Our National Saturday Morning Combines

Next week, the NFL Draft will come to Chicago again.  For most of us, it will mean a headache of closed streets, crowded restaurants, bad traffic, and a lot of fuss about a system of connecting players and teams that seems archaic or even anti-American to many.

For some people who live and die with sports, though, it’s among the most important weeks in their year.  And the way it works got me thinking about the process leading up to it, and how it connects–in an admittedly strange way–to college admissions.  Thus, my second blog post connecting football to test-optional admissions. Here’s the first one, in case  you’re interested.

Teams have a lot riding on the outcome of the draft, and they spend millions of dollars scouting players.  This includes weeks of film study, personal interviews with players, and participation in the NFL Combine, where they run players through a series of drills like the 40-yard dash, the bench press, and the 3-cone drill.  These results are provided to all the teams who analyze the data and combine it with their own individual analysis.

Lots of people have pointed out that these workouts provide almost no additional value to teams: The 40-yard dash, something offensive linemen almost never do, for instance, is particularly suspect, yet it’s often one of the most frequently cited statistics; even for positions where you think it might matter, it often doesn’t.  Jerry Rice, for instance, arguably the greatest receiver in NFL history, had an abysmal time of 4.71 seconds.

If you can’t get to that Wall Street Journal article, here is a chart from it that makes the point:


And there are other articles you can easily find showing players who did really well on these tests and ended up being not-so-great in football (although, of course, just making it to the NFL is quite an accomplishment).

The reason is simple, I think: The NFL is looking for people who can play football really well.  And the best way to find football players with potential is to watch them actually play football.  The other stuff might (emphasis on might) contribute to football ability, but the NFL would never draft a guy who finished first in every test, but had never set foot on a football field.

So it is with college admissions at test-optional colleges.  We’re looking for students who can do academics really well.  That’s best measured by high school performance, not your results in a three-hour Saturday morning dash.

The four years a student spends in high school is far more similar to the four years in college than three or four hours in a standardized testing environment on a Saturday morning: On Saturday, you choose the “right” answer from four given.  All things being equal, this is not a bad skill to have.  And if you’re a super-selective institution, you have the ability to demand both exceptional academic performance and great standardized tests.  (If the NFL draft were not such a shining example of socialism, the Bears might be able to attract more talent–as measured on both football ability and combine scores–because of a financial base stronger than the Tennessee Titans, for instance.)

But the four years in college isn’t spent choosing an answer on multiple choice tests under a tight time constraint, just like time on a football field isn’t spent doing 40-yard dashes or bench-pressing lots of weight repeatedly or jumping as high as you can.

It’s spent listening, reading, absorbing, synthesizing, dissecting, drafting, writing, and re-writing over a period of ten of fifteen weeks.  And if you’ve done something similar in high school, and done it well, there’s a good chance you’re ready for the big leagues of college.  Again, if you have the academic equivalent of a great broad jump, that’s terrific.  But not having it doesn’t mean you won’t do well.  Similarly, of course, there are really good football players who don’t measure up in the vertical jump, and in fact, almost never have to do a vertical jump on the field.

The NFL Combine is likely to continue, probably because it’s filled with people who have always done it that way, and people who have come through the system.  In that sense, it’s like the people at the most prestigious universities, who are there precisely because in part, they scored well on standardized tests throughout their whole life, and believe they are meaningful and important in selecting candidates.

They don’t seem to mind that they’re almost certainly missing a Tom Brady or a Jerry Rice; and they’re not interested in taking chances because a) they don’t have to, b) there is little reward for doing so, and c) they believe tests indicate something important.  Many other institutions don’t see life through the same lens.  And that’s the big difference.

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