Penalty Flag: Illegal Questioning of Players Plagues NFL Combine

June 17, 2018
Sally Abrahamson

Each year, before the teams draft new talent for the following fall season, the NFL organizes its Scouting Combine, a multi-day evaluation and audition process for the most promising football players. Hundreds of hopeful athletes compete to improve their chances to be drafted into a professional football career. Like every other job interview, this one takes guts, stamina, and talent, and a player’s personality factors into hiring decisions.

But just like every other interview, state and federal employment laws make it illegal for employers to make employment decisions based on age, race, national origin, gender, religion, marital status, or sexual orientation. Some NFL officials as well as team owners, coaches, and scouts don’t read the playbook, however, and ask questions that appear to reflect discriminatory intent.

Combine 101: Talent, Toughness, and Team Spirit

The players invited to attend the Scouting Combine undergo scrupulous physical examinations and perform vigorous workouts to determine their fitness and athletic abilities. In addition to these physical tests, the prospects are evaluated on how well they fit into the league culture, fielding questions from the press as well as undergoing official interviews with interested teams’ owners and representatives.

Because the NFL’s goal of the Scouting Combine is to determine whether a candidate has what it takes to survive in the physically and mentally punishing climate of the NFL, it’s unsurprising that this process is often rigorous and uncomfortable. However, despite its unique job demands, the NFL is an employer like any other and is subject to the restrictions that state and federal anti-discrimination laws impose on the hiring process.

What Interview Questions Are Prohibited by Law?

Numerous state and federal laws – including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – prohibit employers and prospective employers from discriminating against employees because of their race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin. Further, 21 states and the District of Columbia explicitly prohibit discrimination based on an individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation. Because it is illegal to refuse employment to any individual based on these protected characteristics, employers must use care to avoid asking about them during interviews or taking any other actions during the hiring process that would reveal protected information that’s not directly related to the essential duties of the job.

Recent Allegations

In recent years, there have been allegations regarding inappropriate, illegal questioning and behavior at the NFL Scouting Combine. In 2016, the league conducted an investigation regarding questions posed by a prospective team to cornerback Eli Apple about his sexuality; admitting the questioning was inappropriate. An Atlanta Falcons staff member later apologized, and the investigation concluded. Following this year’s Scouting Combine, running back Derrius Guice commented on a radio program that the teams ask inflammatory interview questions and make comments in a deliberate attempt to upset the potential players to test their “reaction.” This, in of itself, may not be illegal, however, the specific examples he gave – including asking whether candidates were gay or implying their mothers were prostitutes – cross the line into potentially discriminatory behavior.

In response to the allegations, the NFL released a statement to the press indicating that it recognized that such questions were impermissible under the law and in violation of the players’ collective bargaining agreements. It subsequently conducted an internal investigation that could not confirm any team asked improper or illegal questions.

Leveling the Playing Field

Discrimination in the hiring process and other retaliatory action based on protected characteristics can be difficult to eradicate, especially on the field and in the locker room. But, the fact remains that every job candidate – even a prospective pro football player – is afforded the same protections. If the NFL and other leagues don’t heed the warning, they may be facing a #MeToo moment of their own.

(*Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.)