Mel Kiper Jr. was born in Baltimore in 1960. He seems to have had a fairly normal upbringing. He went to Calvert Hall, a Catholic prep school in Towson, Maryland. His dad was a baseball coach, but Mel Jr. was no prodigious talent. He wisely gave up the sport and headed to community college, where he might have gone into any number of useful professions. Somewhere along the way, though, something went horribly wrong. Mel Kiper, Jr. invented a job: he became an NFL draft expert.
In 1981 Kiper Jr. founded Kiper Enterprises and started putting out reports on college football players, measuring their “athleticism” and “productivity.” Since then, he’s been at the forefront of two of the most insidious trends in the sports analysis industry: over-specialization and commodification. He spends 362 days a year devoting himself to one day. “I start getting ready [for the next draft] three days after the end of this draft,” he has said. “Once I put a final exclamation point on this draft by grading each team, that’s when the next draft begins for me.” By repetition, Kiper Jr. tries to convince us that he has some greater insight – and that we should care.
Kiper has also helped reinvent sports-casting by borrowing heavily from the language of Wall Street. His ESPN articles look like business reports, charting the “stock” – “stock” is the keyword – of each player. As they increase or decrease in value, players move up and down on his Big Board. He is like a commodities broker or, more precisely, a consultant to a commodities broker, an analyst of the fluctuating ephemera of opinion, a parasite’s parasite. Kiper Jr. concerns himself less with the players as such than with their meaning in the marketplace.
But it’s not even the accuracy of his assessments that’s important to the Kiper Enterprises draft industry; it’s commitment. There is something admirable after all about inventing a field of expertise and then leading it into larger and larger realms without ever betraying the slightest bit of self-doubt. One of the most amusing Kiper Jr. episodes, the one that may have helped launch his brand, involved an argument in 1994 with Colts GM Bill Tobin. That year the Colts, who had Jim Harbaugh as quarterback, chose linebacker Trev Alberts over QB Trent Dilfer. Kiper Jr. took issue with this selection. It doesn’t matter so much that neither Kiper Jr. nor Tobin turned out to be totally in the right (Harbaugh played well for the Colts, but Dilfer had a much better career than Alberts). What caught the attention of obsessive fans was the argument between them. In an interview right after the selection, Tobin erupted unprompted into a tirade against Kiper Jr.:
“Who in the hell is Mel Kiper, anyway? I mean, here’s a guy who criticizes everybody, whoever they take. He’s got the answers to who you should take, to who you shouldn’t take. He tells us about your team. He tells us about the Rams. Mel Kiper is a tortoise. He tells us about Tampa and everything else. In my knowledge of him, he’s never even put on a jockstrap, he’s never been a player, he’s never been a coach, he’s never been a scout, he’s never been an administrator, and all of a sudden, he’s an expert. He’s in our paper two days ago, telling us who we have to take. We don’t have to take anybody that Mel Kiper says we have to take. Mel Kiper has no more credentials to do what he’s doing than my neighbor, and my neighbor’s a postman and he doesn’t even have season tickets to the NFL.”
Tobin may have been right about his postman for all I know, but I’m sure his postman didn’t have Kiper Jr.‘s famous hair.
As for the success of his picks, Kiper Jr. has had some winners like Curtis Martin and Isaac Bruce, whom teams underrated on draft day. On the other hand, he said Ryan Leaf, who is now considered the archetype of the NFL flop, was a sure star. “In terms of leadership ability,” Kiper Jr. wrote, “Leaf is respected by his teammates who realize there isn’t a tougher, more confident QB out there.” Leaf was a head case who imploded.
Football Outsiders, the statistically-focused website has assessed Kiper’s yearly selections of overrated and underrated players. “On balance, Kiper appears to be neither a genius at spotting talent,” they concluded, “nor the hapless clown that some of his detractors portray him to be.” In other words, he’s just like your average postman, except he has season tickets.