The ‘It’ hits the fan: the Wonderlic Personal Test

sideline commentary

A few years ago, a friend told me that the Toronto Raptors’ decision to draft swingman Morris Peterson was impelled by the advice of a blind man. Now, notwithstanding my personal opinions of Peterson at that time—poor man’s Michael Redd, rich man’s Air Bud—it seemed ironic to me that an evaluation of athletic prowess or potential should be influenced by someone who had never seen the athlete…or, for that matter, the game of basketball.

However, when then-General Manager Glen Grunwald consulted this purported draft guru (a man who, I remind you, was completely blind) about his interviews with potential draftees, Grunwald was told that Peterson undeniably had it. The blind man, the story goes, had a knack for sensing a quality (it) in people which made them ideal teammates, competitors, and leaders. He could also allegedly sniff out a single-malt scotch from across a crowded bar room, but that’s neither here nor there.

It, the argument goes, is what separates legends from mere superstars. It is that intangible quality posessed by some athletes which allows them to transcend their circumstances and lift a team to victory. Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady, Mario Lemieux and Curt Schilling are all good examples of guys who have it. This is what separates them from Vinsanity, Peyton Manning, Aki Berg and pretty much the entire Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen for the past five years.

But the question of what exactly lands someone in the first group of names is a lot less straightforward than it seems. We know it when we see it. But just what it is is not always obvious. And, especially in today’s world of professional sports, where the minimum standards of athletic talent and ability are so profoundly high that much of the field is levelled (notable exception: backup Toronto Raptors guard Darrick “Molasses” Martin), we increasingly want our teams to acquire those athletes who have it. The important question—barring more GMs’ decisions to take Grunwald’s Scent of a Woman approach to drafting—is whether there’s any way to detect it in advance.

Apparently there is. Within the world of NFL scouting, it’s called the Wonderlic Personal Test (WPT)—most recently newsworthy in connection with the controversy surrounding former University of Texas quarterback Vince Young. The WPT is a very basic problem-solving test which has been used by NFL teams for decades as a supposedly reliable predictor of an individual’s capacity for professional performance.

Now, apparently Vince Young—the same guy who, one month earlier, singlehandedly won the most hyped Rose Bowl of all time against the most hyped college football team of all time—did not do so well on the WPT. More specifically, he was reported to have scored a 6/50 on his first try, which he improved to a 16/50 on his second try—keep in mind, this is a test where a 10/50 is considered “literate.”

Having done some research on the test myself (real sample question: “When rope is selling at 10 cents a foot, how many feet can you buy for 60 cents?”), I can appreciate why these results would be disconcerting for scouts and fans alike.

At the same time, I was watching the night that Young, who is 30-2 as a starter, produced 467 yards of total offense, including the last-second nine-yard game-winning scramble, leading his team to an improbable national championship. Now, there wasn’t a single person watching that game who wasn’t thinking “Man, this guy has IT.”

And for this reason, I don’t care about his (embarassingly) low score on the WPT—it’s the sports equivalent of Johnnie Cochrane scoring a 140 on the LSAT.

Granted, Vince Young might have gotten lost on his way from the field to the locker room after that game. He may pronounce “library” as “liberry.” And (another sample question, just for fun: “The ninth month of the year is: a) October, b) January, c) June, d) September, e) May”) he might need to be reminded to breathe and eat from time to time.

But the notion that this intellectual shortcomings should affect his proven capacity to perform on the football field seems counterintuitive and out of line with the way that we regard professional athletes.

When I attended my first NCAA basketball game at the naïve age of nine, I remember marvelling as I perused the teams’ respective rosters. In particular, I was blown away by the disproportionate number of players majoring in kinesiology. Awestruck, I remarked to my dad, “look at how many of these guys are gonna be doctors.” At this point, the heavyset, intoxicated Michigan fan on my other side exclaimed that “kinesiology is just a grownup word for gym class!” And when it comes to draft day, that star power forward’s D+ in KIN 490: “Innies versus Outties: A Comparative Study” just doesn’t seem to matter.

And we’re willing to excuse far more than intellectual weakness when we like what we see on the court. As Chuck Klosterman cogently puts it, “Usually [we] don’t hold pro athletes to particularly high social standards. Fans are very unforgiving of performative failures, but there are virtually no behavioral requirements for being beloved: for example, there are a handful of active superstars who many people still suspect might be murderers or rapists. The only thing we truly demand of pro athletes is that (a) they never associate with known gamblers, and (b) they always, always try to win.”

And from everything I know about Vince Young as a football player—simply because I’m not concerned with his capacity to be my investment banker—he’s a winner who has it. And sometimes we’re so obsessed with obtaining quantifiable scores and rankings that we ignore the plainly visible—yet intangible and often indescribable—qualities being demonstrated on the field of play.

After all, at the end of the day, we really just want our quarterbacks to run and throw the football when it counts. If they can identify the ninth month of the year, we consider that a bonus.

That’s not to say that tests like the Wonderlic are completely irrelevant. Given the proper predictory weight, they might provide helpful information. But, like any other ostensibly standardized test, they can misrepresent the facts: for the record, Brett Favre scored a 22 while Ryan Leaf racked up a 27. Surely, the Wonderlic could not have predicted Favre’s Super Bowl ring and assured seat in the Hall of Fame, let alone Leaf’s failed career, his forced early retirement, or his status as the “Most Hated Sports Figure Out of the State of Montana.” Of course, no GM wants to draft the guy who punches a fan in the midst of athletic competition. But if Ron Artest is also the best shutdown defender around, then the world—or at least the Sacramento Kings—will find a way to love him.

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