It’s possible that Jameis Winston is overweight, and it’s possible that the whole thing was an unfortunate camera trick. Either way, this became an actual storyline that required an actual refutation from an actual quarterback guru named George Whitfield, after a photo surfaced last weekend of a puffed-up Winston with (seriously) a leash around his waist.
All of which means that it is time for yet another NFL scouting combine (after days of player meetings and press conferences, potential draftees take the field Friday in Indianapolis), all of which means that everything you read about professional football for the next few weeks leading up to the draft is about to get even more arbitrary and stupid than it normally is.
There are few events in sports more patently weird than the combine: All those sparsely-clothed aspirants performing for a room full of power brokers can really boil down the discomfiting social and racial undertones of professional football to their essence. But the combine has become more than that; it’s become an exemplar of everything that is ridiculous about modern culture, about our reflexive tendency to find fault with pretty much everything. The combine is all the terribleness of social media writ large; it is a display of the power of innuendo and snap judgment, which is also probably why it’s so difficult to look away from it.
This is not to say that Jameis Winston doesn’t deserve the scrutiny. I can think of few top-tier quarterbacks who have come out of college in the past few years who are more deserving of a careful vetting than Winston. Beyond the rape case that threatened to send him to prison (he was not charged), there was an obvious pattern of baffling immaturity that tamped down his draft status for much of last fall. But then one of those totally arbitrary things happened: The Draft Establishment, such as it is, determined that Winston was a more NFL-ready prospect than Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.
And so this is where we stand heading into the combine: The placid and well-liked quarterback everyone thought would go first, Mariota, has now dropped down to fifth or sixth in mock drafts (in part because he may be too nice), and the “problematic” quarterback who appeared to be almost hopelessly wayward is now projected to be the No. 1 pick in the draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This is subject to change, of course, but everything is subject to change: That’s lesson one of the combine and its aftermath. If someone stumbles in the three-cone drill, his stock could drop precipitously. If someone sprints across 40 yards of artificial turf in particularly good time, his stock could skyrocket. It is all a matter of perception, and over the next few weeks, there is no escaping the toxicity of the process.
“Some things never really change,” wrote CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora, “especially when it comes to the odious pre-draft process in the NFL, which often remains a slog through negativity, a slow trudge through the lowest-common denominator of anonymous character assassinations of 20-year-old kids and thinly-veiled racism.”
In fact, I wonder if these perceptions become self-fulfilling prophecies. (Certainly, in the era before black quarterbacks were taken seriously, they did.) I wonder how it affects a 20-year-old whose spent his entire career being told he’s better than the majority of his peers, when suddenly he’s being told that he is deficient in some central aspect of football he’d never pondered before. I wonder if the negativity of the process actually winds up affecting the process itself, on both sides; if scouts are so paranoid of making mistakes that they actively seek out negativity, and if young athletes are so thrown by the process that they wind up getting stuck in patterns they can’t escape.
And I guess this is why the combine remains so fascinating: Because it feels like a metaphor for the thorny and harrowing social-media culture we now encounter every day. Because it is absurd and often highly inaccurate, and even if we’ve never played a down of football, at least we can all relate to the process of being judged.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb