The combine offered deeper humiliations. Each year league-hired wizards administer intelligence tests, known as the Wonderlic. And each year, including 2017, these supposedly secret scores are ritually leaked to reporters before the draft.
This struck me as a premeditated invasion of privacy. So I counted my good fortune when the University of Pennsylvania Law Review landed in my inbox this week. In it, four law professors explored the way in which the N.F.L. and its teams demanded intimate details from would-be players and exposed much of it to the world.
The law professors concluded that the league often “violates existing federal employment discrimination laws.” Federal law prohibits a potential employer from testing, say, the cardiovascular capacity of a job applicant, or administering an EKG. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also prohibits employers from using genetic information in making decisions about whom to employ.
If employers learn any of this information, they are forbidden from disclosing any details.
“They are never supposed to be asked about genetic and family medical history and yet this is going on publicly,” Jessica L. Roberts, director of the Health Law and Policy Institute at the University of Houston Law Center, told me.
Roberts was not knocked over by the argument that professional football is a secular religion and so exempt from mortal trespasses. “Playing professional sports is not the only job where physical fitness is very important,” she noted. “There is no professional sports exemption.”
There are legitimate legal hairs to be split here. Michael H. LeRoy, a law professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a scholar of sports and labor law, noted that the players’ union has negotiated draft protocols with the league, and that courts often defer to these agreements. He sees an argument to be made that the waivers signed by the athletes before the combine are legally binding.
Players and their agents, he noted, have a stake in submitting to an intrusive battery of tests, as it allows teams to negotiate contracts without inhibition. If teams know less, teams will pay less. “They simply will not buy a pig in a poke,” LeRoy said.
To this, Professor Roberts and her co-authors counter that the young men who are invited to attend the combine are deeply vulnerable and likely to sign away their rights. No player who bypassed the 2016 combine was drafted in the first four rounds of that year’s draft.
So there is a race to the bottom. “To say that N.F.L. hopefuls have freely chosen to participate,” the professors wrote, “adopts a truncated view of what freedom means.”
I tried to hear from the N.F.L. on this, but nobody responded to my emails or calls.
The exposure of players’ medical privacy becomes systematic once they enter the league. Teams routinely disclose medical ailments. So there is the running back, his knees pounded to sawdust by too many years of too many hits, who fails his physical, or the linebacker who has sustained his fourth concussion and feels as if his cranium is packed with confetti.
When they quit football, these players will have three or four decades of work life ahead. Will a future employer shy from hiring a man who gets splitting headaches from too many concussions?
The results generated by the league’s tests are not ironclad. Genetic testing remains in its infancy, caught between science and the Ouija board. No gene profile reliably forecasts the ability to catch a long pass near the far sideline. And mistakes are made. In 2013, Star Lotulelei, a 315-pound star defensive tackle from Tonga, was given an echocardiogram that revealed an irregularity. He was projected to go at the top of the first round and fell in the draft. As it turned out, he had an infection; a later M.R.I. test found no evidence of problems.
By that point he had lost millions of dollars.
There is a final, Orwellian quality to this process. The young men who show up at the combine and the draft already have survived years at institutions of higher learning. In service of the bottom line of these universities, these young men have wrenched shoulders, twisted knees, broken ribs, and ripped ligaments and tendons. And their heads got hit again and again and again — were all of these hits concussions? That’s a connoisseur’s distinction.
And if these players survive all of this and get drafted into the N.F.L., they become eligible for a graduate course in the destruction of their bodies and minds.
If federal law gets in the way just a little, well, wouldn’t that be grand?
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