Today is one of those days in which the NFL has made a good decision. It doesn’t happen often. The decision to add an extra game to the schedule in a sport that can cause brain damage, during a world-wide pandemic, might be a short term financial win, but it’s making the product worse and is ethically problematic. However, the changes the NFL is making to the scouting combine are much needed.
Two of the biggest changes are that the Wonderlic test will no longer be administered, and teams are forbidden from asking prospects inappropriate questions. Any team that is found to have asked a draft prospect a question that crosses the line can be fined up to $150,000 and possibly lose a draft pick between rounds 1 and round 4, per the Associated Press.
Ahh yes, that wonderful racial dog whistle known as the Wonderlic test. We all know that the best way to judge the aptitude of a professional athlete is to see how many word puzzles they can solve in 12 minutes. The purpose of the test is to judge a player’s problem-solving skills when given a limited amount of time — kind of like how a football play lasts only a few seconds so a player must respond instinctively.
At face value, it would make sense to use this test as a tool in evaluating NFL prospects, except for the fact that football is a very specific skillset. Players invited to the NFL scouting combine have likely been studying and practicing football plays for a decade. Their bodies and minds are trained to react in seconds on a crossing route or a pulling guard, not to figure out the next number in a sequence on the fly.
Which is why Donovan McNabb scored a 14, the lowest of any quarterback in the 1999 draft class, but turned out to be the best quarterback in Philadelphia Eagles franchise history. Also, the test has been panned by multiple doctors and researchers for its true ineffectiveness in predicting the success of NFL player, and for the fact it’s culturally biased.
Then there are the questions players are asked in the interview process. NFL teams have been harassing players during the draft process for decades. The NFL employee asking the question is already in the league, while the player being asked the question is trying to get into the league so there is an imbalance of power, which has led to rude and sometimes abhorrent questions being asked. The most famous, of course, are Dez Bryant being asked if his mother was a prostitute by the Miami Dolphins, and when Eli Apple was asked if he liked men.
Like any situation involving harassment or abuse, for the few instances that are public knowledge, there are likely many more that will never be widely known. There is value to sitting down and talking to players face-to-face, but this is supposed to be a job interview. Asking insulting/offensive questions, or inquiring about a person’s lifestyle, are clear HR violations in any other line of work, and should be no different in the NFL.
Evaluating draft prospects is an inexact science. All of these players invited to the combine are excellent college football players, and for decades teams have been trying to find the best process to avoid drafting the next Courtney Brown, Mike Mamula, Ryan Leaf, or JaMarcus Russell.
Hiring people in general is an inexact science. A manager has an inbox full of resumes and has to find the best people in that inbox. What can’t be allowed is for biases, implicit or not, or intimidation to be used in the hiring process.
Just because, in the NFL, the job they’re hiring for requires running into other human beings at full speed should not give the league license to treat the participants as anything less than human beings.