Scouting Combine Etiquette

News about the most bizarre of questions posed by Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland and directed at Oklahoma St. wide receiver Dez Bryant came out shortly after the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis last March.  At the time it raised some eyebrows, and there were a few mumbles about it, but it was never really addressed in any serious manner.  The question?  “Is your mom a prostitute?”

In a piece published today by Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, 10 different possible intentions behind the question are presented (and he claims he could come up with 10 more).  I have a slightly different take.

While posing a question such as the one Ireland did is most certainly inappropriate, it’s hardly unusual.  After all, a Washington Redskins coach once asked a prospect “What would you do if I hit you in the nuts right now?” in a somewhat threatening manner.  Players have been asked numerous times “When was the last time you smoked crack?” or “When was the last time you smoked weed?”

It’s all a ploy.  The NFL personnel people want to see what kind of character these players possess.  They have a limited amount of time to try to look into the psyche of these players, to really try to get to know what kind of people they are, how they’ll respond to adverse situations.  The only direct interaction they have with most of these kids is at the all-star games (and not all of the staff is there, and the Senior Bowl is the only game the coaches attend) and the NFL Combine.  Otherwise, the scouts are left to glean personal background information from the college coaches and the college coaches alone.

There are legitimate concerns that some of these players might be bad seeds, and you can’t always depend on the college coaches to offer up accurate and honest information about their players.  Take the case of Ryan Leaf, for example:  Mike Price and his staff at Wazzu GUSHED about how great a kid Leaf was to the Chargers’ scouts.  Told them they’d absolutely LOVE the kid!  They’d have NO problems with him!  He was like a son to Price.  And we all know how that turned out.

Then there’s the case of Darnell Dockett.  At the age of 13 he came home to find his mother on the floor of their home with a bullet in her head, murdered execution style. A crime that remains unsolved.  That kind of discovery by an impressionable kid of that age is sure to have lingering psychological effects and leave behind some serious emotional scars.  Teams needed to know that if they invested millions of dollars into Dockett, would he have some sort of meltdown?  They needed to know how he had dealt with it, that he had dealt with it, and would continue to be able to deal with it.  But can you imagine an NFL coach asking him “What did your mom do to get herself whacked?  Was she a drug dealer?  Was she a prostitute?”  To be honest, I’d be disappointed if he didn’t haul off and punch the interviewer.

Then there’s the bizarre case of Dimitrius Underwood, the Michigan St. defensive end drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings in 1999.  Underwood disappeared from the Vikings on the first day of camp his rookie year.  He was later diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, attempted suicide at least twice, and has had several stints in various mental hospitals.  The Vikings, the Dolphins, and eventually the Cowboys paid a steep price for not doing their homework, and for not monitoring Underwood more closely.

Many teams enlist the help of a psychologist to sit in on the meetings at the Combine to help evaluate a player’s mental health, for lack of a better term.  Most teams don’t.  But they’re all after the same thing:  Evaluating a player in every possible way.  They’re evaluating not only his skills on the field, but his work ethic, his leadership qualities–is he a leader or a follower–his intelligence, his instincts, how well grounded a person he is, how he interacts with his peers, how easy it is to light the guy’s fuse…..

These oddball, inappropriate questions are being asked to elicit a response.  They want to see how the guy reacts.  But I’ve never personally seen anything like what Ireland did.  None of the Chargers coaches or scouts that I’ve been around (and I’ve been in the room for plenty Q&A sessions at the Combine) ever pushed the envelope like that.  There were plenty of times, in fact, when I felt the questioning wasn’t nearly probing enough!  (Of course I simply kept my mouth shut, as it wasn’t my place to interject.)

But the question posed by Ireland was way out of bounds, and he should be reprimanded for it (and he has been).  And while there’s a definite and vital need to find out everything you can about a person that your team is seriously looking at investing millions of dollars in, there’s also a need to be professional and respectful.  Ireland’s actions were neither.

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