As Charles Wonderlic drove from the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis to his company’s headquarters near Chicago on February 27, 2011, he made the mistake of turning on a sports radio show. The host, as Wonderlic remembers, was talking about Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy’s near-perfect Wonderlic score. Each winter, hundreds of football prospects take the multiple-choice test that claims to measure their intelligence. Results are supposed to be kept confidential, yet they always seem to become media fodder.
In reality, there’s no way anyone could’ve known McElroy’s score. On that day four years ago, as reports of McElroy’s supposed feat trickled out, sealed boxes containing every single Wonderlic answer sheet were sitting in Charles Wonderlic’s car, still unscanned. Wonderlic, Inc. didn’t send an encrypted file of the players’ results to the NFL until March 1. Unsurprisingly, a variety of news outlets ran with the story anyway.1 The months leading up to the NFL Draft feel like election season: Everybody’s trying to dig up dirt on candidates.
“Are we just so starved for information this time of year that we search for anything?” wondered NFL Scouting Combine director Jeff Foster, who only agreed to be interviewed for this article after I assured him that I wouldn’t be reporting individual Wonderlic scores.
In an era when the NFL schedule release is treated like the premiere of the new “Star Wars,” the answer to Foster’s question is a resounding “yes.” We crave even the smallest bits of information about players entering the NFL Draft, even if it’s not meant for our consumption. Forget Foster’s estimate that half the Wonderlic scores he sees in news stories are incorrect. As long as the test is administered at the Combine, media and fans will fixate on it.
“The only person it impacts is the player,” Foster said of a leaked Wonderlic score. “How would you like to be branded unintelligent because you scored a 5 on an intelligence test?”
The story of the Wonderlic, however, is more than just a range of easily regurgitated numbers. It’s the story of how one guy’s American Dream helped shape a new American pastime.
But before we get there, let’s first look at what the Wonderlic purportedly tests. “What we’re measuring is not what you know — that’s what’s being measured on the ACT or the SAT,” said Charles Wonderlic, president and CEO of Wonderlic Inc. “This is really saying, ‘How quickly does your brain gather and analyze information?’” The 12-minute Wonderlic Personnel Test (WPT) features 50 questions arranged by difficulty, lowest to highest. Here’s a sample:
Jose’s monthly parking fee for April was $150; for May it was $10 more than April; and for June $40 more than May. His average monthly parking fee was ___ for these 3 months?
A player’s Wonderlic score is always a number between 1 and 50, and across all professions, the average score is approximately 21. (Systems analysts and Chemists top the scale 32 at 31, respectively.) For pro football players, the oft-cited number is about 20. Tracking down the average scores by position is tricky, mainly because the buttoned-up NFL isn’t interested in sharing any broad Wonderlic data. In an email, Charles Wonderlic said that while his company has published “norms” for other industries, “we maintain the confidentiality of test scores for single organizations. Since the NFL is the only client by which we can produce a quarterback average, we would need their permission to provide this information. Traditionally, the NFL prefers to keep any information about tests scores internal to their own organization.”