One of the most annoying boardroom cliches is the idea that sports and athletics primes you for success in business.
It does not.
In fact, the truism that student athletes are good at business is likely to be damaging to your company, because it has the potential to distort your hiring practises, possibly in a racist way.
The sports/business trope “feels” like it must be true because sports is about competition and business is about competition, so obviously one is likely to be similar to the other. It is amazing how few people question this idea, even though the proposal stinks as soon as you recast it: Your ability to throw a ball accurately predicts how good you will be at accounting, investing, or running a company.
The “evidence” for the theory is all around us.
We’ve published some of it on Business Insider, for instance in this article, “
why student athletes are likely to succeed in a finance job.” The article describes One Equity Partners, an investment group that employs eight former Olympians. Bloomberg, Forbes, and Entrepreneur magazine have all published versions of the same assumption. Here is a LinkedIn column arguing the same thing.
Athletes make good business execs because they “are cognitively complex,” according to James Bailey, the director of the World Executive MBA at the George Washington University School of Business. “They grasp the dynamic flow of many inter-related variables, simultaneously played.”
Wayne Rooney, business leader
Have you seen this video of Wayne Rooney, one of most “cognitively complex” football players in the English Premier League, rendering himself unconscious inside his own house during a bout of “kitchen boxing”?
I’m guilty of spreading the athlete-business rumour myself. I once said that the man behind Old Spice’s hilarious “Smell like a man” ad campaign was a marketing genius because he grew up playing lacrosse and ice hockey, which made him ultra-competitive. James Moorehead is ultra-competitive (he is now the CMO of Dish). But the notion that Moorehead’s ability to hit a puck across a frozen pond with a stick makes him good at selling deodorant is just stupid.
Sport requires you play by the rules, even if you’re losing. Business requires you do the opposite: Sport would be more like business if, for instance, the next time Manchester United find themselves a goal or two behind playing Liverpool, the United players abandoned the field at half time and went into the smart watch business. That, after all, is how you survive in business — by dropping markets you’re no good at and trying to create new ones from scratch.
The business leaders who are awful athletes
The sport-business myth relies entirely on anecdotal evidence, which is why it is so odd that people who ought to be biased in favour of quantitative evidence believe it so frequently. Here are some business leaders that demonstrate the opposite case:
- Steve Jobs – terrible at sports.
- Dale Vince – while you were signing up for the Athletic Union at college, he was a hippy traveller.
- Warren Buffett – lousy at athletics.
- Bill Gates – useless at football.
- Richard Branson – kitesurfing with a naked model on your back does not count as a “sport.”
Now that I have proved to you with anecdotal evidence that business leaders and sport don’t mix, surely we will see a raft of articles in the business press discouraging employers from taking on athletes due to their toxicity to success in the office environment.
The lacrosse conspiracy
So why does it seem so obvious that sportsmen and women are good at business? Because you’re conflating a symptom with a cause. Moorehead is likely not a great marketer because he can play lacrosse. Rather, it’s because he went to the private, lacrosse-playing Hotchkiss boarding school in Lakeville, Conn., and then graduated from Williams College with a degree in economics. He may have played sports as a student, but it was his education that got him where he is today.
OK, so what if sports are a proxy for a good education? After all, if you’re playing lacrosse at university it’s probably quite a good university because it has enough resources to maintain a lacrosse field. If that were true, then hiring sports people would be a good idea.
In fact, this is exactly what you see happening. We noted a couple of years ago that Wall Street investment banks like to hire lacrosse players. A Bloomberg writer concluded that firms want lacrosse players because “athletes whose package of time management, competitiveness and ability to cope with failure make them ideal candidates for success in the financial-services industry.”
They all seem to be white
By amazing coincidence, these guys also went to posh private high schools and Ivy League or other top-flight universities. Of the 42 top lacrosse players on Wall Street that Business Insider identified in 2013, they all seem to be white.
If sports were such a great proxy for business, then you would expect to see investment banks recruiting from the NBA, NFL, and the NCAA basketball and football teams.
But they don’t! Sadly, basketball and American football tend to be played by black players at the college and professional level in the US. Lacrosse is a pretty caucasian sport, and banks prefer lacrosse players.
I’m not saying those banks have racist hiring practises. I’m saying it just looks that way.
So next time you hear someone say that athletes make competitive business partners, remind them why Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wears the same hoodie and T-shirt combo almost every day. It’s not because he wants to be in his sweats when he busts out three consecutive four-minute miles at lunchtime. It’s simply because he likes to save time when getting dressed in the morning.
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