The Offensive Absurdity of the NFL Combine

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The yearly off-season pro-football recruiting event is kind of like a dog show—except with human contestants who get asked about their sexual preferences.

banner_AP combine RT.jpg
AP / Michael Conroy

Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic) , and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) discuss the bizarre antics of the off-season circus known as the NFL combine.


Gentlemen,

Did you grow up racing your friends 120 feet down the block to prove who was the best athlete? Do you take personalty tests that spit out two-digit scores with little if any correlation to your professional abilities? Do you enjoy being asked inappropriate, potentially illegal questions about your sex life? If so, the NFL is ready for you!

Last week was the 2013 NFL combine, the pre-draft event where top college football players are turned into numbers on the scoresheets of pro teams. Despite how obviously asinine it is to differentiate players based on their 40-yard dash times or Wonderlic scores rather than their body of work as a college football player, the league sends out its top talent evaluators year after year to find the next diamond in the rough. You know, the same scouts who saw a slightly pudgy Michigan quarterback at the 2000 combine and were so turned off en masse that the QB fell to the sixth round and 199th pick overall. I'm talking, of course, about Tom Brady.

The latest pre-draft absurdity is the pointed, if not patently offensive, questions about sexual behavior and orientation that many prospects have reported being asked during interviews. The queries are most likely a reaction to the Manti Te'o story and the potential that some players may be hiding their homosexuality from the world, and by extension their potential future employers in the NFL. Colorado tight end Nick Kasa said Tuesday that at least one team asked him, among other things, whether he has a girlfriend and whether he likes girls.

If Kasa's allegation is true, I don't even know where to begin haranguing. First off, the question could be illegal depending on the state privacy laws of the unnamed team that talked to Kasa. Second, what business it is of an NFL team whether a prospect is heterosexual, homosexual, asexual, pansexual, or has illicit sex with space aliens? A manager at Wal-Mart doesn't have the right to ask that question in many states, and if a corporation did that at all there would be a huge (and justifiable) backlash from the public. Finally, why in God's name would an NFL team think a prospective draft pick would tell the truth even if he were gay? There's a reason that there are "no gay people" in the NFL despite the fact that between two and 10 percent of the population identify as homosexual (depending on who you ask). It's that there are gay men in the league, but the stigma against homosexuality in the NFL is so obvious and pervasive that they know better than to speak up. Questions like the ones Kasa was allegedly asked only make that stigma more obvious and better display the absurdity that is the combine.

Am I way off base here, guys?

–Jake

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

Guys,

Can you two just give it a rest? The only thing more grating than people who take the NFL combine too seriously is people who take themselves too seriously complaining about it.

Sure, the combine is a high-dollar meat market. Yes, the system is a little creepy and sometimes silly. But the combine is a chance to talk about football even in the dead of winter. So what's the harm? Better yet, the combine is an absolutely glorious example of the NFL's genius for turning absolutely nothing into national news.

Make fun of the 40-yard dash and the dumb interview questions all you want. If you are an NFL executive who is considering giving a kid a contract worth millions of dollars, it makes sense to get all the information you possibly can—however useless anyone else may deem it.

The combine is an absolutely glorious example of the NFL's genius for turning absolutely nothing into national news.

But what's really remarkable is that the interview itself can be an engine for stirring debate. Some NFL player-personnel guy happens to ask a prospect an inappropriate question about sex. Bam! Suddenly it's time for the country to have a conversation about gay athletes in sports. Wow. In other words, the NFL setting the agenda as always.

There's more combine to come as well. According to the NFL Network, plans are underway to give the combine a reality TV-based format. Those 40-yard dashes you guys hate? They could be turned into races between draft prospects, as they compete at regional combines for a spot at the big event in Indy.

The show wouldn't only be about vertical leaps, either. A TV program about the combine that told real stories about young men trying to live their pro football dreams could make for incredibly compelling stuff. Who knows, one day the show might even have an openly gay player trying to make the league? And wouldn't that spark a little debate? Guess what? I'd watch. Last year's record combine viewership of 6.51 million would probably watch with me. And, don't even lie, you guys would be watching too.

–Hampton

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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