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The NFL draft is everything that’s good and terrible about sports

ESPN’s comments on Gareon Conley’s sexual assault investigation were a good reminder: Not everything has to be filtered through the lens of sports.

For the No. 21 overall pick of the 2017 NFL draft, I got to sit in a chair, on a set, and geek out about Jarrad Davis with some buds.

Davis is, in my opinion, exactly the player the Detroit Lions needed. He’s versatile, and fast, and can thump runners and rush passers. He can do every job in the front seven, which is good, because the Lions need everything up front.

But what makes Davis truly special, in my mind, is this:

RUDE. TO. COMPANY.

NFL.com scouting reports are famous for their weird and obtuse player descriptions. Davis’ is one of the weirdest and most obtuse I have ever seen. What does it mean to be rude to company? I have no idea, but it’s listed as a strength! Presumably, Davis once insulted a draft scout’s meat loaf at a dinner party, and the scout, stunned, immediately moved Davis up his draft board for his gall and cuss.

For admittedly selfish reasons (not puking on camera was also big for me), Davis’ selection was my favorite moment of the NFL draft.

Then three picks later, the network crews showed how gross the NFL draft can be

The Oakland Raiders took cornerback Gareon Conley No. 24 overall. He is well worth a first round selection as a player. He is also under investigation for sexual assault. Those are two separate truths. Network talking heads could have handled this situation by stepping back and addressing those distinct realities on their own. Instead, they elided Conley the Person and Conley the Player, and looked terrible.

Jon Gruden and Louis Riddick on ESPN, and Mike Mayock on NFL Network, seemingly asserted Conley’s innocence because, as Gruden put it, “I know Reggie McKenzie, and I know [the Raiders] have done extensive research and homework — and I think they trust this kid and they believe 100 percent that he is innocent, or they wouldn’t have done this.”

That’s nonsense. Nobody — not Gruden, nor anybody — should be attempting to read into a criminal investigation because of what their friends think, and they most certainly shouldn’t do it live in front of a huge national audience. Gruden, Riddick, and Mayock did a grossly irresponsible thing by pseudo-adjudicating a case before a final determination has been made by the people who are directly involved.

The reason the NFL draft can be so fun sometimes is the same reason why football is often so terrible

Everything I know about Jarrad Davis I learned in 24 hours, but I already love him. Scratch that. I love my projection of him. He played the position the Lions needed more than any, and according to the half dozen things I read, he seems like a decent human being. This is all the information I need to proclaim him the savior who will win the Lions a division title for the first time in 24 years.

This is blind, irresponsible exuberance, but sometimes I can’t help myself. In any case, I don’t feel much obliged to fix the part of me that goes overboard in excitement for players I barely know. That’s part of the fun of sports, to me: the abandon with which we ascribe our feelings onto athletes. (Hi, you already know this, but sports wouldn’t have any real world importance at all except as a receptacle to dump all our extremely human thoughts and emotions.)

But by projecting onto players, we also make them caricatures — i.e., something that is the general shape of who they are, but skewed to represent ideas or truths — and that’s not fair. Athletes won’t ever move the mountains, and they don’t embody the extreme ends of Good and Evil as often as we say they do.

Which brings us back to Conley, who certainly deserves a fair process to determine, to the best that impartial parties can figure out, what happened. That’s the other thing: Gruden, Riddick, and Mayock didn’t do any favors for the rookie cornerback, either. Their defense had nothing to do with Conley the Person and everything to do with Conley the Decision By The Raiders Front Office and what he projected about a group of people they are close with.

By sticking up for Reggie McKenzie, they made Conley a pawn in a dichotomous debate. Make no mistake: Gruden, Riddick, and Mayock are company men. Their jobs were to look at the 2017 NFL draft class from the eyes of general managers, and it should be no surprise that they in turn took the GM’s point of view.

Please just sports with caution

The NFL draft is one of the world’s largest and most-watched metaphorical meat markets. In a span of seconds, screen crawls, talking heads, tweets, and obtuse scouting reports all do their best to illustrate prospects starting with the most basic facts like height and weight and going from there. Try as they might, however, they’re not nearly equipped to accurately depict someone who is the summation of two decades worth of experience, nor are they good at covering a subject like sexual assault with any nuance.

The NFL draft is stupid. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Most of the time, it’s pretty fun! You learn a lot of odd things about a lot of odd people who you didn’t pay much attention to at the college level but who will become familiar faces for years to come. The NFL draft works best as a celebration of gifted men who worked incredibly hard for a privileged and lucrative opportunity. It is really cool that beneath the talent and the work ethic, we get to know personalities and quirks that also reflect ourselves.

But any one of the 32 individual players who were selected in the first round on Thursday night are not me, or you, or anyone else but themselves. That may seem obvious, but it’s worth reiterating because that point is also antithetical to what it means to be a fan.

It’s OK to get caught up in the passion of sports, but just remember — and this is a reminder to myself as much as to anyone — to do so responsibly. Not every aspect of an athlete has to be filtered through sports, nor do sports illuminate as much about a person as we think they do. Players can be whatever we project them to be. There are times when we need to switch the projector off and accept what we don’t know, however. The 24th pick was one of those moments.