Death to the Wonderlic

Published on: April 23, 2013 | Written by: BPriddy

By Brandon Priddy

The Wonderlic needs to die, and Clay has unwittingly shown us exactly why we need to kill it. His notion that making scores public would be of any service to these kids or anyone else is way off base – here’s why. 

On Thursday afternoon, a report surfaced from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that a trio of highly-touted receivers expected to go early in next week’s NFL draft had notched unimpressive numbers on the Wonderlic, the test given to NFL prospects as part of their pre-draft evaluation process. Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter of Tennessee and Tavon Austin of West Virginia scored 11, 12 and 7 respectively on the fabled NFL mind-meter.

Not long after, Clay posted an article on this site suggesting that all Wonderlic scores should be treated no differently from 40 times, bench press and vertical leap and made public for all the world to see. Through this, they could give a sense of how poor some of these scores are which would bring into stark relief the lackluster education provided to many high-level student-athletes.

First, in the interest of full disclosure I am a Mountaineer fan and write for the SmokingMusket.com, a WVU fan site. I’d be lying if I said that I’d give much of a damn if a player other than one I spent 4 years cheering for was at the center of this story, but I’d also be lying if I said my attitude towards those test scores hasn’t been changed by some reflection and study. I know folks who have talked to and interviewed Tavon and to suggest he’s near-illiterate is unfair and inaccurate, and if it’s unfair to him I can only assume it’s unfair to a variety of other young men who have found themselves in a similar situation.

Certainly there are problems with higher education with regards to student-athletes and what happens when the demands of the classroom conflict with the requirements to get on the field. I’m not here to argue that. What I am here to argue is the notion that a) publicizing those scores would have value and b) that the scores themselves have value. Fortunately for me, in the course of constructing his case for the publication of said scores, Clay proved why this would be an awful, awful idea.

From the column:

"A test score of ten on the Wonderlic is considered functional literacy. According to Wonderlic data the average engineer would score around a 30, the average security guard a 17.

So all three of these wide receivers tested borderline literate, and substantially less intelligent than an average security guard would test."

Broad statements like this are exhibit A for why these scores have no business being made public (or mattering at all – or really even existing – but I’ll get to that in a minute). This is one test given to one kid on one day. We don’t know if he was having a bad morning. We don’t know if he got any sleep the night before. We don’t know if this test was the last thing on his mind because 3 minutes before walking into the center he got a text message from an aunt or uncle asking for money.

These are young men who are very publicly entering an amazingly transformative phases of their lives. Everyone around them assumes they’ll be millionaires and they’re being dissected daily on blogs, draft boards and comment sections across America. Would you want your intellect judged based on a 12 minute snapshot of your brain during one of the most stressful times in your life? Yeah. Me neither.

Back to Tavon for a moment. I asked Jed Drenning (a great Twitter follow for WVU fans, by the way), who does sideline reporting for WVU radio broadcasts and has spent a lot of time around Austin to describe the kid. In his words Tavon is “quiet, soft-spoken; somewhat reserved. Came out of his shell in the spotlight last year and handled it well. I remember thinking when I interviewed him at pro day he’d come a long way in 4 years and now thinks on his feet pretty well in that setting.”

Does that sound like a kid who swaggers into a test and rattles off answers every 15 seconds? (that’s 50 answers in the 12 minutes allowed by the Wonderlic format for you security guards out there). Does it sound like a kid who has coasted through school for 4 years without working and will soon hang a worthless diploma on the wall?

Unfortunately in the absence of any real measurables, this test becomes a narrow window we get into their intelligence and as we peer throught that window we make a wide range of speculations about everything else about them, like whether or not they can read or are qualified to be security guards. That’s not helpful.

Again, from the column:

"For all the people out there screaming — Wonderlic scores don’t matter. First, they do. Ask Vince “Single Digit Wonderlic Score” Young why he’s out of the league already."

Damn right they matter. The stigma of a historically bad Wonderlic score is difficult to escape – so difficult that 7 years later, a career that was derailed by a variety of shortcomings (mental toughness, work ethic, inability to make any mid-range throw) is distilled down to one awful test score. Clearly something we want to saddle every player with by making them public and accessible. There are a million reasons that VY is no longer the Titans’ guy. That Wonderlic score is somewhere around reason 45,598.

One final piece of that column to end on:

"Which brings me to this question — if we release every single physical measurement from the NFL Combine — from arm length to standing broad jump to forty times to bench press repetitions to the three-cone drill, why do we not release the Wonderlic scores as well?

Why are academics uniquely shielded from all commentary and analysis?

