Mel Kiper, the NFL Draft and ESPN’s First Troll

You can draw a direct line from the 1994 NFL Draft to today’s sports media landscape. It all changed that day.

As soon as then-Colts general manager Bill Tobin said those words, the sports media world changed. The NFL changed. The NFL Draft changed. ESPN changed.

In fact, Mel Kiper’s entire existence was to troll the football establishment. He wasn’t a general manager or a coach – he was just a guy who watched a lot of game film. He was now giving out evaluations of players that, by virtue of his presence at the ESPN announce desk, gave him credibility.

mel kiper sucksThe NFL Draft was the perfect venue for trolling – and still is – because there is no immediate way to prove whether you’re right or wrong. Literally, everything about the event is conjecture. The mock drafts beforehand. The grades afterwards. They’re all meaningless.

Last year, Todd McShay ripped the Jets for drafting a guy who would turn out to be the Rookie of the Year. McShay is still an ESPN expert in 2014.

In 2010, Mel Kiper said Jimmy Clausen was a Top 5 talent and staked his job that Clausen would be an NFL starter. Clausen is out of the league. Kiper is still an ESPN expert in 2014.

How we got here started back during that 1994 NFL Draft – a relatively quaint ceremony compared to today’s bloated excess. It took place on a weekend afternoon. It did not dwarf the ratings of the NBA playoffs. It didn’t dominate news cycle after news cycle.

Then Mel Kiper opened his mouth and ripped the Colts for drafting Trev Alberts over Trent Dilfer. Kiper also, less famously, said, “You can’t win with Jim Harbaugh.” That would be the future Captain Comeback who led the Colts to the brink of the Super Bowl in 1995.

But it was Tobin who broke the golden rule – Do Not Feed the Trolls.

“Who the hell is Mel Kiper?”

With that one question, Tobin gave Mel Kiper life. Kiper is still employed today because of that moment. He had successfully lodged himself under the skin of a NFL general manager. It was the moment Kiper had been waiting for. When people think of the NFL Draft, Kiper’s back and forth with Tobin is usually their first memory, which is amazing since so few people actually saw it happen. It lives on through video and replays.

Even the NFL, during its largely uninspiring look back at past drafts, took such glee in recounting the encounter during its look at the 1994 NFL Draft. Remember, this a draft in which the Bengals passed on Marshall Faulk for Dan Wilkinson! How is that not a Oden over Durant debacle? And it was Tobin who picked Faulk!

Nope. Relegated to the sidelines. All we can focus on Kiper and Tobin bickering.

ESPN, for most of its existence until 1994, had let the sports and the athletes take the spotlight. Even the stars of the day – the Big Show and Kenny Mayne – were stars because of how they delivered the highlights.

Mel Kiper was the first ESPN personality that existed outside the vortex of athletic competition. He wasn’t an announcer or a color commentator. He wasn’t an interviewer or an anchor. He was the guy who stirred up shit before the NFL Draft.

It’s not like the notion that controversy causes cash was new in 1994, but it felt like the light bulb went off for everyone.

Over the course of the next 20 years, the sports media has morphed from covering stories to becoming stories. The introduction of the Internet further this change and social media made it easy for anyone to troll everybody on a daily basis.

If you ever spend a weekday at home with ESPN – as I did a couple weeks back as my dog recovered from surgery – you will be fed a day-long feast of trolling. The NFL Draft is an excuse for ESPN talking heads to bicker for months. The NBA playoffs are reason to defame Kevin Durant or mock Chris Paul.

I don’t want to feed the trolls but, unfortunately, I don’t have to. They are ubiquitous now. You can see them in your head without me mentioning them.

embrace debate
The guy who calls Chris Paul, CP0.

The guy who still rails on John Wall for a pregame dance nearly FOUR years ago.

The guy who trolls SEC fan bases.

The guy who trolls Teddy Bridgewater.

The guy who trolls Johnny Manziel.

Okay, so that last one is any NFL “expert” looking to get some retweets.

They’re all chasing Mel Kiper because he set the standard. One act of trolling and one willing participant has led to two decades of SportsCenter hits and national television coverage.

The trolls will come out again on Thursday like they do every year. Please, I beg, do not feed them. 

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