Combine meat market a little disturbing

INDIANAPOLIS – Four years ago in the RCA Dome, a small-school defensive line prospect named Isaac Hilton nervously awaited his moment onstage at the NFL scouting combine. Chugging water to add every possible ounce of weight to his 6-foot-3 frame, the former Hampton University star wore only spandex boxer briefs, and his legs were shaking as he walked up to the podium.

A combine official began taking Hilton's measurements as several hundred coaches, scouts and front-office executives carefully examined his musculature. And then, to the shock and dismay of everyone in the building, Hilton had an extreme physiological reaction to a very unnatural situation.

"The poor kid pissed himself," recalls one scout who witnessed it. "He was standing up there … and it all just came out. Craziest thing I've ever seen."

Says another team's personnel director: "All of a sudden people were running up there with towels and spraying the stage and wiping down the wood, and they led the guy away, and he just looked stunned. There was a delay while they cleaned things up, and we all just stood there saying, 'Did we just see what we thought we saw?' "

Hilton, who I unsuccessfully tried to reach through his agent, recovered from the most embarrassing moment of his life. Two months later, he was drafted in the seventh round by the New York Giants, who cut him shortly before the start of the season. He had quick stints with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers before playing in the Arena League and, most recently, with the CFL's Toronto Argonauts.

As far as I know, Hilton is the only draft prospect who has had such a pronounced response to having every inch of his body scrutinized by a large group of prospective employers. But if you think the typical combine attendee is comfortable with such an arrangement, you're playing a different kind of fantasy football.

Let's look at it from the perspectives of some of the young men who parade around in their skivvies for all the NFL's talent evaluators to see.

"I felt like I was a model for Fruit of the Loom," former USC offensive lineman Chilo Rachal said shortly after leaving the Dome on Thursday. (Well, maybe for their big-and-tall line.)

"They say I've got a big butt, which is good for an offensive lineman," said ex-Texas-El Paso tackle Oniel Cousins. "I don't care if they want to (talk about my butt), as long as they don't touch me in that way."

Before I elaborate on Cousins' theme – that the combine is the NFL's answer to Broadway musicals, Barbra Streisand concerts and Fashion Week in South Beach – I want to be clear that this is no way an attack on lifestyle choices. There is nothing inherently negative about men checking out other men.

But from my vantage point, the way it goes down at the combine is a little creepy. And I am not alone.

"This is absolutely normal to me, but a lot of people on the outside think we're crazy," 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan says. "I'll mention someone's abs or ass or hips or thighs, and they'll say, 'What the hell are you talking about?' But hey, I'm in Northern California, so I guess it's OK."

(And yes, McCloughan was joking about that last part.)

Walk the halls of the Indianapolis Convention Center adjacent to the Dome, and you'll hear scouts and coaches throwing out compliments like, "That guy's (expletive) pretty, now." You'll see write-ups lauding a prospect's "big, bubble ass" or "great explosion in his hips."

Go to the bars at night, and you can't walk five feet without encountering a 60-something-year-old man with a gleam in his eye who'll talk about how he has "fallen in love" with one player or another.

Obviously, these are just figures of speech, and I know these men are doing what they're paid to do – scrutinize the physical gifts of players that their franchises will invest large sums of money in. But if you step back and think about the totality of the process, it is far different from most recruitment efforts in American society.

Imagine construction workers stripping down and flexing (and, for irony's sake, getting whistled at by attractive female passersby) for the foreman before the plum jobs are assigned. Picture lumberjacks removing their jeans and flannel shirts and showing the logging-company execs that they're built like Paul Bunyan.

It's strange enough that the NFL, which is essentially a legalized monopoly, gets to dictate to many of its incoming employees where they'll live and for whom they'll play. I know it's hard for many people to conceive of anything cooler than being a pro athlete, but apply the NFL's model to your career: How many of you would enjoy being drafted by a company located in a potentially random part of the U.S. and forced to negotiate exclusively with that entity, or find another line of work?

Throw in the potential for abject and public humiliation in the recruitment process, and it might at least give pause to some of you, especially those who don't have sculpted bodies.

For NFL prospects, the ogling begins at the Shrine Bowl, then continues later at the Senior Bowl when participants are trotted into a Mobile, Ala., hotel ballroom and weighed and measured while wearing glorified Speedo swimsuits.

"I've seen guys with some horrible physiques," agent Gary Wichard says. "One big guy this year, I kid you not, had C-cups. I've seen man-boobs before; these were woman boobs. They looked like implants. I felt so bad for the kid, having to walk around that room with 650 people looking at him and gasping."

Conversely, the excitement that an exceptionally cut prospect provokes is unnerving in a different way. Two years ago at the Senior Bowl, Wichard's client Brodrick Bunkley, a former Florida State defensive tackle now with the Philadelphia Eagles, practically had people drooling as he cat-walked through the middle of the crowded ballroom.

"They talk about 'Winning the Beauty Contest' – that was Brodrick Bunkley," Wichard says. "When he weighed in, there were murmurs throughout the room. His legs were exploding out of his shorts, and it looked like his skin was swathed in Saran Wrap. You had a bunch of grown men who acted like they were at a strip joint outside of town. I thought they were going to offer him money for a lap dance."

One more time, Seinfeld fans: Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Or maybe there is. Perhaps there's a way to evaluate the bodies of prospective draftees without making the scene such an obvious meat market. And maybe, as we've seen time and time again, the talent evaluators should do a better job of reminding themselves that a player's abs and biceps and bubble ass generally take a backseat to his heart when determining success at the professional level.

I believe McCloughan when he says that "physique is very important when judging a player," but in the next breath he is quick to note that it is not an absolute. "My second-to-last year in Green Bay, we drafted (offensive tackle) Mark Tauscher," he says. "If you saw him in a pair of underwear, it was just disgusting. He was so soft. Well, guess what – the guy's been a pretty damn good player for a long time."

Call me crazy, but guys like Tauscher – or even Isaac Hilton – don't seem like the disgusting ones in that context. That's why, when I become the NFL commissioner, the combine weigh-ins are going to be just a bit more egalitarian.

We'll start by parading the scouts, GMs and coaches in their tighty-whiteys and go from there.

First up: Bill Parcells.


Former Cal receiver MeSean Jackson will be one of the stars of the scouting combine – and he'll let everyone know about it. … Cornerback DeAngelo Hall will not play another down for the Falcons. … If he doesn't snap out of it soon, Chad Johnson 2008 will be the horror-film sequel to T.O. 2005.


1. Zach Thomas is absolutely devastated that he was released by the Dolphins – and is seriously considering an overture from Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson.

2. There's a great chance that Lane Kiffin will still be the Raiders' head coach at the start of the '08 regular season.

3. Many Indianapolis women will be seduced by the line "Hey, wanna check out my Wonderlic?" in downtown bars this weekend.


Why do some airline passengers, including a certain NFL Network anchor, believe that leaving the door open after exiting the lavatory is a sensible idea?


Soon-to-be free agent cornerback Brian Kelly, who earned his freedom the new-fangled way: he bought it. As a starter for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers since 2001, Kelly has thrived in the relatively low-risk Cover 2 defense but he's clearly a gambler at heart. Last offseason, Kelly had a clause inserted into his contract allowing him to buy his way out of the deal after '07 by giving the Bucs $453,000, which he did last week. He figures to get some serious payback soon, given the dearth of talent on the free-agent market (other than the Patriots' Asante Samuel) at the position, especially after Marcus Trufant (Seahawks) and Nmandi Asomugha (Raiders) were franchised by their respective clubs.


SNHU Dunks


Two-thirds of the way through its second season since being promoted to the Premier League, Reading is now staring at the possibility that its stay may be a temporary one. The Royals played well in a 1-0 defeat to fourth-place Everton at Goodison Park on Feb. 9, but the end result was a seventh consecutive loss. The Toffees scoring in the 62nd minute when Phil Jagielka barely beat an offsides trap to head one home. Now 18th and below the relegation line in the 20-team league, Reading needs to get it going in its final 12 games, beginning with Sunday's home match against Aston Villa.


It's a David Bowie song, though many of you will associate it with Mott the Hoople's cover – and "All The Young Dudes" is the tune that accompanies our ode to the combine:

Billy rapped all night about his 40 time
How he'd kick it in the head if he didn't break 4.5
Don't wanna stay alive unless you've arrived

Sammy's stealing looks at Jake's physique
And Vernon's lifting weights cause he's a workout freak
Who looks best?
A funky beauty contest

The television man is crazy
Saying 60 guys are first-round picks
Man, I need an IV when I watch draftniks
Hey, brother, you guessed

I'm a dude

All the young dudes
Eat the right foods
Practically nude
In human zoos All the young dudes
Giving us clues
Ogling dudes
That's what scouts do

Now T-Dog's looking sweet, though he dresses like a queen
Andy can kick like a mule, it's a real mean team
They can shove, you can love

Eli's brother's back at home wishin' he was at the Dome
Wowin' all the scouts with his gestures and his throws
Rollin' up Leaf
Like a fat spliff

Well I took a couple puffs and I've had enough
Gonna bounce like Michael Vick
Should we have known what was going down from his Wonderlic?
Oh, brother, it was sick

He was a dude

All the young dudes
Eat the right foods
Practically nude
In human zoos

All the young dudes
Giving us clues
Ogling dudes
That's what scouts do