Hey, NFL: Why Not Weed Out Psychopaths With a Personality Test? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Hey, NFL: Why Not Weed Out Psychopaths With a Personality Test?

Hey, NFL: Why Not Weed Out Psychopaths With a Personality Test?

By Matt Foley


Because gridiron grace comes equipped with madness.

By Matt Foley

For a few days following the 2017 NFL Draft, a substantial group of American keyboard warriors were launched into the throngs of an internet debate over a surprisingly mundane topic: standardized tests. This, however, was no state-issued exam. No, this was football’s most famous quiz — a test that sends gridiron gods furiously flipping through old SAT practice exams. This was the Wonderlic.

The Wonderlic Personnel Test is a 12-minute cognitive exam administered during the annual NFL Draft Combine and aimed at measuring the mental aptitude of potential employees. This year, the test results were leaked to the public, thus lending topic fillers to unimaginative sports blogs across the country. Some scores were high, some scores were low — many folks were offended.

But the main problem with Wonderlic tests is not that inept test-takers may acquire hurt feelings. No, the issue at hand is that, as a tool, they provide little to no predictive value when it comes to football performance, and could easily be replaced with more meaningful measures. In an era in which the NFL is in a constant prevent defense for its players’ off-the-field conduct, one would assume that locating potential troublemakers is mission critical. Rather than diddling around with the Wonderlic, it’s time for the National Football League to test for psychopathy. 

Meanwhile, the offseason headaches — namely, arrests — pile up.

For starters, Wonderlic scores do not correlate well with a player’s value on the field. On average, offensive tackles log the highest score with 26 out of 50 correct answers, while quarterbacks, the position most associated with efficient cognition, come in at 24. At the individual level, it’s clear that there’s no rhyme or reason to the predication. Ryan Fitzpatrick, a journeyman QB and noted Harvard graduate, famously scored a 48, while Hall of Famers Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw scared some teams away with their 15s. Placing any value on the Wonderlic also assumes that players will take the task seriously. “Nobody really answered it,” Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette, who scored an 11 this spring, told Jeff Eisenband on ThePostGame podcast. “I probably answered five or 10 of them. After that, I stopped.”

Meanwhile, the offseason headaches — namely, arrests — pile up. In 2017, 23 NFL players have been reported arrested, 11 by way of violent crime. The crime rate among the NFL’s roughly 1,700 players is nearly half that for American males ages 20 to 34, but they get arrested for domestic violence and assault at much higher rates than the average American of their age or tax bracket. In today’s media climate, where sports conversations more regularly tackle issues of politics and morality, these off-field transgressions are an increasing public image problem. “Domestic violence is a morality issue,” says Jemele Hill, co-host of ESPN’s SC6 with Michael and Jemele. “We don’t set out to talk about these things, but we won’t shy away from discussing real-life issues.”


Instituting predraft psychopathy exams cannot totally curb crime in the NFL. In this imperfect world, the beautifully flawed business of football is, perhaps, America’s most perfect reflection. Like any other business, some employees will get their paws dirty, and not every criminal is a psychopath; plenty of folks make bad decisions or end up in unfortunate situations. But there is reason to believe that keeping a watchful eye on players who exhibit psychopathic tendencies — disinhibition, impaired empathy, extreme boldness, for instance — could benefit the league.

In The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success, Oxford University psychologist Kevin Dutton writes that top athletes tend to contain a high degree of psychopathic traits, including ruthlessness, lack of panic and self-assurance. And while the vicious environment of professional football may very well be the perfect place for a “good psychopath,” wouldn’t it benefit teams to ditch the Wonderlic and begin testing for traits that could affect organizational payroll and public image and comprise the risky space between success and disgrace?

After all, no one wants to draft the next Aaron Hernandez. Bill Belichick had enough trouble getting out of one court order.

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