Combine hard on NFL prospects

Researchers told it's invasive, degrading

Published: Sunday, Feb. 24 2008 12:00 a.m. MST

Kansas City Chiefs coach Herm Edwards watches drills at the NFL combine.

Michael Conroy, Associated Press

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PROVO — Hundreds of thousands of football junkies are enjoying the NFL Network's live coverage of the scouting combine this weekend in Indianapolis, where Brigham Young University linebacker Bryan Kehl is trying out for a coveted job in the league.

Don't count on the players feeling the same way, according to a study by a Brigham Young University professor.

In fact, if the 300 NFL draft prospects subjecting themselves to workouts, bizarre intelligence tests, psychological screenings and prodding physical exams at this year's combine are like the players interviewed for the study, many will find the experience invasive at best and at times degrading.

Worst of all, perhaps, is that many black athletes will liken it to a slave market.

"It felt like being in jail without the bars," one black player told the researchers. "They're just really breaking you down, you know. They're just violating you. I mean, like violating you, period! With no kind of remorse. ... And you can tell they don't even care. They want to know information about you, and they don't care how they get it or how they embarrass you."

BYU professor Mikaela Dufur and Western Washington professor Seth Feinberg interviewed 43 players, five coaches and two scouts who participated in the combine between 1994 and 2004. They reviewed combine test results, scouting reports and player evaluations. They also did field research, attending "scouting days" at multiple universities and seven individual workouts.

As they collected more than 100 hours of interviews, they spent time with players at workouts and physical therapy sessions, met them in the VIP rooms of night clubs, hosted players at their homes and attended family picnics and draft parties.

The result was a paper titled "Artificially Restricted Labor Markets and Worker Dignity in Professional Football," which was published in October by the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.

The combine provides all 32 teams, or firms, in labor market terms, an opportunity to personally evaluate the best potential players, or workers.

"The thing we found most interesting was the scouts in particular felt the combine didn't provide any added value for the cost," Dufur said. "The scouts felt like they knew all that information already. In fact, they felt they knew more than was available at the combine."

That led the researchers to a disturbing conclusion.

"If it is true that NFL teams gain their best information prior to the combine," they wrote, "there seems little reason to demand the invasive evaluations of players other than to send the message that management is unquestionably in power within professional football."

The black players particularly felt humiliated by the process. Of the 22 blacks interviewed, 21 called the combine a "slave market" as they answered the 24 open-ended questions posed by researchers.

"It's pretty much a slave market," one said, "and we all know it, but we all know that this is the process you have to go through."

Players are not free to sign with the team that wants them most or provides them the best individual situation. The NFL labor market distributes new workers through the league's annual draft. Teams generally draft seven players and sign 13 free agents, most of whom participated in the combine and all of whom worked out for scouts. About three or four players earn jobs per team.

"The lack of additional jobs outside the NFL, coupled with the way the draft mechanism prevents players from offering their services to other teams, prevents even these elite athletes from exerting labor market power," Dufur and Feinberg wrote. "Where workers lack labor market power, employers are able to require invasive, dehumanizing and harmful demonstrations by workers who wish to be hired, even when those workers are highly sought and will receive high compensation."

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