The richest rookie contract in NFL history, signed by the Oakland Raiders’ JaMarcus Russell, demonstrates precisely why teams take extreme precautions to weed out players who might disappoint the team on or off the field.
A new sociological study uncovers just how far teams go to investigate potential picks, including lengthy psychological tests, punishing medical exams and background checks that include players’ families and may at times cross legal lines. With the top pick’s value now pushed up to $68 million, the stakes are high.
“The player contracts are so large and the product is so dependent on the public liking them that the teams have a lot at stake in terms of drafting a player who might be a bad apple,” said Mikaela Dufur, a sociologist at Brigham Young University.
For ten years, Dufur and fellow researcher Seth Feinberg of Western Washington University got access to the annual scouting combine and players, coaches and scouts involved in the NFL’s invitation-only audition. Their report will be published Monday in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.
Through the interviews the researchers uncovered some of the psychological tests teams administer to players in an attempt to avoid drafting someone who will run into trouble off the field. Among other things, some teams ask players if animals make them nervous, how often they get angry and why food has to be cooked.
In one true-false exam, players had to respond to statements like “I hate some cops” and “If the pay was right, I would like to travel with a circus or carnival.”
Players interviewed by Dufur expressed confusion over how to respond to such questions.
“What’s the point?” one player told the researchers. “Am I supposed to want to be in the circus if the price is right? Or do they not want me saying that traveling with 85 guys is like being in the circus anyway?”
Through their attendance at the annual scouting combine and university-sponsored scouting days, Dufur and Feinberg interviewed 43 players, five coaches and two NFL scouts. They learned one team hired a former U.S. Secret Service agent to track down the juvenile records of over 100 players, a potential violation of state laws prohibiting the disclosure of a minor’s criminal record. Some of the players reported being asked about jailed uncles or cousins. Others fielded questions about the number of children they had and whether they had plans to marry the mothers of those children.
“They want to know information about you, and they don’t care how they get it or how they embarrass you,” one player said.
One scout did not shy away from questions about how much information teams dig up on players.
“I know when these guys sneeze,” he said.
Beyond sneezes, every team doctor gets a turn to personally test the physical health of each player. Players with a history of injury spent as much as 12 hours in sometimes painful examinations.
Underlying all of this, Dufur said, is a message the team owners send to potential new employees.
“The players felt like this had to do with the managers saying ‘We are in charge,’” Dufur said. “’That’s what your life is going to be in the NFL. You’re a cog in the machine. You need to know your place. Even if we already know about a previous injury, we’re going to sit here and tug on it because we are in charge.’”
Examples of questions from NFL teams’ psychological exams:
Why should people pay taxes?
What are some reasons why food has to be cooked?
What would you do if you found a wallet on the street with money in it?
How often are you angry?
True or False:
Football is a war. Kill or be killed.
I hate some cops.
I often feel like killing someone.
The only interesting part of a newspaper is the “funnies.”
If the pay was right, I would like to travel with a circus or carnival.
I would like to see a bullfight in Spain.
I would like to wear expensive clothes.
I am made nervous by certain animals.
Most young people get too much education.
Writer: Marissa Ballantyne