“When did you lose your virginity?"
These are just a small sampling of the questions asked over the past several years at the NFL Scouting Combine by team representatives to potential draftees. The latter of which was asked at this year’s Combine to former University of Texas CB Kris Boyd. To his credit, Boyd answered, “Yes. I don’t know why you got to ask.” That’s the question. Why do they have to ask?
On its surface, they are seemingly strange questions to ask during an extensive job interview process. You certainly couldn’t ask questions like that in the private sector to a prospective employee without facing a lawsuit. But most people chalk this bizarre line of questioning up to the culture and nature of football and the NFL.
The league’s most ardent defenders will tell you, owners are investing millions of dollars into their potential future employees. They need to discern how well these guys “think on their feet.” These “outside the box” questions will give teams as much insight as possible into the “character” and “make up” of these players. Are we sure? This line of questioning has been asked for years, yet the NFL still has issues with player conduct off the field. What are all these “smart men” in the front offices doing with the information they gather from these intensive sessions? It doesn’t seem like they’re doing much, beyond engaging in a practice and a power dynamic that goes back to the founding of this country.
Such is the plight of an NFL hopeful. Over several days potential draftees strip down to their underwear and are weighed, measured, poked, prodded and dissected. They do a series of agility, strength and general fitness tests as well. Team officials obsess over hand size, buttocks size, girth, speed and strength. Potential draftees also sit through a variety of intelligence tests like the Wonderlic and are then grilled individually during the team interviews. Does any part of that process sound familiar to you?
“The slaves remained at the race-course, some of them for more than a week and all of them for four days before the sale. They were brought in thus early that buyers who desired to inspect them might enjoy that privilege, although none of them were sold at private sale. For these preliminary days their shed was constantly visited by speculators. The negroes were examined with as little consideration as if they had been brutes indeed; the buyers pulling their mouths open to see their teeth, pinching their limbs to find how muscular they were, walking them up and down to detect any signs of lameness, making them stoop and bend in different ways that they might be certain there was no concealed rupture or wound; and in addition to all this treatment, asking them scores of questions...” an account of “The Great Slave Auction” in 1859 as written in "Slave Auction, 1859", EyeWitness to History.
Yes, it’s true, these players trade on their body, so it makes sense that all of this physical info and data needs to be collected. But why the line of questioning that at its core reduces these players to something less than? To be fair, all players that attend the Combine are available to be asked these types of questions. No doubt, many non Black players have been asked unnecessary and ridiculous questions, yet none of them seem to be as outlandish, and visceral, as the questions that began this piece. For the record, those questions were all asked by players that identify as Black. According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), 70 percent of NFL players are Black. The Combine likely has a similar demographic breakdown. So, you do the math on who is subjected to the worse line of questioning.
If you listen, you can hear them. Those ardent NFL defenders. “These athletes make millions of dollars, so what if they have to answer weird questions! Nobody is forcing them to play football. If they don’t like it, they can do something else. They aren’t slaves. This isn’t slavery.” Agreed. It is certainly not slavery. Not in the 18th and 19th century image of slavery burned into our collective consciousness. But follow the lineage of the Black athlete from plantations, where sports were introduced, to sanctioned slave fighting, to boxing, and the crowning of the first Black heavyweight champion, the integration of baseball, all the way up to the present day.* Black bodies largely on display for public consumption. In her collection of essays titled The Black Interior, Elizabeth Alexander writes: “Black bodies in pain for public consumption have been an American national spectacle for centuries.”
There is something about young 20-something-year-old Black males being asked these questions by primarily white males who control their future earning potential that just doesn’t sit right. If it doesn’t bother you, it should. What exactly are we doing by essentially ignoring this type of behavior and allowing the NFL to conduct its business in this manner? Why are they allowed to get away with this behavior?
The easy and most obvious answer is, because they can. The power dynamics makes it clear. Both externally, through the league’s power and league media, and the internal process itself. For the majority of the young men at the Combine, playing professional football is not only a lifelong dream, but the only way they are presently equipped to earn a living. There aren’t many players at the Combine that are Rhodes or Fulbright Scholars. Very few had the ability to take advantage of the “free education” they were offered at the collegiate level. These young men are at the mercy of team executives because they need these jobs. There are very few players that would vehemently object to the line of questioning and walk out from the interview for the obvious fear of not being selected in the draft. So instead, these players are subject to the humiliation at the hands of mainly white team executives.
The idea that these types of questions are necessary is ludicrous. The NFL is a multibillion dollar business. If they truly wanted to ascertain how quickly players think on their feet, or test their emotional intelligence, and/or see how they respond to a hostile environment, they could hire any number of experts in the fields of cognitive behavior, personality, and psychological fields. But they don't. They allow amateurs in front offices to dehumanize these young men with abhorrent questions.
“Come on. This is the sensitive PC society America has turned into. Far worse things are said between players on the field.” Yes, on the field of play it is known that players say all sorts of wild, disgusting things to each other in the heat of battle. No argument here. But there is a key difference. That is on the field in a peer-to-peer situation. The Combine interview process is not that. It is ownership and team executives speaking to potential players. The power dynamics there is very different and heavily slanted to one side. There isn’t a whole lot these players can do without major repercussions. Why should they be subjected to that type of verbal assault during a job interview?
While the NFL Scouting Combine was going on, about 950 miles away in Boston, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was taking place. During one of the panels, Patrick Lucey, the vice president of artificial intelligence at STATS, said the following: “What we need to measure is athletes in the wild. We do it in the lab and the Combine, but what matters is how they play live.” An easy comment to let slip by without a second thought. To be fair, we can’t say Lucey had any underlying thoughts or beliefs to imply. But we must change the language we use when talking to and about athletes (primarily Black bodies) and sports. When you hear or read the phrase “in the wild,” what immediately comes to mind? Words are so powerful, and who is saying them matters. Regardless of their physical talent and feats of athletic prowess, they are human beings first.
This is not the first thinkpiece to compare the NFL Scouting Combine to a slave auction, and it most certainly won’t be the last. Noted author and journalist Matt Taibbi once referred to the process as having a “creepy slave-auction vibe and armies of drooling, flesh-peddling scouts.” But when the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine comes around and we hear about another set of dehumanizing, abhorrent line of questioning, we need to ask ourselves, “What are we doing? Is this necessary, all in the name of football?” If our collective response is to let it continue, then it is a clear reflection on who we are as a society.
*If you want a closer look at the connection, read legendary sports columnist and author William C. Rhoden’s seminal work “Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete.”
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
(Photo: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)