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NEW YORK - APRIL 29: (L-R) Mel Kiper, Chris Mortensen, Michael Irvin, Tom Jackson and Chris Berman of ESPN broadcast their coverage during the 2006 NFL Draft on April 29, 2006 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, New York. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Ranking players for the NFL draft has always been an inexact science, but ESPN’s Mel Kiper has made a career out of arbitrarily ranking players and having those rankings taken as gospel. You can get away with such ruses when you have hair as nice as Mel’s.
People have long suspected that Kiper is chummy with agents and sometimes ranks players higher as a favor to those agents, but those claims have never been fully busted out in the open. Until this week, thanks to Sports Illustrated’s massive tell-all from former agent Josh Luchs, who claims to have paid players money throughout his entire early career, and says paying players is all but standard procedure in college football.
In that expose, Luchs claims that his former boss, Gary Wichard, once used Kiper to help him land a client, Stanford defensive lineman Willie Howard, who was drafted in the second round by Minnesota and had his career cut short by injuries.
Gary also used his contacts in the media to help him recruit. In 2000, before a meeting with Stanford defensive lineman Willie Howard, Gary arranged for ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper to call. Gary and I were talking to Willie in Gary's office when Gary's phone rang, and he put it on speakerphone.
"Viper, how are you?" Gary said. That's what he called Mel, Viper or Vipe. "Viper, I'm sitting here with the best defensive lineman in college football. Do you know who that is?"
"You must be with Willie Howard," Mel said.
Gary used Mel like that all the time. In the agent business, people know Gary and Mel are close, and some people suspect that Mel ranks players more favorably if they are Gary's clients.
Personally, I don’t particularly care if Mel Kiper counts cronyism as a factor when adjusting his rankings. This is because those rankings are, inherently, meaningless. Totally meaningless. They’re so meaningless, Mel changes them every week just so he has a new article to publish. Any reasonable NFL fan knows Mel is full of it. But that’s the point. Mel Kiper is an enjoyable entertainer because he’s so passionate about selling his own, utterly unique brand of BS.
But that BS is solely dependent on Mel’s audience wanting to buy it. To like Mel Kiper, you have to suspend your disbelief and take all his goofy rankings as gospel. And it’s harder to buy into that when you read that he used his stature as a draft analyst to help an agent recruit players.
If you’re someone who is big on the supposed purity of college athletics, you’ll probably want Kiper’s head on a stick for all this. But I could care less about NCAA rules or any of that nonsense. All I care about is watching the NFL Draft in April and watching Mel get all worked up about Jimmy Clausen falling to the second round. Mel is, at heart, an entertainer.
But is he a worse entertainer now, when you have a harder time suspending your disbelief when watching him? After this report, it’s hard to listen to anything Kiper says without shrugging it off. And once you tune Kiper out, his whole reason for being is extinguished. That could, ultimately, get him run off the air.
ESPN has already stated that they are looking into the matter.