The Offensive Absurdity of the NFL Combine

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Jake,

Do you like girls? Do you really like girls? Do you like the television show Girls? Here's a Real Doll: Do you need a flashlight and a map? Because I need answers. Lots of them. As much personal data as I can gather. How quickly can you type 40 words? What was your SAT score? Who cuts your hair? Do they like girls? The more I think I know about you, the more I can feel like I'm doing my homework, the more certain and secure I'll feel about an inherently insecure, uncertain proposition—namely, the messy business of predicting future human behavior.

And to think: I'm not even an NFL general manager.

Look, a pro football team asking a potential draftee about his sexual preferences is inarguably stupid. Probably discriminatory. Possibly illegal. From a civil-rights standpoint—not to mention basic human dignity and respect—it's appalling. Yet all of that said, it's also ... not surprising. The entire NFL scouting combine—the poking, the prodding, the bench pressing, the "Bod Pod," the personality evaluation questionnaires, the procession of muscular young men in form-fitting underwear parading around for old guys who un-ironically ask questions such as do you like girls?—is a giant exercise in cover-your-ass pretend science, in collecting a bunch of information that may or may not have a whit of value when it comes to predicting football performance.

Why do I call it "pretend science?" Because in real science, experiments can be repeated to test and retest hypotheses and confirm or refute conclusions. Drop an apple from a tree; it falls. Drop the same apple from the same tree under the same conditions; it will fall the same way. Congratulations: Add in some math to describe what you can observe and measure, and you're on your way to understanding gravity. Thanks, Isaac Newton! The NFL combine is different. Former NFL lineman Mike Mamula reportedly scored a 49 out of 50 on the Wonderlic intelligence test. He was a complete bust. Former quarterback Dan Marino reportedly scored a 15. He's a Hall of Famer. These aren't anomalies; there are many, many, many great players who posted lousy Wonderlic scores. What does that tell you? It tells you that the test reliably predicts nothing when it comes to on-field success—that it produces noise, not signals—and that in employing the test for decades, NFL teams might be the ones who need an intelligence screen.

The entire NFL scouting combine—the poking, the prodding, the personality evaluation questionnaires—is a giant exercise in pretend science that may or may not predict football performance.

Actually, I take that back. Teams aren't being moronic. They're just being craven. Somehow, some way, the Wonderlic became an accepted thing, a part of doing player-evaluation business, one more number that helps scouts and general managers and front office executives alike check boxes on a spreadsheet or shuffle names on a big board and sleep more soundly thinking they're being responsible and diligent. I understand the instinct: It's not wholly unreasonable to think that players who run slower 40-yard-dash times might generally be slower in a pad-wearing, direction-and-speed changing game situation; that players who struggle on a standardized cognitive test might generally have trouble mastering a complex playbook; that players who are gay might generally have issues fitting in with a locker-room culture that may be more homophobic than society as a whole. The problem? Generalities can never, ever predict specific, individual human behavior with anything approaching a degree of certainty. We're the intelligent apes, and also the constantly surprising ones.

In pretending otherwise, NFL teams are basically Linus from "Peanuts," wrapping themselves in a security blanket that's actually just a piece of cloth. In a way, do you like girls? is just a crude, misguided stand-in for another, more important question, one that neither the league nor its job applicants can ever answer ahead of time: Can you play football?

–Patrick

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