Do High School Sports Build or Reveal Character?

Michael R. Ransom and Tyler Ransom have a new paper on this question:

We examine the extent to which participation in high school athletics has beneficial effects on future education, labor market, and health outcomes. Due to the absence of plausible instruments in observational data, we use recently developed methods that relate selection on observables with selection on unobservables to estimate bounds on the causal effect of athletics participation. We analyze these effects in the US separately for men and women using three different nationally representative longitudinal data sets that each link high school athletics participation with later-life outcomes. We do not find consistent evidence of individual benefits reported in many previous studies – once we have accounted for selection, high school athletes are no more likely to attend college, earn higher wages, or participate in the labor force. However, we do find that men (but not women) who participated in high school athletics are more likely to exercise regularly as adults. Nevertheless, athletes are no less likely to be obese.

The pointer is from the excellent Kevin Lewis.  Kevin also refers us to this paper: “…the large portion of the variance in a four-item economic egalitarianism scale can be attributed to genetic factor[s].”


Sports, for the most part, are mind numbing activities. Exercise is even more so.

Running on the street or on a treadmill is so much more boring than reading / commenting on MR, for instance. Controlling for other factors, I'd expect people drawn to exercise to be lower IQ or atleast less curious minds, than people who don't like sport / exercise

This is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever read in the MR comments section. Congrats!

Contrarian. Not idiotic

"Not idiotic"

Well, "insanely idiotic" is too extreme -- foolish is more apt.

The study authors are intelligent, sane people with a compulsion to publish something, but lack scientific standards. Junk Social Science results, to the applause of like minded social scientists.

The notion that one can isolate and measure "...the extent to which participation in high school athletics has beneficial effects on future education, labor market, and health outcomes" is preposterous on its face. It cannot be done. Only fools (or charlatans) would pursue that task.

Study authors openly admit that "Due to the absence of plausible instruments in observational data" -- " we use ... unobservables to estimate.... the causal effect of athletics participation."
That is a stunningly foolish statement -- they are shoveling smoke.

Sports is beneficial in many ways. It builds healthy bodies. Teaches teamwork and sportsmanship, But most importantly it provides a good use of time and energy for youth rather than to allow them to seek physical activities on their own.

well, perhaps ---- but you have no hard facts whatsoever to back up that personal opinion. And generalizing it to the U.S. population or to humans generally is irrational. The difference between fact and opinion seems to escape many folks

You are arguing that exercise/sports does not build healthy bodies??? You are arguing that putting youth in organized sports is no better than to simply allow then to run free and do what they want??? And you claim that my statements lack proof!

This is what the paper mentioned in the post was trying to test.

What’s contrarian about that? Jocks aren’t nerds, news at 11?

What is counterintuitive to me is that smarter people should be more likely to know and accept the overwhelming evidence for exercise resulting in a longer and happier — because less crippled by disease and disability — life, as well as exercise actually boosting mental skills. Smarter people should thus be expected to exercise more. But they don’t, to their own detriment.

No doubt you'd play sports with the same mental laziness as your commenting.

I agree. Exercise/sports are a sort of computer virus for the mind -- get the victim consuming time and energy doing something useless. A meaning attributed to "idiotic" is in fact "purposeless", although physical fitness can be regarded as exercise's purpose.

However it may be a good idea to find some constructive activity that involves physical exercise, such as gardening. People concentrated in flats or tower blocks can get an allotment rather than buying a gym subscription. Yes, vegetables and flowers grown in a garden or an allotment will be more expensive than those purchased from a store, but they will be fresher.

Physical activity puts chemicals in the body in the right place. Maybe there are other less time consuming ways of doing this that also do not wear out the joints.

I also agree with the main premise, that sports are character revealing rather than character building. In fact, they can even be character demolishing!

The world will always have stereotypical "nerds" but most high IQ people who are also competitive and driven engage in physical exercise of some sort.

...that Albert Einstein guy really dominated his varsity track & field athletics; economists and athletes are almost synonymous terms

Dude has never crashed a mountain bike and come up laughing.

No one has commented yet on the increasing evidence of a connection between physical activity and mental abilities (or preserving mental abilities with age). See, e.g.,

Jogging is not a sport. But I agree, it's extremely boring.

Obesity has a high correlation with lower IQ. The people with less curious minds also lack the discipline to force themselves to exercise. While the smarter are exercising or commenting on MR, the dumber are watching TV.

Many (most?) great authors (along with a fair number of scientists I've known) describe a daily routine of "mind numbing" exercise as a key part of their working method. I know that during long vigorous walks and hikes, and especially bike rides, I'm prone to having good ideas and insights, and especially to finding solutions to knotty problems. Something about the repetitive nature of the activity, and distraction from being in one's left hemisphere and actively trying to solve mental problems, I think. And it wakes you up getting oxygenated blood pumping through the body.

Like good periods of rest and sleep, repetitive aerobic exercise is one of the secretes to a long healthy intellectual life.

@shrikanthk: "I’d expect people drawn to exercise to be lower IQ or atleast less curious minds, than people who don’t like sport / exercise."

If your mind were curious enough to scan the paper and/or think carefully, then you would realize that your expectation was already refuted by the data. The authors ask whether the positive correlation between high school sports participation and education, labor market, and health outcomes is causal or due to selection effects. Therefore, it's implied that such correlation exists, contrary to your expectation. Indeed, on p. 3: "Athletic participation is strongly positively correlated with a number of outcomes—including high school graduation, college attendance, college graduation, wages, exercise habits, and absence of obesity." So, either athletics cause better educational outcomes or people drawn to high school athletics tend to be the type of people that will subsequently achieve better educational outcomes.

Correlation doesn't imply causation.

The stereotype "Dumb jock" has some basis to it. Sometimes traditional stereotypes convey truth that is elusive to careful academic studies.


Not only can exercise make you stupid, but you're more likely to go blind as well.

From the New York Times:
"They found that exercising vigorously five or more days a week was associated with a 54 percent increased risk of macular degeneration in men. They did not find the association in women."

Link to full article:

What you have said here is the ramblings of an uneducated person whom has a self worth more than their actual worth. You show that people understanding of people, the human body, etc as mental retardation. In fact your stance is that of someone who is so mentally weak that such an individual couldn't succeed at anything that is difficult, so you degrade those who have drive. You are a sad a pathetic excuse for a human being since something you can't relate to borders MR; it shows you for what you are an ignorant malcontent of an obese troll. Enjoy mom's basement.

I wonder why it is that proponents of sports and exercise have to resort to attempting to demolish the self esteem of anyone opposing their proposition.

Shouldn't the excellent Keven Lewis be considered a regular contributor for this web site by now?

I’m curious if Tyler or if the authors participated in organized sports in High School. Admittedly I was a mediocre athlete but I did get a lot out of sports mentally and physically. Obviously athletics is not for everyone but I’m dubious on someone weighing in on the benefits of sports if they have not experienced it for themselves.

It's about average effect on the population, not individuals. It might be very beneficial to some while badly treated injuries and dealing with abusive coaches is negative for others. It's plausible that the positive and negative effects cancel each other.

The objective would be to improve sports programs, not cancel them.

I think it is very thing. Thanks :)

How long will it take before it is obvious that MR is read more by the people who were pushed into lockers by jocks than the jocks themselves?

One of the more common features of Business leaders is that they were the captain of a sports team in High School. Whether it reveals or bui8lds character, it seems to work as a selection mechanism.

Define business leader. Read a few CVs of new hires and all of them describe themselves as "leaders".

'How long will it take before it is obvious that MR is read more by the people who were pushed into lockers by jocks than the jocks themselves?'

I got my letter jacket as a sophomore. Admittedly, jocks royalty at Woodson were the state champion swimming M/F teams, along with gynamstics and wrestling. Football had a certain fall appeal, generally of being respectable district also-rans. And many of the best students were also athletes. Apparently, I went to a very unAmerican school at a very unAmerican time.

In the words of a close friend of mine, "sports teach you how to get along with a**holes." So they do build character.

While I was not a jock in high school, I am not so ready to give up on the ancient Greek nostrum of 'strong body, strong mind'. The key is this sentence fragment from the study: "We do not find consistent evidence of individual benefits reported in many previous studies – once we have accounted for selection " - but how do you factor out selection? I recall years ago an economic study that concluded refrigeration is not that much better than ice houses, once you adjust for various factors. If anything, refrigeration is a step backward since you can store ice cream, which is not healthy.

Bonus trivia (life is not a bowl of cherries, or pathogen harboring iced water): US president Zachary Taylor, Spanish-American war hero: Zachary Taylor's sudden death in July 1850 shocked the nation. After attending Fourth of July orations for most of the day, Taylor walked along the Potomac River before returning to the White House. Hot and tired, he drank iced water and consumed large quantities of cherries and other fruit

Mexican American War, not the Spanish American War. Among other battles, he led the troops in the defeat of Santa Anna ("remember the Alamo"). Many of the recent (since 1900) presidents were athletes in high school or college, including Theodore Roosevelt (boxing and rowing), Taft (wrestling), Hoover (football and baseball), Franklin Roosevelt (cheerleader), Eisenhower (football), Kennedy (swimming), Nixon (basketball), Ford (football), Carter (basketball and baseball), Reagan (football, cheerleader, swimming), George H.W. Bush (baseball, cheerleader), Clinton (rugby), George W. Bush (rugby, cheerleader), and Obama (basketball). Trump (estimated at about 260 lbs. although his "official" weight is 236 lbs. - Trump lies about everything) is the first obese president since Taft (over 350 lbs.). According to Trump's "official" biography, it was Trump, not Taylor, who led the troops against Santa Anna and the defeat of the Mexicans in the Mexican American War. Trump was much thinner back then.

Yes, you're right rayward, "Spain accepts Mexican independence - Aug 24, 1821 -" I forgot about that.

So what you are saying is that Trump is the first president in a century elected without a "swimsuit" element in the competition? Perhaps if they chose Miss America less on beauty, one of them would have been able to get world peace by now? ;-)

Participation in sports by presidents and others shows conformity to norms and as sports is a good way to popularity and being notice in high school, it would naturally draw the extroverts. You get more of what you incentivize and in American schools sports gets you much more than being the nerdy academically inclined student. This is even more evident in recent decades where being an athlete has become a full time job even at the high school level.

I don't think Hillary would have done any better if it had been a swimsuit competition.

Well of course. What else would a bunch of pencil neck Poindexters conclude? They must have been locked in their own lockers too many times in Jr. High.

Boris Sidis: "As in modern times, our (America's) college authorities justify the brutalities of football and prize-fights, so in ancient times the great moralists of those ages justified their gladiatorial games”.

Such is life in Trump's America: Senate, endless wars, a underclass placated by bloody gladiatorial games and bread. It just lacks Cicero, Virgil, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius.

The value of team sports is not so much muscle building, but rather socialization.

Where else do you interact with and get to know students who are different than yourself or who are tracked in different classes?

I think the study should have looked at or for these effects.

The small minded jocks in the forum forget that in other countries than the US there isn't a corporate sports culture and it is well known that sports are for the small minded rabble. In America they try and pretend that clubs for throwning balls will make you more successful than clubs for studying which they have in other countries but is largely absent from America.

Playing sports has extremely high (direct and opportunity) costs. I don't see why the effects couldn't just offset in the aggregate.

Humans have a body as well as a mind, both need to be exercised, developed and maintained. Individual sports promote self-discipline, team sports encourage coordination with others. Perhaps the most important non-physical aspect of sports is the experience of failure in a context less important than the rest of life. All this being said, there's no reason that sports should be a salient feature of education. They could just as easily be a part of the church, the community, an adjunct of business or even local government, although many parents feel that their children wouldn't even have attended school if not for the attraction of competitive sports.

Is high school the best place to look? By that age kids have sorted themselves by ability and commitment.

Maybe little league or youth soccer is a better place to look for the effect of sports, coaching, etc on normal kids.

Steelers fans will recall Bill Cowher's position on the matter fell on the nature side, as he dropped his favorite line "adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it" about once every other week.

"Nevertheless, athletes are no less likely to be obese."

Note that in the paper obesity is defined by solely by BMI, there's no attempt to control for muscle mass.

I have to admit I am seeing pretty big guts on coaches, and even high school players. We didn't have sophomores with Babe Ruth bodies in my day. Some can hit though, even if they can't run.

Sports are okay, a great way to interact with friends, play, exercise and relax. Unfortunately organized sports are authoritarian, individuality numbing behemoths that do not create model, self sufficient citizens. Go back and read the original writings in the 19th century when organized sports were first arising. Most of the proponents of tying organized sports to schools and creating professional teams stated that the major benefit would be to make more subservient citizens. People used to blindly following rules and deferring to authority figures like coaches. It would make "the populace more tractable". A riotous mass of people are often leaving a sporting event and creating havoc, vandalism, assault, civic destruction and even murder, e.g., angry soccer fans, happy baseball or football fans, etc. How many examples have there been of a group of people leaving a library and going on a destructive rampage? To reiterate, sports are great; neighborhood teams, pickup games, etc. They are voluntary and not tied to a domineering colossus living off tax dollars like a school or professional team. Besides, how can we expect to raise independent, capable adults who can interact with others in our shrinking world, when they are taught to hate a school a few miles down the road just because they are "rivals." If you can't get along with people 5 miles away, how can you get along with those who really have a lifestyle or culture different than the one you were raised in.

Out of curiosity were you ever on a high school sports team?

No. I tried organized school sports earlier than that and quit. The athlete is indoctrinated with the idea of winning (society doesn't recognize the 4th best football team, only the winner of the Super Bowl) and yet there are innumerable rules to prevent the player from achieving the win. For example; volleyball, the player from a specific area cannot go to another area and hit the ball; basketball, the player cannot cross a certain line more than once. It is obvious that the point is not to win, but to follow rules. And in the end, the professional, semi-pro, and even college teams are strictly for entertainment of the audience. An example is the shot clock, not to make the player or team win, but to enhance audience entertainment. It's not like a winning team somehow creates a better individual, understands an important medical problem, or solves the question of peace in...wherever, so who cares. Second point, it is irrelevant to say that someone who has not participated in an action, cannot understand or comment upon a social issue. That kind of thinking would prevent juries from sitting in judgement of criminals unless the jurors had committed the same crime.

"It is obvious that the point is not to win, but to follow rules."

Correct, Viking. Supports my assertion and those who promoted organized sports, are that sports are primarily and tool for controlling the masses. We can go back even further to Rome; "panen et circenses" As long as a state authority keeps the population fed and entertained, the state can abuse rights and citizens all they want to. US citizens have greatly reduced rights and freedoms today than say, 40 years ago.

You must be a lot of fun at parties...

That was for belisarius :D

Thanks, I am.

In all seriousness, Artimus. I thought these blog discussions were supposed to be thoughtful consecrations of important social, legal and scientific issues affecting the American (if not the world's) situation. Maybe the reason the country is collapsing is because too many people are concerned only with their fun? As George Carlin said, if you have selfish, stupid citizens, then you will have selfish, stupid politicians. We have both and it might be more helpful if the people who know every last minutiae of data about their favorite team, would spend some of that effort learning about serious issues and working to solve them.

"If the people who know every last minutiae of data about their favorite team, would spend some of that effort learning about serious issues and working to solve them."

And breeding unicorns, too. America could do with more unicorns.

With regards to

> Most of the proponents of tying organized sports to schools and creating professional teams stated that the major benefit would be to make more subservient citizens. <

The National Socialist German Workers' Party knew this all too well. Consider their film "Triumph of the Will" which would more correctly be called "Subservience of the People", but presumably "the Will" of the title was just the leader's will.

Yes, John. There has also been little mention of how much more prevalent sports has become in the school systems as opposed to 3 decades ago. Not counting the cost. There is probably a good discussion (and something worthy of study) in considering how the costs of participating in school sports is creating an elite class of people. Only the middle and upper middle classes,on up, can afford all of the expense of dedicated sports participation for K-12 kids.

The Romans understood what you do not, namely, citizens in real polities (not anarcho-libertarian fantasies) must be prepared to fight wars, and anti-authoritarian individuality is largely a liability to martial virtue. And the loathsome SDS radicals of the 1960s went on violent rampages at universities (as do their progeny today).

Martial virtue is contradictory. The savage behavior of BlackWater private soldiers, US Marines at My Lai in 1968 and in the Philippines in the late 19th Century, and the tortures Americans inflicted upon their own citizens in the Civil War does not sound virtuous. I would rather have an anarcho-libertarian society than an statist authoritarian one. In the former, a person accosted by a neer-do-well has the options of running, fighting, negotiating, and many more. In a fascist or socialist state like the current US (depending upon who you talk to), a person accosted by a neer-do-well agent of the government has no options. You cannot run, fight, argue, hide, or dispute. You can die, lose your freedom and property, or submit. Great virtuous choices.

Knowledge can be used for all sorts of bad things too (Brazil--ahem--harbored Dr. Mengele). And where is this anarcho-libertarian state that can actually defend itself (not some micro seastead in the Pacific) that people can emigrate too?

Knowledge can be used for all sorts of bad things too (Brazil--ahem--harbored Dr. Mengele). And where is this anarcho-libertarian state that can actually defend itself (not some micro seastead in the Pacific) where people can emigrate?

Regarding the effects of sports on later attitudes and success, I've had the idea that the benefits for females is potentially substantial, while I've long doubted there is much importance from males. The sporting emphasis on being competitive and aggressive, in a straight-forward and direct way, is the opposite of how girls/young women have been socialized from centuries. Perhaps these effects don't show up now, in a world where almost all girls in the western world participate in sports, but I think the pervasive participation in sports by girls has helped lead to a world where adult women are much less willing to be kept in cheerleading and sideline roles outside of sports.

Also, I'm surprised there is so little comment on the Nemanja Batricevic´ and Levente Littvay paper (perhaps because the link is faulty, at least for me). I suspect Tyler is kind of burying the lede, here, by not directly commenting on a paper that indicates that social justice impulses have a significant genetic link. It's another shot across the bow of the majority of modern sociology research.

Does anyone know where a link that works can be found?

When I applied to med school in 1971 the Jesuit interviewers at Loyola only asked me questions related to my gymnastics career. Having that athletic background helped me with so many challenges and obstacles in my future life. Including staying fit and lean at age 67. But after the fact I did have some orthopedic troubles later on related accidentally hitting or flying off the bars.

So what this comes down to is that high school sports don't have the benefits widely claimed.

OK. No problem. It's a recreational activity and high school students should participate if they enjoy it, and not otherwise. Why is that wrong?

I do have two concerns. One is the whole concussion issue in football. The other has to do with overemphasis, which seems to me to have negative consequences for some, in that top high school athletes too often are treated in a way that leads them to believe that athletic performance is all that matters.

At my school the rugby and cricket sides were packed with the cleverest pupils, with one obvious exception - a very clever boy whose eyesight precluded him from moving-ball games. He played golf instead. Athletics (American: track and field) seemed to appeal to a dimmer cohort.

It seems obvious that people should not to take this study too seriously, though it remains an interesting finding.

In Portugal, the usual stereotype is that the teenagers who are more found of sports are usually the less academically inclined (=dumb); and, watching the American "teen comedy" movies, it seems that there is a similar stereotype in US (or it is only between the film writers and directors?).

The article cited the study on "moderate exercise improves people's ability to focus"

"""A within-subjects design included 20 preadolescent participants"""

The OECD PISA 2015 project involved 540,000 students has data on the self reported info (Vol 3: Figure III.1.5) on if they exercised before or after school. A regression on the data at the national level,

PISA3 = -2.39055*PctExercise +645.184; # n=57; Rsq=0.1377; p=0.004481

which is statistically significant though Rsq was a bit low, on average it is observed that those that exercised more had lower academic performance (the causality is not known), the opposite of what was reported in the former. The difference being in the former the exercises were performed immediately before the test when the heart rates were approaching normal. That raises the question in the former if there was a "Hawthorne effect" in which individuals modify an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed.

For most countries, PctExercise does not affect the confidence quotient CQ. However for those over-confident countries where CQ ≥ 110, CQ is linearly correlated to PctExercise,

ConfidenceQ=+0.45*PctExercise+83.43; # n=15; Rsq=0.2905; p=0.03814

I do wonder what the point of swim teams are. Intense effort goes into reducing race times by fractions of a second. Is a swimmer who finishes in 10.00s more fun to watch than one who finishes in 9.99s? If not, what value is created by the intense effort? The same for marathons -- just looks like masochism to me.

At least for football, you can say it is fun to watch the very best play.

Curious what the results would be if limited to high school athletes in team sports.

Comments for this post are closed