At the NFL Combine, players (and agents) question its relevance

For 40 years, college football players hoping to be drafted by an NFL team have shown their speed, strength and personality in the leagu...


For 40 years, college football players hoping to be drafted by an NFL team have shown their speed, strength and personality in the league’s most important talent assessment – scouting combines.

But recent changes to the event, which begins Tuesday, the rise of pro days on college campuses and private workouts, and concerns about the unfairness of the combine itself have led to a growing number of calls for the showcase to be fundamentally overhauled, even as the NFL has sought to increase the marketing of what many of its executives call a “job interview” to become a pro.

Last week, agents for around half of the 324 players who were due to attend the combine pondered a boycott of practices, which include drills like the 40-yard dash and bench press in front of staff. the team, to protest the coronavirus restrictions they feared. compromising player performance. Combine organizers eased those restrictions two days after the agents’ opposition became public, but the unusual showdown was emblematic of an ongoing debate over the treatment of players who are not paid to attend a event that the NFL continues to market.

“As it became a reality show and moved away from its original need, it became less and less valuable,” said NFL Players Association president and Cleveland Browns center JC Tretter. “Making it a prime-time TV event, pushing it late into the night, is another example where it’s not to the benefit of the players that they have to go out and play, and their draft stock relies on good performance.”

The NFL and the National Invitational Camp, that company that operates the combine, say they are constantly striving to improve the player experience at the week-long event, and some changes to the combine -thresher this year were adapted without major controversy.

All training will now take place over one day, instead of two, for each group of positions. Food delivery to players has also been changed to give them more choice as to when and what they can eat. Players will only undergo one full orthopedic exam, with the results presented to all 32 teams, and there is no longer a built-in window for teams to administer their own behavioral assessment tests.

While these adaptations were designed to make the sprawling event more efficient and less stressful for prospects, the past two years of pandemic-interrupted scouting have yielded lessons that some agents say have diminished the centrality of the reaper- thresher.

The growing number of college-organized pro days with multiple draft prospects and agent-organized player practices at private training centers, as well as the increasing digitization of medical records and the use of videoconferencing for player interviews, gave scouts alternatives to assess players away from home. Indianapolis, where the combine harvester takes place since 1987.

Every year, some of the top prospects opt out of combined workouts. Former Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal, a potential No. Joe Burrow and Chase Young haven’t worked at the combine in 2020, with their position as the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks secured. And Lamar Jackson didn’t run or jump at any time before the 2018 draft, not wanting teams to use his athleticism as a reason to evaluate him at positions other than quarterback. But this year is believed to be the first time there has been a coordinated push against conditions in which all prospects are asked to perform.

The combine has been the subject of much criticism in the past, including allegations of racist evaluations and comparisons to slave markets with a group of mostly black athletes being tested in a public exhibition. This year, the league will not administer the Wonderlic IQ test, which some have criticized for having built-in biases. Teams, however, can still use the test if they wish.

In January, the NFL also informed teams that they could be fined at least $150,000 and lose a draft pick if a club employee behaved disrespectfully while questioning players during interviews. on topics such as sexual orientation and mental health. It was the first time the league had specified potential penalties for offensive questioning.

But the NFL’s expanded coverage of the combine has sparked fresh criticism that the routine evaluation is becoming a commercial spectacle.

This year, 10,000 fans will be able to attend each of the four on-field judging nights. And in May, NFL team owners will vote on offers from Indianapolis, Dallas and Los Angeles to host the combine in 2023 and 2024. NFL Network will air more than 50 hours of live coverage this year with 40 hosts and analysts, particularly focused on on-the-ground events, which have been moved to prime time in 2020.

Despite the growing attention, the league said it was very deliberate in the way it widened the combine to ensure its main purpose – assessing prospects – was not compromised.

“But there’s such fan demand — interest from college fans, NFL fans — and it’s increased since 2004, when it first aired on the NFL Network,” said vice-president Peter O’Reilly. -Executive Chairman of League Events. The team staff have “seen what the draft has become, the energy and the way the prospects want to be there, and the grassroots fans near the stage. It’s a great showcase of our games.

The players’ union as well as one of the agents involved in organizing the training boycott scheme, who requested anonymity for fear his clients would face repercussions, say the boycott scheme was not just the start of discussions on how to protect the rights of prospects, who are not yet employed by a team or represented by the union.

With a growing number of college players already paid for the use of their names, images and likenesses prior to their NFL careers, some observers have speculated that players should be paid to appear in broadcast events like the reaper- combine and the repechage.

“I suspect the combine in the land of the NIL will have to hit the standard admission price,” said Robert Boland, a former NFL player agent who teaches sports law at Penn State. “’You want me to do this as an activity, I want to be paid.’ It’s the way to make sure some of the best recruits don’t show up.

Troy Vincent, executive vice president of football operations at the NFL, hasn’t ruled out the idea.

“Based on the landscape of the sporting environment, you have NIL, you have the transfer portal, we have to be ready for anything in the future,” he said. “So I’m not taking that off the table. I would just say we have to be ready and prepared for everything and discuss everything.

While complaints about the combine are real and plentiful, few expect it to go away as it remains the only place where hundreds of top prospects can compete on the same turf, and where teams can get standardized information about players’ health, including any injuries they may have suffered.

“It’s the only time of year when we can get all the hopes in one place,” said Rick Spielman, former Minnesota Vikings general manager. “For me, it actually puts more stress on the player if you don’t get everything in a week.”

Robert O’Connell contributed reporting.

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