Friday, February 25, 2000

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 Thursday 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.

According to New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, it’s those factors and not just the bench press maximums, body fat percentages and 40-yard dash times measured at the combine that can separate a mediocre player from a great one.

“We look for competitiveness, the way you handle pressure, a lot of things,” Accorsi said. “You look for a guy who will play in the clutch, who isn’t afraid of the big moment. Because you don’t just evaluate a player on being a great athlete.”

“We don’t need Joel [Goldberg, a licensed therapist who conducts player screening for the Giants] to tell us if a guy runs a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash. We’ve got that timed. But Joel will provide something that if a guy runs a 4.6, then maybe he plays to a 4.4. And there’s a lot of that.

“Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith and Marcus Allen are three players that did not time well. They all got drafted later than they should have been. But on the field, no one catches them and they’re all going to the Hall of Fame.”

Though former Giants general manager George Young generally is credited with introducing the Wonderlic exam the 12-minute intelligence test is still used at the combine to the league more than three decades ago, it’s Goldberg who pioneered the use of more extensive evaluations.

In 1981, Goldberg approached Giants team president Wellington Mara with the novel idea of using a standardized personality test to help gauge the character of potential draftees. Mara agreed, and the test the California Psychological Inventory is still used by the team, Goldberg said.

Many other clubs base their exams on the 16PF (Personality Factor), a 105-question exam that measures qualities such as aggressiveness and leadership ability. And 10 teams use Troutwine’s Athletic Profile, which measures how individuals react to particular situations.

Why the variety? According to Troutwine, different teams look for different traits. The Giants, for example, emphasize good character, while former Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson once said he looked for players who “eat nails and spit bullets.”

“A team that’s had locker room problems in the past may be more interested in a player’s social makeup, whereas another team may not care if a player is quiet and shy or outgoing,” Troutwine said.

Whatever the format, screening has become a popular practice so much so that the NFL has assigned a designated psychologist to conduct 15-minute interviews of every prospect at the combine. The interviews are then distributed to interested teams around the league.

“When I started out, nobody wanted to talk to me,” Goldberg said. “I used to have to interview players in the wells of staircases. The combine people wouldn’t give me any time or space.

“And to be honest, I enjoyed being the only one, being a maverick. It used to be easier to give the test. Now everyone’s fighting for the same bodies.”

‘Red flags’

Of course, teams aren’t just looking for leadership, drive and the courage to get up after a big hit. While many personnel executives are reluctant to talk about the matter, psychological screening also seeks 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,” said Young, now the NFL’s vice president for player personnel. “Testing points out areas to investigate. I don’t always take the testing at face value, but when it’s in the hands of professionals, it can give you a clearer picture.”

With the NFL’s image tarnished by a recent series of high-profile player run-ins with the law 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.

Yet according to Troutwine, sorting out such traits is an inexact science.

“I’m not digging deep for pathologies,” Troutwine said. “There are more appropriate tests for that. I work with colleges as well, and I had worked Underwood up for [former Spartans coach] Nick Saban at Michigan State during his freshman year, and then again later on. And I was surprised that he acted out some of the symptoms and behaviors that he did. I thought that maybe he could maintain a bit better.”

Troutwine wasn’t the only one. The Vikings reportedly interviewed Underwood five times before signing him to a five-year, $5 million contract. Likewise, the Dolphins who reportedly use two psychologists to screen prospects had no problem claiming Underwood just 10 days after Minnesota released him.

While both teams claimed surprise at Underwood’s bizarre behavior, it’s likely both organizations had at least an inkling that something was wrong.

“There are some teams that may know about a particular problem and be willing to live with it,” Troutwine said. “I won’t say who, but there’s been a couple of players in the league who have been bipolar. If those players don’t take their medication, they’ll have all sorts of problems. And teams generally knew that going in.”

The Dolphins, for example, selected troubled Louisiana State running back Cecil Collins in the fifth round of last year’s draft, knowing full well that Collins had a checkered past that included two dismissals from college, three drug test failures and four years probation for breaking into two apartments and fondling two women.

In December, Collins was arrested on two counts of burglary in Davie, Fla., and faces possible jail time in Louisiana for violating the terms of his previous probation.

Why would Miami take a chance on a clearly troubled player like Collins? A cynic might suggest it had something to do with his 583 rushing yards in three games at LSU. But according to Young, taking risks is sometimes an inescapable aspect of player selection.

“A player might show a tendency toward cheating or even criminality,” he said. “But you can’t make your judgment based on just one thing you might find something negative on a guy, like stubbornness. Well, stubbornness can be a strength if you’re a defensive lineman.

