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Revenge of the Jocks -- and Adventures in Academic Peer Review

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OBAMA BASKETBALL
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Should we care that Presidents Obama (basketball), Bush and Bush (baseball), and Ford (football) played competitive sports in the past? Should employers care whether you were among the approximately 43 percent of Americans who played at least one sport in high school?

New research published this month by the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies shows that -- justifiably or not -- people who played a varsity high school sport are expected to be more self-confident, have more self-respect, and demonstrate more leadership than people who were part of other extracurriculars.

Beyond expectations, the new article finds separately that people who earned a varsity letter more than 50 years ago actually do demonstrate more leadership, self-confidence, and self-respect -- plus, they donate time and money more frequently than others.

While the article's text is free to read, three notable aspects that were left on the cutting floor as part of the peer review process seem worthwhile to highlight.

The most prominent aspect? Along with co-authors Brian Wansink and Mitsuru Shimizu, I drafted earlier versions of the new research article to include a pilot study in which we tried to figure out whether former athletes are disproportionately over- or under-represented in Congress.

Lots of other information is collected about Congresspeople -- the Congressional Research Service, for example, systematically profiles each Congress and reports patterns in variables like previous Occupation, Religion, and Educational degrees.

In our case, we were able to collect information during the 2011-12 legislative session from 45 U.S. representatives' offices and 32 senators' staff -- not enough for a study, but certainly an extraordinary source of anecdotal information.

Neat findings from the systematic but incomplete survey suggest that sports-playing Presidents are the tip of the iceberg in the U.S. political hierarchy - that former student-athletes are disproportionately over-represented. For some interesting examples: the independent US Senator (I-VT) Bernie Sanders ran track and field in high school; Cleveland-based U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge played basketball, field hockey, and soccer; and, reportedly, the diminutive and former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich was part of his high school's football team.

Outside of politics?

CEO biographical data isn't readily available with respect to past sports participation but students of obituaries and "profiles" in major newspapers will recognize that sports experiences are often mentioned in stories about high-ranking -- and often philanthropic -- business and community leaders.

What else landed on the cutting floor for the new article?

Peer reviewers made it crystal clear that causality should not be attributed to the findings that we presented. We agree. Throughout the article, we discuss how participation in competitive youth sports seems to "indicate" or "signal" organizationally-beneficial personality traits and behaviors.

At some point in the process, though, it's also true that sports or music lessons or parenting or you-name-it must have some influence on causing or influencing the development of helpful traits and behaviors. In other words, unless one buys some form of genetic determinism, then it makes sense that a person's social environment (e.g., being part of a sports team) is going to help form or shape their values and preferences.

From my shoes -- and thanks to my parents' investments as well as the resources of volunteer-run youth sports programs -- I learned tons of lifelong lessons about how people should function in organizations from playing competitive youth sports like baseball, football, and soccer.

That fact is the third aspect of the article that's not visible since academic articles typically need to be "theoretically motivated"; and so, authors' hunches usually have no place in a published article.

Oh, and a fourth aspect that was left on the cutting floor?

We entitled earlier versions of the article "Revenge of the Jocks" since the findings generally describe favorable outcomes for former student-athletes in contrast with the stereotype that jocks see their glory days fade at high school graduation (see Al Bundy, Married With Children) while others age much better. The new research article makes no mention of this riff on the Revenge of the Nerds but it does state plainly that people who earn a Varsity letter in high school do tend to enjoy advantages that extend beyond high school graduation day.

How much advantage? That's tough to say at this point but it is interesting to note that the one person most would consider closest to being a presidential candidate for 2016 reportedly played shortstop as a girl, knew how to hit a curveball, and, sadly for her, grew up as a Cubs fan.

Kevin Kniffin is a behavioral scientist at Cornell University.

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