry state that Americans find themselves in. It follows that when you take away people’s nationalism—their liberty—and selectively criminalize pride in their heritage, then you get the jersey effect of all life. You start believing America is an idea—not a people, not a place—and that sides are as arbitrary as the colors of a uniform.

Crowd at seating area at NFL draft, detroit street and buildings in background with large screen showing man talking about the draft.
Photo by Mitch Miller

Without narrative, man fills the void with whatever fits. And like a child with blocks, he will force a triangle into a circle. The curse is, instead of rebelling, he submits to living vicariously through others. As men will satisfy sexual instincts through pornography, men will also find virtual glory through other men competing for excellence. Both make him a spectator in life. 

I spent three days on the pilgrimage. The only requirement was superficial imitation, donning the team uniform, and belting out some simple chants. It was embarrassing to be around. True religion demands more than costumes. How shallow would it be if wrapping a raspberry bush around your head and driving deck screws through your palms made you a Christian. 

I spoke with several locals who were all very happy about the draft, since for them it was a turning point in the city. Detroit had cleaned up. The manager at the hostel told me upon my arrival: “Detroit has never looked so good; it’s like a girl is coming over for the first time.” Litter on the streets had been removed, along with some homeless people. Even outside the downtown core, the lawns had been cut. The people movers were running on time. The city has been through a lot. Like an abused puppy dumped by neglectful owners, it has abandonment issues. And it shows. It’s like an Art-Deco Chernobyl with an absurd number of Coney Island hot dogs and very busy liquor stores—more vices to fill the void. But everyone was now together celebrating the city and, for what it’s worth, the draft was an occasion for Detroit to feel true pride again. 

But despite all the optimism, there is an obvious counterpoint: Detroit is not, in fact, returning to its former glory. It isn’t returning to anything. It too is being used as a costume and rented like an Airbnb to create the simulacrum of American urban success. Like a college grad who moves back home with his parents, the improved conditions aren’t something to gloat about. San Francisco similarly tidied up for President Xi, but it soon returned to its squalid default. No, Detroit is not returning to its industrial heights. The more accurate analogy is that the city is going through the same third-world progress as the Caribbean Islands. Tourism will be its new fate, because Detroit is dirt cheap by comparison to less blighted metropolises. 

A sort of Paris of America seems to scream, “Come use me as your playground” to the greedy enthusiasm of the NFL, Bud Light, the cannabis industry, and every product geared at making man docile. Of course, people cope with decline by using what’s available to them, and if religion was ever the opium of the masses, then sports-entertainment has become their fentanyl.

Mitch Miller is an adventure writer and conflict journalist. He’s more than happy to join in on any extreme activity, and can be reached at mitchenjoyer@gmail.com. Follow him on X at @funtimemitch.

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