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The NFL Combine Isn't Weird -- The Rest Of Life Is Just Lazy About Its Interviewing Process

The NFL Combine is the worst possible way to do things ... except for all the other methods of doing it.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 27: Cam Newton runs the 40-yard dash during the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 27: Cam Newton runs the 40-yard dash during the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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The NFL Combine really does do things in a very logical way. Parsimony requires a limited number of tests measuring basic athletic capability, so the NFL does just that. You run, you lift a little, you show agility, you do the broad jump for some reason. The inclusion of the broad jump, by the way, is proof of an elementary school gym teacher's strong influence in the construction of the combine's schedule of events.

Suggested activities for the Life Combine appear in the headers of this article. Train for them, or risk failure.

Combine Activity One: Fall in love with someone. Then attempt to divide household tasks evenly without violence or divorce ensuing. Repeat 365 times a year for total number of life sets.

You take a thousand strange little tests and probably embarrass yourself on the Wonderlic because, as with penis size and wealth, someone's always got a bit more than you do no matter who you are. You take a physical. You pose in compression shorts in front of a room filled with strangers with cameras.You are asked questions. What type of animal are you? (Best answer: Homo Sapiens. Second best answer: "a shaved ape with a personality disorder.") Is your mother a prostitute? This was a real question asked to Dez Bryant last year. Answer carefully, and no, the right answer is not "Define prostitute, please."

Over and over again you are measured, quantified, qualified, and hierarchalized in a way few companies dare treat their employees. In another failed career I interviewed with the CIA. They pay in cash, insist on a modicum of privacy, and ask interesting questions. One questionnaire I took asked me if I'd be comfortable sleeping outside for months at a time. Another asked about a willingness to corrupt my moral principles in the name of a larger cause. Based on these two questions alone, being a CIA agent uses a set of skills overlapping with that of the average homeless man. 

Combine Activity Two: Stretch a 30-minute lunch break into 45 minutes. Return to office without detection.

The combine seems far more invasive than even the CIA's hiring process, which for the record I got three steps into before the government wisely decided I was not secret agent material. This is not because NFL owners are malevolent, controlling oligarchs bent on flexing their power. Don't misunderstand me: they are, but this has little to do with why the Combine involves everything but a thorough rectal exam.

(Actually, it may involve this, and if it does expect Mel Kiper to note "His colon reminds me of Cris Carter's: clean, powerful, and the kind of pipes you like to see on a champion.")

George Soros beat the market in currency trading for a long, long time. For the better part of his long streak defying the odds, Soros relied on a lot of natural talents: the ability to evaluate markets, the knack for sensing weakness in the position of a currency, and a born penchant for heavy but confident wagering. That word matters, though: wagering is precisely what he was doing, and doing so successfully with amounts of money that would make Dan Snyder crap his pants with envy and terror.*

*In the event of a Dan Snyder pants-crapping, you may purchase these pants for $1,509 at the Redskins' Official Gift Shop.

There are a thousand comparisons here, but let's get one thing straight: none of them apply to you. Take the time to consider how negligent your employers have been about vetting you as a person. They did not, in all likelihood, ask for a complete physical. They probably did not submit you a full battery of psychological tests, or ask if your mother was a prostitute. They might not have even submitted you to a full spectrum drug test, and if so likely only tested for narcotics. You could have just walked right into that bank and gotten a job while your veins were coursing with steroids, you ripped rapscallion, you. 

Combine Activity Three: Use neighbor's unsecured wireless network for streaming Netflix movies without asking. Repeat until caught.

In fact, it's amazing how far you've gotten with this little scrutiny, but it's also sad for a very good reason. By commodity, there is no utility in placing you through NFL draft level scrutiny. You are a very replaceable part by the standards of the NFL's labor pool. Don't feel bad: at least there are 22 starters per squad in the NFL. By NBA standards you're worth even less since people above 6' 5" who are also athletic are even harder to find, and thus both more valuable individually and less willing to put up with the kind of overlording the NFL subjects their prospects to in the draft process. Doubt this, and doubt the ability of Shawn Bradley to buy sandwiches in 2011 with money he originally earned in 1993.*

*Shawn Bradley once played himself in an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. This marks the second time you've ever been personally jealous of Shawn Bradley. The first time was his appearance in Space Jam.

Yet at its core, the persnickety and exacting Combine experience is a form of dehumanized wagering not unlike the kind a trader does. All use some form of data. Data is a necessary step to minimize the weakest link in the combine decision-making apparatus: you, the weak, gullible human who becomes enamored of a client's "intangibles" and drafts them too high at too high a price. The tools themselves are inexact, and can often lead to their own misjudgments based on overweighting that data. Two items follow that you may associate in any matter you like: Al Davis and the 40 time for any player.

Combine Activity Four: Time Trial! Make it home, play one game of the sporting game of your choice, and return back to work in time for afternoon meeting.

Even when someone manages to read the data well and become a bit of an "expert" on drafting players, the final outcome of the collected wagers a GM puts together is still very dependent on that horrible, squirmy little word: luck. George Soros beat the market for so long out of skill, sure, but blind luck also played an immense role. Like Soros, even the best GMs are situational geniuses, and stand just one or two bad drafts away from watching their credit rating take serious losses due to the whims of injury, erroneous scouting, and ill-tempered bad luck striking hard and unexpectedly. Every event is part of an indefinite streak, and that streak (good or bad) can end at any time.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill on democracy, the combine is the worst possible way to do things except for all the other methods of doing it. It's occasionally silly, inaccurate, and still better than most other ways of auditioning players to play on your expensive and extremely competitive football team. Rather than wonder why the combine is so unusual, wonder the opposite: why doesn't life feature more data-driven trials of the skills you'll need to succeed in your job, or more importantly, to succeed in life while not being fired from said job? (You may try each of the italicized suggestions we've included for a Life Combine in this article, and then report your results below. ) And if you luck out and manage to do this for years on end, how can you cash in on this luck before probability wrecks your reputation? (Suggested route: high-priced ESPN analyst.)