Sports  Falling stock

The troubling world of football scouting

After the Manti Te’o fake dead girlfriend scandal (I never get tired of typing out the phrase “fake dead girlfriend”) in January 2013 – perhaps the greatest recent instance of the mainstream media tripping over itself to chase a heartwarming story – many sports fans and some writers speculated that Te’o is gay, and his fake dead girlfriend was merely a cover. This rumour, entirely speculative and created on the internet, was apparently convincing enough to lead a number of National Football League (NFL) teams at the 2013 NFL scouting combine to ask Te’o in private interviews if he is gay.

The NFL found itself in an awkward spot. Having just received a warning from the New York state attorney general that asking this question could be considered a discriminatory practice, the organization gently reminded the team’s managers that their prying questions were, in fact, constitutionally illegal. Te’o’s sexual orientation is none of their business.

As players are increasingly put under a microscope that disregards privacy and even decency, a disheartening pattern emerges. In an effort to make sure that their investments – the money a team will spend on a contract – are not wasted, scouting has become an increasingly problematic practice.

I’ll stop for a moment to explain the NFL scouting process, beginning with the combine. What began as a small get-together of scouts and players doing physical drills has, in the past decade, ballooned into a television spectacle. Most of the draft-eligible players go to Indianapolis, where they do drills. Coaches, general managers, and scouts watch vociferously, stopwatches around their necks, clipboards in their hands. Every physical metric is meticulously recorded and put into a file on the player. In a drill such as the forty-yard dash – which has become the most famous drill, overhyped to the point of ridiculousness – the difference between 4.7 seconds and 4.4 seconds can mean millions of dollars.

Between these drills, the players are interviewed by the media, and then have private interviews with most of the teams. Players also take an intelligence test called the Wonderlic – but more on that later. This is all done to give teams a good sense of the personality of the athletes in whom they might be investing millions of dollars. But, as the Te’o story illustrates, some teams have taken these interviews a little bit too far. Famously, in 2010, Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland angered prospect Dez Bryant by asking whether Bryant’s mother was a prostitute (after learning that his father was a “pimp”),  and publicly apologized for the question after the draft.

What does an NFL team want from their prospective employees? If possible, these 20- and 21-year-olds should have entirely mistake-free history – both on, and sometimes more crucially, off the field. Among college-age men, a clean record is hard to find, as many have experimented with alcohol and drugs. These relatively benign slip-ups earn the players heavy questioning in the draft process, as teams try to avoid recruiting someone with ‘character issues.’

The suspicion and questioning is not netted out to each player equally. As pointed out in a recent piece about white collegiate basketball star Marshall Henderson – who has a history of ‘off the court’ legal troubles, and  after his last game walked off the court while flipping off the crowd – white players and players of colour have very different experiences after they make mistakes. The white player falls into a redemptive narrative; players of colour are more often cast out and made to suffer more. In short, a player of colour with ‘character issues’ is far more likely to fall in the draft – often costing millions of dollars – than a white player.

Too much personality is also seen as a bad thing. Two years ago, Cam Newton, a black quarterback, was castigated by certain sectors of the sports media for stating his desire to become an “entertainer and icon.” The reaction was as if he had publicly declared he would like to ignore football entirely and focus on personal fame. A year later, Robert Griffin III, another black quarterback, seemed to have learned from Newton’s blunder – he wooed the press with funny interview answers and cool socks, while carefully avoiding saying outright that he wanted to be famous.

Still, big personalities like Griffin III lose out when compared to someone like Andrew Luck, a white quarterback who was taken in the draft just ahead of Griffin III. Luck was a consummate professional, all business. He presented himself as a personality-less football nerd – someone who would spend hours in the film room as opposed to, I don’t know, celebrity-ing – and was considered the safer pick over Griffin III.

What about the Wonderlic test, given to every player at the combine to supposedly test theur knowledge? The test asks players to answer SAT-like math and reasoning questions in a short amount of time. The inherent racial bias of standardized tests has been well-covered, but the Wonderlic raises an even more basic question: why on earth is it still administered? How exactly is knowing when the two trains will meet at all related to being really, really good at football? Reading a playbook and knowing what comes next in a pattern of numbers are, at best, spuriously related. And yet, every year, there’s a report of some highly touted prospect – almost always players of colour – scoring, out of a fifty-point scale, somewhere in the single digits. In draft season, this hurts the players’ draft stock. That’s right: a test tangentially related to the sport can have huge effects.

A draft in any sport should, at its base, be merit-based. A collegiate athlete’s production on the field, however, is often put in the backseat to ‘character issues,’ physical ‘measurables,’ and how well the player interviews. What do teams want? They want a football robot, devoted solely to the team, who won’t give the team bad PR. They want players to never make a mistake, and to always represent the team’s ‘brand’ positively. They want a guy comfortable giving blasé, clichéd quotes to the media day after day, not someone overly emotional. A commitment to the team is valued above all – willingness to risk life and limb, and to not be too much of a celebrity. A safe prospect – that is, the best prospect to an NFL team – is not too human.