Let's be charitable, to the extent possible: some of what makes ESPN's Merril Hoge such a clownish figure is Merril Hoge, but a lot of it is Merril Hoge's job. There is even a sense in which Merril Hoge -- the barking anthropomorphized Slim Jim and former NFL fullback filling the role of Designated NFL Draft Heel at ESPN, and devoted anti-apostle of Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney -- is good at this terrible job.
NFL Draft Dada-Speak
NFL Draft Dada-Speak
We are edging out into some meta-performative territory, here, which is maybe not a good idea given that we're talking about a man with a perfectly rectangular head, a tie knot the size and thickness of a regulation volleyball, and some extremely overstated and contrarian opinions about various famous young football players. But if Merril Hoge is not necessarily good at assessing the qualities of NFL Draft prospects, or even appreciably more thoughtful about it than the doofs engaging in grump-o Scott Pioli Cosplay in various comment sections, we should at least consider the possibility that it is actually Merril Hoge's job to be wrong, in the most strident possible way.
And while Hoge is not quite as virtuosic at this dubiously necessary gig as Skip Bayless, the leatherette lava god of molten-hot takes, we might as well give credit where it's due. Dude is not just ready but eager to stake out unpopular positions, and then just continue to stake them out. The facts will shift, he will be exposed, but Hoge will still drive those stakes further and further down into the earth. Down and down he drives them, until Hoge is staring the devil himself in the face, squinting out something about how Johnny Manziel is definitely, definitely going to be a bust.
ESPN's Merril Hoge called Jadeveon Clowney's fundamentals "atrocious." "Not a very good football player .. Gets controlled & trucked a lot."— Evan Silva (@evansilva) April 21, 2014
This is not all wrong! There are some things that Clowney does not yet do as well as he should, and which he will probably do better as he develops. Stephen White gave them a thoughtful going-over not very long ago. Hoge, who has been in and around football his entire life and so presumably knows something about it, is not making those points. Instead, he's just doing what he does: saying a thing, and then saying it louder and louder until the camera cuts away, at which point he may well continue saying it, but is at least and at last out of earshot.
The issue, here, is not that Hodge is ceaselessly, stridently wrong in his assessments of various NFL prospects. That wrongness is a problem for ESPN, maybe, at least among the people -- and we might as well assume they exist -- that persist in watching the network's endless and antic NFL Draft coverage as news, instead of as unwittingly vicious satire on the idea of a 24-hour sports network. But the wrongness is decidedly not a problem for Hoge, professionally, both because most everyone involved in the NFL player evaluation process is ceaselessly, stridently wrong and because Hoge's job is not to be un-wrong, but to produce piping-hot takes on demand, first and last and always.
There is something almost unseemly about how well suited Hoge is for this task. Relentless braying certitude and a simultaneous tendency to be hostile to young strangers are not especially sought-after personality traits, for obvious reasons. But they're necessities for those making a living in the business of NFL Draft kayfabe-ry, and they seem to come quite naturally to Hoge. He exists beyond right or wrong, beyond insight or introspection. ESPN pays him to be very specifically this way.
Life, for most of us, is a series of didactic humblings -- we are wrong, constantly, and we learn from it or don't; we learn to feel sorry and apologize or we don't. This tends to quiet us down, as time goes by, but it builds us up, too. When we learn to be quiet, to take a minute and think, to honor opinions other than ours and recognize that the world is larger than the part of it near enough to hear us yelling about whatever we're yelling about, we are growing, and growing stronger. This is important for us, and good.
But it's not for Merril Hoge, because it is not what ESPN's coverage of the NFL Draft is about. This is a fantasy place -- a place where being wrong has no consequences, ruled by various rum-dummy-dum fatuities about martial virtue and Knowing How To Win, and where men talk loudly, all the time and without doubt.
The broadcasts beamed from that place are, accordingly, less about improving or illuminating than maintaining -- a consistent level of noise, a consistent churn of slides and surges and rises and falls and little micro-controversies to fill the time between now and the draft. Hoge's job, more than anything else, depends upon him staying exactly the same, and being wrong in exactly the same ways, every year about this time.
Merril Doge by James Dator.