Democracy Dies in Darkness

Early Lead

So what do NFL teams ask prospective players about other than their sexual orientations?

March 8, 2018 at 1:40 PM

(David J. Phillip/AP)

The job interview happened in a hotel lobby, in front of dozens of strangers, on a couple of chairs, near some tasteful divans. An NFL team employee was asking a linebacker prospect some background information in the run-up to this year’s Senior Bowl, and anyone standing nearby almost couldn’t help overhearing the questions and answers.

A sample: “Are you excited being here? Where’s home home? So you’ve got 13 brothers and sisters? That’s great! Are you all kind of tight? Did you grow up going to church? Oh, so you’re engaged? When are you going to get married? Do y’all live together? Have you ever been in any trouble? What other schools could you have gone to? What was your major? And what would you do with that? What was your GPA?”

And so on. Such interviews are a standard part of the NFL draft process — both before the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and at the better known Indianapolis scouting combine, which wrapped up this month with another bit of interviewing controversy. LSU running back Derrius Guice said in a radio appearance this week that one team at the combine “will ask me do I like men, just to see my reaction. … I go in another room, they’ll try to bring up one of my family members or something and tell me, ‘Hey, I heard your mom sells herself. How do you feel about that?’ ”

Guice’s comments, during a SiriusXM NFL Radio appearance Wednesday, sparked an immediate reaction: An NFL spokesman said the question about liking men was “completely inappropriate and wholly contrary to league workplace policies,” while the executive director of the NFL Players Association said the team that asked that question should be prohibited from attending the combine.

Related: [NFLPA chief says team that asked about prospect’s sexuality should be banned from the combine]

It’s become something of an annual tradition to round up the unusual questions teams ask prospects, although questions about parental prostitution and sexual orientation veer past “unusual” and go straight to “inappropriate.” USA Today recently published a roundup of some of the odder questions asked to NFL prospects over the past few years, and they’re plenty odd. Among them: “Do you find your mother attractive?” “When did you lose your virginity?” “Would you rather be a cat or dog?” “Would you share your Internet history?” “What color is chocolate?” “What color is melted chocolate?” “How many ways could you use a brick in a minute?” “Which team do you pick in Madden and why?” and “What kind of fish would you be?”

I was in Mobile before this year’s Senior Bowl, which gave me the chance to observe a tiny part of this process, and to stand next to that team employee as he asked that linebacking prospect whether he’s tight with his siblings, whether he grew up going to church and whether he lives with his fiancee. I later asked some other players to describe this process — which they repeat with up to 20 or 30 teams. One of them, Humboldt State lineman Alex Cappa, offered to put me through a tiny slice of the experience. Here’s what happened next, at a rapid-fire pace:

Cappa: How’d you grow up, where’d you grow up?

Steinberg: You’re asking me? I grew up outside of Buffalo, New York.

Cappa: Yeah? What about your parents? Are they together?

Steinberg: They are, yeah.

Cappa: What do they do?

Steinberg: My dad’s a professor — well, they’re both retired, but my dad was a professor and my mom taught elementary school kids.

Cappa: Oh, that’s cool! So they taught you a lot about work ethic? School was important?

Steinberg: Yeah, I think that we were pressured to do well in school.

Cappa: That’s good, that’s good. And you kept that work ethic your whole life or what?

Steinberg: Uhhhh. I mean, I probably at times wavered a little bit, but I think, yeah.

Cappa: You’ve got siblings? Brothers, sisters?

Steinberg: I have two sisters.

Cappa: Older? Younger?

And so on and so forth.

“They really do just want to get to know you, get some of the facts about you,” Cappa said. “And then they’ll ask you tough questions once in a while. I haven’t gotten anything too bad. It might just be like what’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in your life. I got that. Or what’s the biggest regret you have in your life, what’s the biggest obstacle you’ve ever faced in your life. That’s a tough question. If you’ve been arrested — they did ask me that. Everybody asked me that. It’s good when they get to the section of off-the-field issues if you’re able to just say no the whole time, but then obviously there are guys who can’t do that, so you’ve got to be honest with them because they’re going to do a background check.”

Related: [Part job fair, part spring break trip, part time warp: Welcome to the NFL’s weirdest week]

Other players told me they were asked whether they could play in a game the next day if needed, whether they think they played well this season, whether they have children or girlfriends, what other sports they played, whether they were good or bad at those sports, whether their parents were still together (this seemed like a popular one), what inspires them, what keeps them going, what adverse situations they’ve been in, whether they do drugs, whether they’re avid drinkers, and on and on.

“You’ve just got to let them know that you’re human; you’re not just sitting on the couch, you also have a life,” one player explained, after telling me about the drinking question. “You’ve got to be honest, but they already know. They know. They just want to see if you tell the truth. They’ve got inside people. They talk to your coaches. Your coaches probably know more about you than what you think, and they definitely share that information.”

“They know everything already,” another player agreed. “They just want to see if you’re really going to dig down deep and give them honest answers and just be really clear and detailed with them.”

One player’s Instagram account mentioned “faith family and football,” so an interviewer asked him to describe himself without using the words faith family or football. (“I was like wow, that’s probably the hardest question I’ve been asked,” he recalled. “It took me like two minutes to come up with something. I ended up saying purpose and entertaining. I said that and we really had to just go with it.”) Another player said he was asked how tough he is on a scale of 1 to 10, and if he were an animal what sort of animal he would be.

Players also go through a litany of personalty tests at these events. Players told me they were given sequences of numbers and asked whether they were identical. They were told to track six out of 20 bouncing balls on a screen, and then to point out those six balls when they stop bouncing. They were shown other bouncing balls, and told if the ball was yellow to click in the direction it goes, and if it was purple to click in the opposite direction.

One player said he was shown an abstract photo, and asked “Does this look like a ‘left’ photo or a ‘right’ photo?”

“Well, what does that mean?” the player said with a laugh. “It doesn’t really mean anything. You have to identify a pattern. So it’s like, ‘Okay, I see this photo, I’m gonna say left.'”

Related: [Stand? Sit it out? NFL owners wrestle with options, seek national anthem resolution by May.]

He said he was told that was the correct answer, but was later shown the same photo, again called it left, and this time was told it was the wrong answer. Another player took a personality test that asked him to rank common sayings on how true they were, phrases such as “hard work beats talent” and “the early bird gets the worm.” That test eventually told him his personality type was the “Eagle”: someone clean-cut and image-conscious who values tradition and rules, tries to live up to expectations and is punctual, neat and tidy. He was informed that Peyton Manning, Russell WilsonDerek CarrDeshaun Watson and J.J. Watt were also eagles, and that the eagle’s strength is working to please others and remaining optimistic and cooperative, while potential weaknesses were a failure to recognize flaws and an unwillingness to dole out praise.

How useful is all of this?

“That’s a good question,” Rams General Manager Les Snead said. “I would say for each player, an interview may weigh more for some than it does for others, depending on what you need to ask. But I do think through the process, testing is important because it can measure different things that you can’t get in an interview. But also, interviewing’s important because you can get a feel for the human being.”

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Dan Steinberg is an editor and columnist for Sports and the founder of the D.C. Sports Bog. He joined The Washington post in 2001 and has covered high school and college sports, two Olympics, the Super Bowl, National Spelling Bee and New Zealand curling team. He became an editor in 2018.

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