It felt like the plot of either a low-grade teen-horror movie or a scene from a Richard Linklater film: Roughly 10 minutes before the 2016 NFL Draft, on the Twitter account of an offensive line prospect named Laremy Tunsil, a video appeared of a young man in a gas mask who looked a lot like Tunsil, and also happened to be inhaling a prodigious bong hit.
Was this the weirdest moment in modern NFL draft history? Was this one of the strangest moments in the entire shadowy history of Twitter, at least as it relates to professional sports? I think it was, and I think it was because it combined two of the most capricious American pastimes you can imagine: Social media, and the draft itself. Both are based almost entirely on fleeting impressions, on groupthink, on the tyranny of snap judgments and on the notion that any piece of negative information is potentially deterministic.
Laremy Tunsil, for reasons unknown, just happened to stumble into the vortex of all that. At the very least, he stole the spotlight away from Ezekiel Elliott’s crop top.
There are so many questions here, obviously, because even if this was Tunsil in the video, I can’t imagine that he was dumb enough to post it himself. And I know that there are legitimate questions about Tunsil’s background and family history and how that might affect his focus, and I know that perhaps if he didn’t already have those things in his background, this video might not have landed with the same impact. But you know what? It probably would have, because the NFL is a massive corporate engine that isn’t willing to acknowledge the notion that marijuana is now legal in several states, and I imagine if Tunsil had been slugging from a beer bong the Tennessee Titans wouldn’t have given much of a shit at all and might have snapped him up with the eighth pick. (If it had been a more violent video, given the rampant inconsistency of the NFL’s reactions to such incidents, who the hell knows?)
The bottom line is, somebody appeared to sabotage Tunsil – his Instagram account was also compromised – for whatever reason; somebody decided that if they had pieces of “evidence,” they might as well post them at the worst possible time. And because this is the NFL draft, and because every team is seeking a reason not to pick someone, Tunsil slid down the draft board, all the way to the Miami Dolphins at number 13. It is a video that may wind up costing him millions of dollars, and maybe your knee-jerk reaction is blame Tunsil for that. But maybe it also says something about our obsession with an event that is essentially an excuse to obsess over stupid things.
Over the past week, I spoke to quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, who wound up being the top two picks in the draft on Thursday night. In the process, they both had to endure bizarre snap judgments about their hand-size and about their ability to endure cold weather; they had to endure the prodigious stream of third-hand rumors and misinformation and half-truths that wound up emanating out of every mock draft they came across. This is what happens with the draft, and with pretty much everything else in modern life: The negative information piles up to the point that, as quarterback Ryan Lindley – who coached Goff and Wentz in the lead-up to the draft – told me, “All of sudden, some teams don’t want to pick anybody in the first couple of rounds.”
I suppose, in a way, this is what we want. I suppose this is why the NFL is perhaps the most compelling soap opera in this country. As Goff told me the other day, the NFL needs the draft to be played out over the course of months in order to maintain fan interest throughout the otherwise stultifying months of the offseason. This is what Laremy Tunsil unwittingly provided to a pro football audience craving drama; whoever posted that video was conducting a social experiment, and at least for a few moments, for a few picks of this circus of an evening, panic and snap judgment wound up prevailing, as it so often does. I don’t have any idea if Laremy Tunsil will be a boom or a bust, but he just proved that, in both professional football and social media, the whim of the moment is all that matters.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb