Tests of Character

Article excerpt

With tens of millions of contract dollars on the line, extensive psychological screening has become an important part of evaluating prospective National Football League players.

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 prospect for the National Football League, or NFL, be careful how you answer. These are just a few of the true/false queries that make up the New York Giants' 400-question psychological exam -- one of many such tests given by pro teams to potential players participating in the NFL draft April 15-16.

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 Sigmund Freud as Vince Lombardi. While some clubs forgo personality testing -- the Buffalo Bills recently dropped it in favor of one-on-one interviews -- most at least dabble in it. And with millions of contract dollars at stake, the rationale for screening is simple: Select a player with the right mix of on-field aggression and off-field character No team wants to draft the next Dimitrius Underwood, the Minnesota Vikings' 1999 first-round draft pick who disappeared after his first day of training camp. Underwood later joined the Miami Dolphins but attempted suicide last September.

"When you draft a player, the careers of coaches and front-office people are on the line," says Robert Troutwine, a Kansas City-based industrial psychologist who in the last two decades has worked with 18 NFL teams. "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."

With the NFL's image tarnished by a series of scandals -- including the unrelated murder charges facing Carolina Panthers receiver Rae Carruth and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis -- the desire to uncover antisocial and criminal tendencies never has been greater. Personnel executives are reluctant to talk about the matter, but psychological screening seeks in part to identify a player's "red flags" -- undesirable traits such as a learning disability, a reluctance to take direction and mental or emotional instability. "We don't need to totally psychoanalyze everyone, but I think we ought to know where the red flags are" says Young, the NFL's vice president for player personnel. "Testing points out areas to investigate.... I'm not digging deep for pathologies."

But most teams are looking for more positive information, the little something extra that will help them identify the most promising players. Take, for instance, the predicament faced by Indianapolis during the 1998 draft. The Colts, with the top draft pick, were desperate for a quarterback and two of the best prospects, Tennessee's Peyton Manning and Washington State's Ryan Leaf, were on the block. Manning and Leaf were so close in size, arm strength and passing statistics that the Colts had Troutwine evaluate each player's mental makeup and character.

"We were looking at the possibility of a three-win season," Troutwine recalls. "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. 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.

Does that mean psychological testing alone can separate All-Pros from also-rans? …