“And I don’t know if our sport is the sport of the well-adjusted to start with. Most people who attained greatness in things aren’t the best adjusted. So what’s the bottom line in terms of maladjustment and still being successful?”

In the 1998 draft, Marshall receiver Randy Moss perhaps the most talented player available was passed over by 20 teams, largely because he had a history of drug and personal problems. But the Vikings took a chance with the 21st pick, and Moss has rewarded their judgment with a pair of trouble-free, Pro Bowl seasons.

“Randy Moss has probably proven a lot of people wrong, and I’ll throw myself into that group,” Troutwine said. “I said if a team were to put him in a corner ‘These are our rules, and you’re going to do it this way’ then some of the negative traits, a surly attitude and tendency to rebel against authority, would surface.

“However, I did say that in the right environment with the right coach, he’d be OK. [Vikings coach] Dennis Green has done a great job handling him, and pairing him with [Vikings receiver] Cris Carter has been a marriage made in heaven.”

To test or not to test?

Moss’ success raises some prickly questions: Are psychological evaluations reliable? Are they even appropriate for a profession in which running fast, jumping high and hitting hard are the primary prerequisites for stardom?

In the 1970s and 1980s, researchers at the University of Wisconsin used personality testing to predict whether Olympic aspirants would make the team. The researchers were correct roughly 75 percent of the time a number that sounds impressive, but according to some experts is hardly high enough to justify pre-draft testing.

“It means that psychological factors play a role in sport success and failure, but they play a modest role,” said Dr. Jack Raglin, an associate professor of sports psychology at Indiana University. “They’re not sufficient as a selection method. They always make mistakes cases where athletes are predicted to be great and aren’t, or predicted to fail and make the team.”

The NFL’s continuing use of the Wonderlic exam on which Moss reportedly scored a 12 out of 50, seven points below the league average is particularly controversial.

Administered to every player at the combine, the Wonderlic is a general intelligence test that measures learning and problem-solving skills. On draft day, most NFL teams have Wonderlic scores readily available, and some clubs even attach minimum score requirements to particular positions for example, Cleveland Browns coach Chris Palmer reportedly requires quarterbacks to score at least 22.

But with players like Moss and free agent quarterback Dan Marino, who reportedly scored a 16, performing at high levels, some wonder if the test is necessary.

“What is the goal here?” Anshel said. “These athletes went to university they may or may not have a degree, but they’ve been in school. What kind of level of lack of intelligence would compel you to not draft a player who’s getting 1,000 yards a season? If a Ricky Williams scores low, you’re not going to draft him?”

Others question the ethics involved in testing. While NFL clubs say they are sure to get a player’s consent before sharing the results of tests and interviews with coaches and personnel executives, Raglin said players may have no choice but to agree.

In 1994, Florida State quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward refused to be interviewed by NFL teams before the draft. Ward was not drafted, and now plays in the NBA where pre-draft screening is extremely rare.

“From a professional standpoint, there’s a question of confidentiality and the uses of this information,” Raglin said. “Are players agreeing to take these tests freely? Or are they agreeing because they feel pressured or coerced?

“A player who decides not to participate in these tests gets a negative halo. They’re not a team player, not cooperative, may even be trying to hide something. Forget the fact that they may be independent, critically thinking, sophisticated.”

Accorsi said the Giants would still consider selecting a player who refused to take their test.

“If we had a chance to pick Peyton Manning and he wouldn’t take the test, it wouldn’t stop us,” he said. “But the test does make you feel more comfortable especially if it’s a high pick.

“I think players drop in stock when they run 4.7 and you think they’re going to run 4.4, or if something happens where they’re involved with the law. But I don’t know if I’d drop a player for a test.”

For most teams, Accorsi said, psychological screening isn’t so much a make-or-break proposition as a way to round out more traditional methods of scouting.

“It’s like something we have called the reaction box,” he said. “The reaction box is a test that basically tells you if a guy is a good, athletic guy in a small space, with change of direction and explosion. And if you don’t see a guy play well, but he has a phenomenal box and you pick him, then you’re headed for trouble.”

While not every NFL team utilizes personality testing the Buffalo Bills recently dropped it in favor of one-on-one interviews most clubs at least dabble in it.

In 1984, Troutwine worked with just one team, the Kansas City Chiefs. This year, he’s evaluating players for 10 clubs, including the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears.

Though the assessment process is hardly foolproof, Troutwine said, it’s sound enough for the NFL’s purposes.

“In terms of accuracy, the best analogy I can give you is the weather forecast,” he said. “Yes, occasionally it snows and we miss, and sometimes we’re off by 10 degrees. So it’s not infallible. But usually we’re accurate. And if you’re a farmer and you’re looking to plant, are you going to ignore the weather?”

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