PHOENIX – Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff considered the question with a weary look of his eyes. Nearly 25 years ago, when he started his professional football career in the Canadian Football League, he never expected to one day be talking to a human resources director about what you can and can't ask.
"No, I never really expected that," Dimitroff said. "I know where you're going and there are things that we have to know as an organization about the people we bring in, the players we're thinking about drafting.
"But there are rules about what you can ask."
NFL coaches and team executives got a primer in that this week at the annual league meeting in the aftermath of concerns about the questions being asked at the annual NFL scouting combine in February. While the NFL determined that an assistant coach asking a player in an interview about whether he liked girls was more in jest than seriousness, that joking query skirted a little too close to the sun for the sake of comfort.
"The bottom line is that you better use common sense," Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "There are questions you might want to ask, but you have to use your common sense about whether that's right."
So as much as one team may want (or even need) to know if a certain player is gay or if another player's mother is a recovering drug addict who may have been a prostitute, there is right way and a wrong way to find out.
But, in the view of some people, you need to find out as much as possible.
"I think we miss much more often on the person than the player," Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. "At a certain point, you know that everybody who goes to the combine or who you scout is good. They have some talent that gives them a chance."
To Keim, ranking those players in some general order isn't the hard part. The hard part is knowing exactly how to get that talent out of people, how they learn, what motivates them and how they handle adversity. Those are questions that need to be deciphered.
It's just a matter of asking the right way.
"I prefer to be straight forward with what I want to know," Dimitroff said. "There are some people who like to ask questions in sort of a circular way, like they're almost trying to trap the player. I don't like that approach."
Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid said the issues are usually not so complicated and the detective work is largely overrated.
"Ninety-nine percent of the guys will tell you what they're all about," Reid said.
Then again, getting answers to seemingly vital questions is essential in football. Social media has made finding some easier. It's not merely the content of the answers.
"It's not just if they're at the club, it's when," an NFC team executive said. "You see a guy tweeting about what he's doing and it's 3 in the morning. So you not only have an idea of where he's going, but when. We compile timelines on guys just from their Twitter and Facebook accounts, whatever they're doing."
In the past three years, the questions have started to get much deeper than clubbing and timelines. In 2010, teams wanted to know about wide receiver Dez Bryant's complicated and dysfunctional home life as a child. Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland went too far when he asked if Bryant's mother was a prostitute.
This year, the aftermath of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's bizarre story of an online romance with a dying woman who ended up being a very alive man has led to questions about whether Te'o is gay and whether it should even matter.
"Is some team ready to have a gay player? I don't know, but I do know that one of the things you're always concerned with is eliminating distractions from your team," another NFC executive said. "It's probably like most people say, if the player is good enough and he helps you win, nobody is going to care. But you just don't know."
As much as you want to.
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