Every team attempts to find out as much pertinent information as they can about NFL prospects prior to the draft.
As former Jets owner Leon Hess used to say, "Please don't let me read something about our first-round pick the day after the draft that I didn't know before we selected him." Given that I was the team's director of player administration at the time, I took that as a direct challenge.
Moving on from controversy
I can remember a different owner's wife learning some information through the media about a draft pick just hours after he was selected and insisting that her husband dismiss the player immediately -- which he did. Another team quickly picked him up, and he had a solid career and never had another problem.
These recollections from my past lead me to the present, as Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland is being heavily criticized for asking wide receiver Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute during a pre-draft visit to Miami. The question has prompted some, including NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, to question the tactics used by some teams when interviewing players before the draft.
That's not surprising.
Ireland apologized to Bryant for the inappropriate question, which should be enough for everyone to get on with their business. The truth of the matter is that Ireland is a good man, who asked a bad question of a young prospect with off-field issues in his past.
As Mr. Hess -- who also owned Hess Oil corporation while I worked for him -- said many times, "You can't run a football team like your other businesses."
I must have heard Mr. Hess give that piece of advice to new NFL owners a number of times at league meetings.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross compared how he interviews candidates in his other businesses as being appropriate for the Dolphins organization to conduct its own interviews. In theory, that's good advice. But it's not that simple. In his other businesses, Ross has likely never had to interview a 21-year-old with no experience who's about to become one of his highest paid employees.
Ireland, like everyone in the business of building a solid football team, was attempting to learn everything he could. And for that, he wasn't wrong. Just one question was.
To understand how difficult this process is, think about this: There were times in my NFL experience -- especially with a high first-round pick -- when we resorted to hiring a private investigator rather than simply asking ourselves in an interview.
In 1996, we had the first pick in the draft and looked at a number of candidates before finally selecting Keyshawn Johnson, whose background report read like a charm. That same year we also thought about Lawrence Phillips -- until the private investigator report came back. It revealed a lot of important information about Phillips without ever asking him a question that might have been too sensitive.
The present system for interviewing players during the pre-draft process isn't conducive to learning enough to make an intelligent decision. The athletes are prepped by their agents and former front office executives, which makes a 15-minute interview easy to get through without saying much unless the interviewer can get them in an uncomfortable situation. Because of this, gathering information has led to some aggressive interview techniques. As one coach said, "Peel away the onion as fast as possible."
I worked with one coach who would bring a prospect into a room, barely say hello, turn the lights out, roll some game tape where the prospect was playing poorly, and just start grilling him. Before you knew it, the prospect would pile up excuses, blame his coach or the scheme. The coach would turn the lights back on, the player would leave, and his name was crossed off the list.
In that case, an effective interview was conducted.
The Bryant-Ireland situation has taught every NFL interviewer a valuable lesson, and I believe there will be greater sensitivity to personal issues that may not have anything to do with football. The challenge for the interviewer is what he should do if he believes there are things/people in a player's past that may influence how he performs his duties under contract.
You've also got to figure the number of high draft picks who support their families and friends. They move right in with the player, which has spelled trouble in the past. I've had dozens of players come to me and ask how to unhook themselves from the people hanging around, draining them dry or causing them so much worry that they couldn't focus on football.
I've interviewed Bryant, and I truly hope he has a great career and has learned from his mistakes. I also believe Ireland learned something and will continue to do his job well.
For the rest of us, it's time to move on.