Does the NFL combine violate the ADA?

If your answer is, “you can’t be serious,” you’re not fully in tune with the contemporary landscape. On the other hand, your common sense quotient is high.

The NFL scouting combine is basically an audition by more than 300 of the best collegiate football players who are eligible for the NFL draft. They come to Indianapolis each year to undergo on-field workouts, medical testing, interviews, and psychological testing.

The workouts are the least important component because NFL scouts already have plenty of video on the players, and thus a good idea of how fast and strong they are and how well they perform on a football field. The main objective at the combine is to make sure the players have no serious injuries and have the mental make-up to succeed as professionals.

Defects detected at the combine normally won’t mean the player gets no shot at playing in the NFL. Instead, they might cause the player to slide from a first round draft pick to, say, a third-rounder, or a late round pick to an undrafted free agent. But such a diminution in status can cost the player money and decrease his odds of making a team (at cut-down time, other things being about equal, teams will prefer high draft picks to low ones, and low picks to the undrafted).

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, etc. It seems absurd that the ADA would apply to elite college football players — a cohort that is among the most physically able in America. Common sense tells us these guys are not disabled.

However, as the Washington Post reports, the NFL combine might well violate the ADA.

Medical testing at the combine implicates the ADA because it might cause one or more NFL team to consider a player disabled for purposes playing professional football, though it very rarely does. Moreover, Jessica Roberts of the Houston Law Center is correct, I think, when she says that under the ADA employers are not supposed to make disability-related inquiries or examine prospective employees before there’s some kind of offer of employment. They can ask the prospective employees whether they can perform job-related functions, but no one at the combine is going to believe, much less say, that he can’t.

There is no job offer pending for players who participate in the NFL combine in March. The “job offer” comes after a player is drafted a month or two later.

But it would be absurd to delay medical testing until after the draft. By then, a team might have used its highly valued first pick in the draft to select a player with a physical or mental problem that could have been detected at the combine.

Moreover, the purpose of the medical examination isn’t just to assess the players’ suitability to play in the NFL. The tests are designed to make sure they’re healthy enough to participate in the combine’s on-field workout, or so the League says.

Would this claim provide a defense in an ADA action against the NFL? I don’t know. Maybe a partial one. The League might be hard-pressed to show that all of its testing truly serves the purpose of protecting player safety in the simple drills and exercises, such as running the 40 yard dash, that take place at the combine.

But let’s not get lost in the weeds. What we have here is yet another example of a law being applied to yield a ridiculous result that Congress obviously didn’t intend or envisage at the time of passage. Anti-discrimination statutes seem particularly susceptible to this phenomenon, but it is common to much of the legislation Congress produces.

The more Congress legislates, the more absurdities it generates. This is one reason, though not the only one, why Congress should legislate less.


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