Scouting combines, the Wonderlic, and game theory

It looks as though the NFL is adding a new mental aptitude test to evaluate players at the scouting combine. Why put that on a blog about political science? Well, because Gregg Doyel’s Twitter response below lets us think hard about some basic problems that plague cooperation across varying contexts, whether political, environmental/ecological, or—in this case—economic. Here’s what Doyel says:

GreggDoyelCBSCollege players should band together and refuse to take the Wonderlic, etc. If the results get leaked, and low scorers mocked, why take it?2/17/13 4:29 PM

Now, given the recent Wonderlic fallout, Doyel’s reaction is totally reasonable. (And for the record, I’m a big fan of Doyel’s work; his “Hate Mail” columns are priceless.) Who wants to take a test and run the risk of getting humiliated? *If* the players *could* band together and refuse to take these tests, then the league *would* be stuck, and it *would* have to accept the new reality; with the league unable to refuse to draft or sign anyone, the players would likely carry the day.

Maybe they *should*, but they likely *won’t*, because—if, as professionals, they care about their careers—individual players have no incentive to band together like this. Yes, this comes at the cost of low scorers getting mocked, but there’s just no real collective incentive to band together.

Why wouldn’t players want to cooperate here? Well, it depends on what players care about—their career or other players’ feelings. Here’s what I mean. Imagine that those who take it get treated better (say, signed to higher salaries or signed at all) than those who don’t. True, if none take these tests, the league can’t do anything, *but* what’s to stop one or a few people from thinking “Well, if I take it and the others don’t, I’m in a great position with the league after the combine.” Sure, the ones who maintain solidarity are made worse off—because the league can single them out with smaller or no contracts, which it couldn’t do if they all cooperated—but the ones who *do* take the tests have more of the pie to share amongst themselves. So if everyone else isn’t taking the tests, it benefits any given player to take it and prove his willingness to “play ball” (pun intended) with the league. And here’s the kicker (an unintended, but surely better, pun)—there’s no incentive to be left out, so if you know that the other guys are taking it, then you have to as well if you don’t want the punitive contract (or, again, no contract at all). Yes, you’re all back in the situation you were in before, but that’s better than not getting *anything*, which is what you get if you’re one of the few that doesn’t take the test.

So what does this all mean? To the extent that players are ambitious and care about their careers (which, presumably, is what professionalism is about), most if not all will take the Wonderlic and associated tests—despite the fact that it comes with all the bad stuff Doyel hits on, and despite the fact that *if* all the players refused, they all might be collectively happier. But, ultimately, if the league rewards those who take it over those who won’t, then this tragic outcome—the result of what is essentially a multiplayer prisoner’s dilemma—will be the most likely outcome, and we won’t see much of a change in how things work, however much better the alternative that Doyel points out might be.

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