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Combine hard on NFL prospects

Researchers told it's invasive, degrading

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 12:24 a.m. MDT

Kansas City Chiefs coach Herm Edwards watches drills at the NFL combine. (Michael Conroy, Associated Press) Kansas City Chiefs coach Herm Edwards watches drills at the NFL combine. (Michael Conroy, Associated Press)
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."
Many fans like the NFL because its teams do not guarantee contracts, ensuring that their favorite teams are not burdened by paying players who underperform the expectations harbored by a team and its fans when the deal was signed.
Dufur, who said she plays fantasy football, acknowledged the disgust generated by guaranteed contracts in baseball and basketball. But she said the combine requires job applicants to undergo invasive procedures never experienced by most American job applicants.
"This is a labor market where the labor entry points are so restricted that the owner can require these things of you before they ever hire you," she said. "You and I are likely in jobs where once you're hired, the owners can require some things of you, such as making you work a number of years before your retirement vests. In a league like this, they can demand things of you, medical exams, the intelligence tests, and never pay you a dime."
The market is so restricted that players don't resist the NFL's requirements at all, despite expressing anger and anguish over having a single chance to run the 40-yard dash or being forced to submit to exams by different doctors for each team because the teams don't trust each other.
"It feels bad, but there's nothing you can do about it," one player said. "This is your dream."
Indeed, players don't resist because NFL jobs are precious. Only about 300 of 50,000 NCAA football players in a given year are invited to the combine.
There, each is assigned a position and a number. The first running back in the alphabet becomes known as "RB1" instead of by name. A scout told the researchers that a team hired a former U.S. Secret Service agent to obtain the juvenile records of 100 players, a potential violation of state laws.
The overall result is a mass meeting between management and potential new laborers that, Dufur said, "socializes these players into who's the boss. The message is that you're a cog in the machine."


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com

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