Right now in Indianapolis, potential NFL rookies are being subject to what is easily the toughest job interview on the planet.
The NFL Scouting combine, which started Thursday, is a week-long grind of physical and mental tests so grueling some players have said it left them feeling like lab rats. During the ordeal, they’ll go through drug tests, IQ tests and MRIs. They’ll be measured on 40-yard-dashes, 225-pound bench presses and vertical jumps. And they’ll be asked all kinds of inexplicable questions, from whether they prefer to wear a sweater or a coat in the winter to whether they’d let their hypothetical 16-year-old daughter use birth control. (And no, in case you’re wondering, it has nothing to do with the GOP primary).
All of which might be worth it if it really gave coaches and general managers an accurate prediction of who’ll be a success in the NFL. But according to research by economists Frank Kuzmits and Arthur Adam, it doesn’t. In a 2008 paper in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Kuzmits and Adam wrote that “using correlation analysis, we find no consistent statistical relationship between combine tests and professional football performance, with the notable exception of sprint tests for running backs.”
The combine also includes the infamous Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test, which measures intelligence via a 12-minute battery of 50 questions such as, “Paper sells for 21 cents a pad. What will four pads cost?” Although football watchers pore over the results each year, researchers have questioned its value. A study by professors at the University of Georgia and Towson University found that scores were unrelated to future NFL performance. Another study found no statistically significant relationship between intelligence and collegiate passing performance, along with no evidence of higher NFL pay for players with higher Wonderlic scores. Even if NFL team leaders don’t see it as the be-all, end-all—other measures are considered—it must count for something, because the Wonderlic continues to be used.
The results of the combine can play a big role in the annual NFL draft, which itself has been showed to be flawed. No less a behavioral economist than Richard Thaler has found that top draft picks are overvalued and that those who make the decisions beat randomness, but only slightly. As Jonah Lehrer wrote last week for Wired, “instead of embracing their uncertainty – human talent remains mysterious, even with reams of college statistics – most NFL teams default into overconfidence, trading up for draft picks and bestowing massive contracts on these new recruits.”
And yet the yearly media spectacle persists. No doubt it gives teams about to spend millions of dollars of future talent an understandable look under the hood, and it surely has some value to both players and team leaders. Most leaders would surely love to get a week to put the talent they’re about to hire through their paces and compare potential recruits to their highly touted competition.
But in an era of Linsanity, all this number crunching and athletic sizing-up should make us stop and think. Surely there are NFL players from second-tier football colleges who will go undrafted and unrecognized this week—that is, until some coach turns desperate and decides to give them a shot. Jeremy Lin should be a reminder to us all that assessing talent is hard, and requires a lot more than measuring athletic prowess or tallying up results on a test. What matters is how players perform on the field, with their teammates, under the gun, and with their coach behind them. It’s in those moments, and really in those moments only, when leaders can really know what kind of talent they have.
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