If you’re going to praise a kid for being extremely fast or rip him for being extremely slow in the forty, why can’t you also discuss his academic strengths or weaknesses? Especially since athleticism is God-given. You can’t turn a kid with a 5.5 forty into a 4.5 forty, you either got it or you don’t. You can’t turn a twenty inch vertical into a forty inch vertical by hard work. Academics is different, with hard work and assistance most of us can succeed. But it isn’t easy. Why shouldn’t we offer more praise for the kids who are extremely athletic and extremely intelligent?"

This hit at the crux of my issue with making these scores public – and really the entire test. On one hand Clay is exactly right – academics can and should be a part of the conversation when evaluating a kid’s profile. Unfortunately things are much more complex than the scenario as he describes it.

Think of those 40 times and vertical leaps. They’re important, but are only measurements from a single day that are weighed against hours of film that exists on a kid from practices and more importantly games, often across years. There is a large sample of data out with which to make a judgment about a kid’s speed, agility and strength. Tavon Austin isn’t getting drafted in the first round because he ran a 4.28 40 (although it certainly helped). He’s getting drafted because he can do this.

But when you’re discussing his physical abilities, you have a large enough sample of information to make a fair and accurate judgment. Not so with academics. Draft experts don’t post GPAs next to bench press reps and we don’t get interviews with the American Literature teacher on ESPN. We get the Wonderlic, and that’s it.

And this is the true crime of the Wonderlic. Intelligence is a notoriously difficult thing to quantify and evaluate. ESPECIALLY by a standardized test like the Wonderlic. There are fights going on all over this country about kids’ intelligence (and thus teachers’ performance) being measured by endless sets of standardized testing that represent hours of effort by both participants and test-takers, but we’re going to base a young man’s entire intellectual profile on 50 questions given in 12 minutes. Anyone else see a problem here?

What the Wonderlic represents is a false measurement of a non-finite thing: intelligence. Unfortunately it’s placed alongside measurements of much more objective standards (time, weight, etc.) taken of things that are very finite (speed, strength, etc.). We then create an equivalency because hey, they’re all just numbers up there next to each other and numbers don’t lie. It’s just another stat that gives us a nice tidy picture of what this guy’s abilities are. He’s fast and he’s stupid. Next candidate, please.

Now to the part that Clay and I agree on. I 100% think that intellectual ability should get a bigger seat at the NFL (or NBA, or NHL) evaluation table and further agree that the only way that could happen is with some publicized report or result that would provide some criteria by which these guys’ mental capacities can be measured.

I just don’t think that the Wonderlic is that magic number – but that doesn’t mean something it can’t be crafted. The NFL is multi-billion dollar business and every year scouts, general managers, and coaches select new employees from a limited and pre-qualified pool. It’s not a huge group of people. Given the investment taking place, you’re telling me some type of evaluation can’t be created that would give a more accurate overall intellectual profile? The league and these teams have scouts and private investigators talking to everyone these kids have ever dealt with and digging into the most personal details of their lives. The information is certainly there – just not a standard form that will let them all be looking at the same number.

So make one.

Lock a pile of these guys in a room and come up with an alternative series of tests and evaluations that give a full picture of a kid. Weigh it for different stuff – part for general knowledge, part for problem solving, part for IQ – you get the idea. Hell, maybe even keep the Wonderlic in – but only as a PART of the tests, not the entirety. Be sure the different sections are given at different times so you get a more complete sample of information on the individual.

Is it a lot of time and trouble and a pain in the ass? Sure it is – just like everything else they’ve spent five months doing to decide how to spend your millions. When it’s all done, create a rating system of 1 to 5 or 1 to 10 or whatever that rates the different areas. Tally it all up at the bottom and voila – you have your number. Have the entire thing administered by a contracted 3rd party to be sure every team is working with the same info. Then post it publicly.

Did I wildly oversimplify that process? Yes, I did. But you get the idea. It’s possible to get a more accurate assessment of intelligence than what the Wonderlic gives us. Maybe with a more accurate test you get a measurable that begins to correlate to their eventual performance on the field. Then it’s a valuable stat that people care about. And that is what Clay is really after – an objective third-party measurable that evaluates where these kids truly are intellectually. Now you can accurately judge the quality of education they’re getting and more importantly (for the NFL at least) you’ve got something in the history by which to judge how much value a player’s intelligence actually holds for you. Maybe a trend emerges for guys who score a certain way. Maybe academics start to matter again.

Is it perfect? No. But it’s a step in the right direction. It’s time to kill the Wonderlic – we can do better.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter: @abpriddy