Monday, February 29, 2016

What The NFL Isn't Learning From College Admissions


If you've been paying attention to college admissions lately, you know that the last year or so has seen quite a lot of interest in the changes to the SAT, which started with the PSAT last October and will fully take effect with the March test date. I have previously written about the efforts the College Board has made to teach admissions professionals on both sides of the desk about the new test, and also about my concerns that, based on PSAT scores, the revised test seems to be yielding higher than expected scores, which makes it hard for people to use them to help identify target schools for students.  Also, as my colleague Evan Wessler has pointed out, it will be impossible for colleges to "superscore" the old and new SATs, because they are so completely different. Evan has also observed that the new SAT is harder than the old one, and so students with equivalent scores will probably have fewer correct answers on the revised assessment. 

Google "changes to SAT", and you will find thousands of posts that try to explain the changes and help users (students, parents, teachers, school counselors, independent consultants, and college admissions officers) understand what they mean. College Board president David Coleman was quoted in a CNN report in 2014 as saying that the test needed to change because " [a]dmissions officers and counselors have said they find the data from admissions exams useful, but are concerned that these exams have become disconnected from the work of high school classrooms..." Despite that admirable motive,  in a New York Times article from Feb. 8, 2016, Eric Furda, the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania seems worried about how to interpret student results. "We're going to need to see how they did, which test is going to be better, how can we weigh it," before being able to fully embrace the revised SAT. 

A related quote can be found in a USA Today article from Feb. 21, 2016, where an official muses "Our first focus is to look at what we do currently and making sure that that's relevant. And if it is, great, we'll continue to do it, because historical comparison is really important to the evaluation process. But if we believe that there's something that's not relevant, then what can we replace it with that will help us evaluate"? While this quote seems to be quite similar to what we've seen above, it actually comes from Jeff Foster, president of National Football Scouting, Inc., which runs the annual "NFL Scouting Combine". The Scouting Combine is a very popular staple of ESPN and the NFL Network broadcasting, and hundreds of thousands of people tune in to watch former college pigskin stars try to achieve their best results in the following events:


  • 40 yard dash
  • Bench Press-maximum reps at 225 pounds
  • Vertical jump
  • Broad jump
  • 3 cone drill
  • Shuttle run

The USA Today article notes that a committee "of league executives, scouts, coaches, athletic trainers, team physicians and others" is being formed to "review all phases of the annual event". 
No, a quarterback's throwing session on the field won't be swapped for one in a virtual reality environment anytime soon. But the days of players training for months to score high in tests such as the 40-yard dash, vertical leap and bench press--sometimes derided as the "underwear Olympics" --could be numbered.
 "We're continuing to explore everything in an effort to improve," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. "So, if there are ways to tweak, improve, modify anything we do, we'll explore that...The mantra is, how can we get better?"
Wanting to improve is an admirable goal, but there is already backlash against the proposal. The Monday Morning Quarterback column in Sports Illustrated wrote about the proposed changes on Feb. 25, 2016. While reporter Robert Klemko (who has an interesting past) notes that making offensive linemen and interior defensive linemen risk injury trying to run a sub five seconds 40-yard dash is pointless, considering that they will rarely if ever have to sprint 120 feet in the course of a game, he notes that other changes have stakeholders nervous:
"You know you don't want to get away from the traditional drills that you've done because you have so much information stored over the years for a comparison," says Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, "but you don't want to grow stale either."
Such will be the main argument against any proposal to scrap or alter drills like the 40-yard dash and the vertical jump: A vast ocean of data sets from previous combines help evaluators compare and contrast prospects from various years.
"The one thing about the combine traditionally over the years is you have the ability to compare, year after year, the same drills," says Los Angeles Rams coach Jeff Fisher. "So we have information where we can go back 10, 15, 20 years and compare players to players. In the information age right now, it's becoming much easier to do that." Says one AFC scout: "In order for new drills to be used, it will take years for them to have as much meaning."  
The Scouting Combine may very well need to change. It has been derided as the "underwear Olympics" due to the skimpy outfits the players wear, it's also been compared to an antebellum slave market, and I haven't even mentioned the controversial Wonderlic intelligence test, which can tarnish someone's reputation forever, especially if they neglected to do any test prep (I'm looking at you, Vince Young). 


The changes to the SAT will probably be net positives in the long run, but in the short term they have caused a lot of worry for a great many people, and they also feed the fire of doubt about the validity of the tests as meaningful ways to compare applicants from year to year. The proposed changes to the NFL Scouting Combine seem to threaten to have similar results. It's not too late for the NFL to try to learn from the turmoil and upheaval going on in college admissions. Of course, football has never really paid attention to the SAT, so perhaps my hope is misplaced.

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