Back in 2003, I remember sitting in a small office with an NFL personnel executive and talking through the general mechanics of how the pre-draft process worked for teams. I was only a few years into the beat and was still learning what took place under the hood when it came to vetting potential draft picks. When we got to the subject of player interviews, I still remember one particular exchange vividly.
“Sometimes you have to ask things to kind of shake it up, throw them off kilter,” he said.
“Like what?” I asked.
He went down a list of uncomfortable questions that he thought players were rarely prepared for. He mentioned asking a prospect if he thought his head coach’s wife was attractive. He’d asked a player about cheating on his girlfriend with a tutor or how often they watched pornography. And then the executive recounted a specific instance where an assistant coach had sat quietly listening during a group interview, and then suddenly interjected with a question about whether a player had ever committed a specific sexual act with another man. That latter instance was also recounted with a deep belly laugh.
That moment is relevant today because the league took arguably its biggest step yet in trying to remove some of the unchecked humiliation that has occurred in the draft process. With the league office trying to move the NFL into a more inclusive and non-discriminatory light, vice president of football operations Troy Vincent sent a memo to all 32 teams with some clear mandates about conduct in the upcoming draft process.
The message? Raise the level of dignity and human respect for the kids. Stop asking questions that would otherwise be deemed inappropriate in a professional interview. Basically, take the draft process out of the locker room and move it closer to the board room. If teams can’t uphold that standard, they’ll risk suspensions, steep financial fines and the loss of draft picks anywhere from the first to fourth rounds.
That’s a new standard with some teeth — not to mention very much in the vein of the league’s supportive embrace of Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib, who became the NFL's first openly gay player to make a final roster this season. It’s also a massive and necessary step forward for a league that has an appallingly deep well of stories that have not aged well. Stories like the one that executive shared in 2003.
I’ve never forgotten that conversation. Partly because it was the first time I’d heard some of the seedier moments that could shape a draft decision. Things that went way beyond “would you rather be a dog or cat” kind of stuff. But it has also stuck with me because that same executive — in that very same conversation where he cackled about someone crudely asking about a player’s sexual preference — gave glowing reviews about several players in his team’s pre-draft process. One of those players was then-Stanford offensive tackle Kwame Harris. The same Kwame Harris who revealed 10 years later that he was gay. A secret that Harris guarded closely during a six-year NFL career out of fear of being cast out of the league.
I had zero question about whether this particular executive was homophobic. He was an ex-player himself, deeply rooted in some of the worst parts of the league’s culture — not to mention the product of a dated NFL era that was fading both on and off the field. So when Harris revealed he was gay in 2013, I wondered how much that piece of information might have changed this executive’s glowing evaluation of him as a player. I also wondered how much longer the league would stomach broad-daylight moments of homophobia in the draft process.
Clearly, long after that 2003 conversation, inappropriate and demeaning behavior continued in the process. Some of which made national headlines and ended with apologies, like former Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland asking wideout Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute in a 2010 prospect interview, and more recently, an Atlanta Falcons coach questioning the sexual preference of cornerback Eli Apple in 2016.
Well, now we know.
I do think the most extreme and reductive moments of humiliation and inappropriate questions have withered over the years. I don’t hear the same stories that were shared with more regularity nearly two decades ago. But it was still important for the NFL to step forward and make the line clear. Which it did this week. Either you’re on the right side and moving forward into a new era, or you’re on the wrong side and going to pay a price.
As that executive might have put it, the league is shaking things up and throwing things off kilter. For the better.