Tests of Character: With Millions of Contract Dollars on the Line, Extensive Psychological Screening Has Become an Important Part of NFL Scouting

Article excerpt

Are you a very ticklish person? Does everything taste the same to you? Would you like the work of a dress designer?

If you're a NFL prospect, be careful how you answer - these are just a few of the true/false queries that make up the New York Giants' 400-plus question psychological exam, one of many such tests given by various teams to potential selections in April's draft.

Commonplace in corporate America, extensive mental and emotional screening has become an important part of NFL scouting, a process that increasingly owes as much to Freud as Lombardi.

During the league's annual scouting combine, which began yesterday in Indianapolis, players are given a 12-minute, 50-question general intelligence exam that has more in common with the SAT than PATs. Moreover, many of the best players are then shuttled among different teams' hotel suites to take dozens of additional personality and behavior tests.

With millions of contract dollars on the line, the rationale for screening is simple: Select a player with the right mix of on-field aggression and off-field character - and not the next Dimitrius Underwood, the Minnesota Vikings' 1999 first-round draft pick who disappeared after his first day of training camp, later latched on with the Miami Dolphins and ultimately attempted suicide last September.

"When you draft a player, the careers of coaches and front-office people are on the line," said Robert Troutwine, a Kansas City-based industrial psychologist who in the last two decades has worked with 18 NFL teams, including the Washington Redskins. "So it makes sense to know more about what's in the head and the heart of a player. Nobody tries to make a bad decision, but bad decisions come from having the wrong information."

SEARCHING FOR CHARACTER

Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf? In 1998, that was the choice facing the Indianapolis Colts, who had the top pick in the draft and were desperate for a quarterback.

As the two best prospects, Tennessee's Manning and Washington State's Leaf were so close in size, arm strength and passing statistics that the Colts had Troutwine evaluate each player's mental makeup and social style.

"We were looking at the possibility of a three-win season," Troutwine said. "And we had concerns about our offensive line protecting these guys. So we wanted to know how they would react to adversity.

"I said that Leaf would be very frustrated if the press hounded him, that Manning would be able to handle a bad season much better. And I wasn't worried about him handling success, either - whereas if Leaf had had success, there may have been the tendency to have a little bit of a big head."

Partially on the basis of Troutwine's assessment, the Colts selected Manning, while the San Diego Chargers took Leaf with the No. 2 pick. Since then, Manning has followed a 3-13 rookie campaign with a 13-3 Pro Bowl season; Leaf, by contrast, has played poorly and sparingly, alienating teammates, fans and the media while languishing on the Chargers' bench.

So does that mean psychological testing alone can separate All-Pros from also-rans? Not exactly.

"The prediction rate for future performance is very low," said Mark Anshel, a sports psychologist at Texas Tech university. "In the 1960s, there was a psychiatrist who said he could tell the difference between a flanker versus a running back versus an offensive lineman. Well, that turned out to be nonsense.

"But what we can measure are dispositions, sport-related ways of thinking - confidence, anxiety, competitiveness, the importance of winning. A test might tell us that winning isn't all that important to you, or you don't get highly motivated to win."

What teams hope to gain through personality screening is insight into a player's "intangibles" - how well they learn, how they respond to authority, how hard they compete, how they may react to the severe and varied pressures of professional football. …