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The true story of the NFL draft and the competition it really affects

Let's not miss what's really going on in the annual National Football League draft amid the televised drama and public spectacle in Grant Park that begins next week in Chicago.

This parceling out of exclusive negotiating rights to exiting college players has always been presented, even from its low-key inception in a Philadelphia hotel 80 years ago, as a way to ensure competitive balance by giving bad teams first crack at better incoming players.

An added benefit for NFL owners, however — arguably the greatest benefit — is that the draft denies college stars the windfall of potential bidding wars among multiple teams, keeping salaries lower than they might otherwise have been.

That may have been a necessity in what once was a modestly popular pro sport with some franchises on unsteady financial footing.

It's more of a perk for the already well-heeled, however, in an era of multibillion-dollar television revenue shared leaguewide in which teams leverage cities against each other to fund palatial stadiums lined with obscenely expensive suites.

Imagine if the world's leading law firms, corporations, banks and Wall Street houses were to convene each spring to divvy up exclusive rights to the creme de la creme of the latest class of MBAs and law school grads.

Probably more fun to watch on TV than participate.

"Of course, some people saw in the draft an aspect of selfishness on the part of the owners," Chicago Bears founding father George Halas observed in his 1979 autobiography. "They claimed we were trying to hold down salaries by reducing the negotiating rights of the best players. There is some truth in this argument."

Halas, whom Mike Ditka famously observed threw nickels around as if they were manhole covers, believed the draft did in fact level NFL clubs.

He thought that made the sport more attractive, which created bigger audiences. That brought in more revenue so players could be paid more.

Just because players could be paid more and would be paid more — a lot more, eventually — doesn't mean they've ever been paid as much as they otherwise would, especially in the beginning.

As Craig Coenen noted in "From Sandlots to the Super Bowl," the New York Giants in 1936 tried to slash the salary of future Hall of Famer Ken Strong from $6,000 to $3,200 "simply because management believed that the newly instituted NFL draft made large salaries obsolete."

Strong instead opted to spend some time playing in a rival league, an option not available these days. He eventually would return to the Giants to close out a standout NFL career interrupted by World War II service.

Bert Bell, a future NFL commissioner who campaigned for the draft, argued that it was a necessity so weaker teams such as his Philadelphia Eagles could compete with wealthier, more attractive franchises such as the Bears and Giants.

His Eagles earned the first pick of the first draft with a 2-9 finish in 1935. They wounding up unable to close deals with any of the nine players they selected in '36 and finished 1-11. Even worse, they failed to score in half their games that season.

Then, as ever, draft order was not nearly as important as knowing personnel, developing players, good coaching, solid execution. Middle-round selections — players available to every team — are critical in building the core of a championship franchise.

Bell, who would be the first NFL commissioner to acknowledge the players union formed 60 years ago, is famous for the line that "on any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team."

It's true, although some teams have a tendency to beat themselves and, despite high draft picks, easier schedules and other initiative to promote parity, those given Sundays don't necessarily translate to Super Bowl Sunday.

There are 32 teams in the NFL, there have been 50 Super Bowls and, to date, roughly 28 percent of those teams have won 74 percent of the Super Bowls. Almost 41 percent, meanwhile, have yet to rack up even one Super Bowl victory, and four clubs have yet to even reach the big game.

Few remember that the NFL draft nearly went away when a federal judge in 1976 ruled in favor of Jim "Yazoo" Smith (whose career ended with an injury as a rookie with Washington) in his antitrust case.

A defensive back from Oregon chosen 12th overall in the first round of the joint 1968 NFL/AFL draft, Smith argued in Smith v. Pro Football that he would have made more that $50,000 in his one pro season had the draft not unfairly restricted his ability to bargain.

Before an appeals court could weigh in on the ruling, however, the NFL and the NFL Players Association came to terms on the draft in early 1977 as a part of their collective bargaining agreement.

Other sports leagues salvaged their drafts with similar union accords, and the status quo held.

The NFL draft remains, as Robert Lipsyte observed 48 years ago in The New York Times, "a two-day beef exchange that critics believe is somewhat more libertarian than outright slavery but somewhat more restrictive than indentured servitude."

There's no question it affects competition, but it's not necessarily what plays out on the field.

philrosenthal@tribpub.com

Twitter @phil_rosenthal

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