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Jim Valvano died on April 28, 1993, at the age of 47.
On Thursday night, the Arizona Cardinals, my Arizona Cardinals, drafted UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen with the 10th overall pick in the NFL Draft. I did not watch this live: I was seeing Avengers: Infinity War, but I probably didn’t require anything that compelling for me to skip the draft. Even when my NFL fandom was at its zenith, the draft struck me as a mystifyingly popular spectacle. A bunch of thick-necked men read off the names of other thick-necked men, and by the time any of them ever appear in a game, we’ll have long since forgotten the names of anyone we can’t draft for our fantasy team. I have a long-standing rule as a sportswriter that I don’t travel to sports events that don’t have any actual sports in them. (Drafts, winter meetings, Sloan Analytics conventions, those sort of thing.) I got into this to watch athletes do things, not to watch people announce that they will eventually do them, later, at a time that is not now.
But this was an unusually fascinating draft in that it, in a way everything has to now, reflected the world outside of just its selected purview. There were many fascinating quarterback characters in this draft — you know it’s a good one when Baker Mayfield is almost a side story, even when picked No. 1 — but much of the Draft Day discussion revolved around Josh Rosen and Josh Allen.
They are both, it should be remembered, kids: Allen turns 22 next month, and Rosen just turned 21 in February. Rosen went to UCLA and is from a wealthy family; his father is a spine surgeon who President Obama considered for Surgeon General and his mother is Liz Lippincott, a longtime sports journalist. His great-grandfather founded the Wharton School at Penn. Allen is a farm kid from Northern California who went had no recruiters after him, forcing him to go to junior college and, eventually, Wyoming. He hit a growth spurt right before college and blossomed into, essentially, the platonic physical ideal of what a professional quarterback is supposed to look like.
But the real difference between them is how people like me — liberal sports fans who spend too much time listening to what people are saying no Twitter; that is to say, the types of people who lock in these sort of storylines ahead of time, for better and mostly worse — framed them coming into the draft.
(It is worth noting that the way I’m framing this conversation is in fact its own sort of personal framing device, and that you might feel the exact opposite about all of them. I know many people who viscerally dislike Rosen, for example, and think Allen is a misunderstood kid who has had everybody skeptical of him without knowing him at all. Everything’s a device. I’m just going with the current Narrative Status Quo here. No matter what, we’ll all look like idiots in 10 years, if we are all still alive.)
Rosen is the good guy, or at least the Of The Moment one. He’s a politically active Jewish kid who went to a Catholic School and wore a “F—k Trump” hat to play golf. He’s cocky and brash and is fully aware of how full of bunk the NCAA is. He’s an outspoken Free Thinker in a league that’s so scared of those that the fact that he cares about things other than just football — that he acknowledges that we live in the world — was used as a strike against him and probably made him drop in the draft.
Allen is the bad guy, or at least the one that is Representative Of The Old Guard. He’s the meathead who couldn’t throw for any accuracy at freaking Wyoming, of all places, the guy who’s the physical manifestation of how doltish and dogmatic NFL talent evaluators; he’s big, he’s strong, so who cares if he can’t throw it to his receivers? He’s also the guy who sent The Horrible Tweets, using Terrible Words back when he was a high school kid who no one cared about or even knew existed. This led to Allen having to admit to Stephen A. Smith, of all people, that he’d written them — I’ve actually come around a bit on Stephen A. in the last few years (which should probably be its own newsletter at some point), but I can’t think of anyone in the world I’d want to apologize to less about offensive Tweets I’d written in high school than Stephen A. Smith — and made Draft Day, the culmination of his lifelong dreams, into something miserable.
So! Draft Day is here! Go Josh Rosen! Boo Josh Allen! And yay for me: My team got the good guy.
Meanwhile, Josh Allen ended up with the Buffalo Bills. Boo! Boo! That’s the team of O.J.!
My team drafting the socially conscious Cool Jewish Guy quarterback who hates the President and thinks college players should be paid and has nuanced thoughts on atheism and causes football to say having an “independent mind” is somehow a problem ... I love it! That guy is going to be a blast to cheer for!
Meanwhile, Buffalo fans — of which I know many; my wife’s dad, brother and two of her sisters all live in Buffalo — have to root for the jerk who made all those racist and homophobic Tweets, what a jerk, how can you root for that guy?
But of course we have this entirely wrong, and not just because — though in large part because — we are acting like we know anything about these kids simply because we’ve seen them filtered through the NFL’s draft industrial complex. (It’s possible they’re both awesome, or both jerks, or, most likely, both just regular kids trying to play the sport they love.) The main reason we have this wrong is that once the games get going, it won’t make a lick of difference.
If Josh Rosen becomes the next Aaron Rodgers and is also politically outspoken — sort of like Aaron Rodgers! — and charismatic and a superstar, that will be doubly pleasant for me. But if he’s a lousy quarterback, he could run on the field saying, “Will Leitch is awesome you should subscribe to his newsletter what a visionary genius” and I will not like him. Well, I won’t dislike him, not personally. But I won’t want him quarterbacking my football team, and every time I hear his name, I will think of something negative. That’s the peril of sports. It is a results-oriented business in a way almost no other field is. I can claim to like Rosen’s politics, or his personality, or any of it, but none of it matters to me at all if he doesn’t help my Arizona Cardinals win games.
And if Josh Allen — who, again, certainly isn’t this terrible person those Tweets made him out to be, but play along for a second — turns out to be a fantastic quarterback, the second coming of Jim Kelly, Bills fans won’t care if he says he’d rather eat his own barf than a Beef-on-Weck. All that matters is how good a quarterback he is. All this noise is just what happens when we have to talk about sports but don’t have actual games to watch and talk about. It falls away immediately when there are games.
And thank heavens for that. I understand that sports and politics can never truly be separated; I did a whole episode of “The Will Leitch Show” about that, with Chris Hayes. But if Josh Rosen is great, I will support whatever he does, and if he’s not, I won’t. How many Boston sports fans are with Tom Brady politically? Guess what: If you think Donald Trump’s Presidency is an ongoing American tragedy that somehow gets a little worse every day, the people who own your favorite sports team, and probably a lot of its players, totally disagree with you. We all make our peace with that, mostly, by not thinking about it. I’ll confess, through it all, that I totally understand why and generally do the same thing myself. We talk a big game. But at the end of the day: We just want our team to win so we can be happy. That’s why we do anything.
Still love the hat, though. On a Trump course no less! As someone who literally stayed at a Trump property this spring and didn’t say a word ... you’ve gotta sort of respect that. Even if you disagree with him.
Now go win some games, rook.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. (This is an attempt to have an objective look at the value of my work in a way that I suspect will be difficult to sustain.)
1. This Can Still Be the Year of Adrian Beltre, MLB.com. This was as light of a week as I’ve had in a long time.
2. The Toughest Player to Strike Out on Every Team, MLB.com. I think we might just label this The 30 and run it every Monday. It is fun to write.
3. Debate Club: The Top Five Non-Superhero Characters in the Marvel Universe, SYFY Wire. You gotta wait for Avengers thoughts until the podcast comes out tomorrow.
4. Other Acuna-esque Superstar Debuts, MLB.com. I can always say I saw him when.
THE WILL LEITCH SHOW
No show this week, but we have one in the can and are taping two more next week. Here’s a shot from the one coming next week.
Grierson & Leitch, “I Feel Pretty,” “Kodachrome,” “Super Troopers 2" and “Lost in Translation.”
Seeing Red, Bernie Miklasz and I discussed the first-place St. Louis Cardinals.
Waitin’ Since Last Saturday, no show this week.
I’m off to the Atlanta United game this afternoon. The only problem with soccer games with my sons is that the crowd stands the whole time and I have to lift him. Good for the arms, I guess.
Have a great weekend, all.