Commentary

Much ado about nothing

Originally Published: February 28, 2013
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Manti Te'oJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesManti Te'o won a slew of college football awards and was runner-up for the Heisman. After the NFL combine, apparently none of that matters.

Manti Te'o's two 40-yard dashes took up roughly two hours of television time Monday afternoon -- a combined 9.64 seconds to run and 1 hour, 59 minutes, 50.36 seconds to replay, discuss, bemoan, assess, forecast, eviscerate and dissect.

If there was any doubt, and there never should have been, this clinched it: The NFL scouting combine is the most bloated, meaningless and downright bizarre spectacle in American sports.

There's not a human being outside of a team employee or a participant's family who should care about any of it -- not one jump, agility drill or sprint. Nobody should care about low hips, quick feet or long arms. The combine is nothing more than a series of group job interviews for new grads (in a football sense), and it's every bit as riveting as watching a kid from Cal State Fullerton tell a guy from Bristol-Myers where he sees himself in five years.

After Monday, Te'o will forever occupy a special place in the annals of the combine. Here is a kid who was the runner-up for the Heisman less than three months ago. Forget Ronaiah Tuiasosopo; think about how much worse at football this guy has gotten since then.

He doesn't accelerate beyond 20 yards. He doesn't keep his hips low. He looks a little stiff. And his arms -- get a load of this man's arms. They flail all over the place when he does the backpedal/shuffle/find-the-cone/catch-a-pass/run-to-the-end-zone drill. Not only that, but everybody remembers how poorly he played against Alabama. In the world of NFL obsessives, none of it is remotely acceptable.

(Not being an historian of the combine, I was unaware of some of the rules. For instance, it hurts you if you run a bad 40 time, but it also hurts you if you choose not to run the 40 because then you're perceived as being not ready to run a fast time.)

But when you stop to think about Te'o's combine performance, shouldn't the entire argument be reversed? Shouldn't he be celebrated for being such an excellent college player with such pedestrian skills? Hell, after hearing all the criticisms, maybe he should be honored for simply being able to walk out of the locker room and make it to the field.

[+] EnlargeJohn Harbaugh
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJohn Harbaugh goes to the NFL combine because it's in his job description, not because anything interesting happens.

The NFL folks really should have taken it slow with Manti; maybe have him come out and tie his shoes two or three times while a coach moves a football around in front of his face to direct his fingers around the laces.

The beauty of it? It would be every bit as pointless.

The combine is a convention for all the worst stereotypes, judgments and institutional intrusion. Mike Florio of profootballtalk.com reported that NFL general managers want to know if Te'o is gay. Nothing personal, of course, and nobody should read anything discriminatory into the question. They just need to know so they know what they're dealing with, and since they might end up paying him millions of dollars -- the boiler plate justification every time a GM asked a question that's none of his damned business -- they have a right to know what's coming into their locker room.

(The format of the combine, which consists of mostly African-American athletes performing in front of mostly white bosses, has led to inevitable linkage with some bad places in our country's past. Not saying the linkage is valid, especially since the combine is missing a vital element -- slavery -- but if you're inclined to view the world through the prism of race, it's not hard to draw parallels.)

Te'o faced some justified scrutiny for the fake girlfriend, but the microscopic attention at the combine was overwrought by a factor of about a million. By now, the vision of Te'o running the 40 is imprinted on the retinas of every sports fan in America. It's become a sports Zapruder. I lost count of the number of replays of his 40s we were given Monday afternoon, and I can pinpoint exactly when it happened: When they showed Te'o's face -- and only his face -- during a slow-motion replay of the first 40. At least I think it was slow motion, but after hearing all the expert angst, I'm not entirely sure. All I know is this: If it had been 0.12 of a second faster, no one would have called it slow.

Watching someone run, alone, might be the world's second-most boring sport. The first, without a doubt, is watching John Harbaugh watch someone run, alone.

There is hope -- however slim -- for Te'o. We are told he is a better at playing football than running around by himself. This is a good thing, because for the time being -- at least until the combine becomes more profitable for the NFL than its actual season -- he will be judged on his ability to play football.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com