Join 3,551 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Which athletes are the smartest?
January 9, 2006 11:35 AM   Subscribe

Which sport's athletes have the highest and lowest average IQ?

This question came up at dinner the other night, and nobody had any real facts to back up their opinions... of course, the definition of sport may come into play here. For example, is chess a sport? Anyway, I'm curious what you'll say.
posted by dead_ to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (34 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
How can this question possibly be answered? I'm asking realistically -- in other words, I feel secure saying that there is no data to back up any answer to this, so it's just a setup for chatting and conjecture.
posted by delfuego at 11:49 AM on January 9, 2006


Most recreational rock climbers in my locality seem to be engineers. Elementary physics and problem solving comes into play frequently as well.

I would suspect the more prohibitive the cost of entry, the higher the IQ of the participant (Sailing, skiing, horseback riding) and vice-versa (Basketball, football). Also perhaps how easily a sport lends itself to confined urban areas the lower the IQ (Basketball, boxing). Finally and perhaps most importantly cultural stereotyping (Tennis versus Weightlifting).

I am bastardizing IQ by using it to mean achievement rather than potential though.
posted by hendrixson at 11:53 AM on January 9, 2006


Former sportswriter here ... covered just about all major sports at one time or another ... some anecdotal information to chew on.

First off, there are both brilliant and incredibly stupid athletes in every sport. There are smarty-smart NFL linemen and bonehead PGA golfers. What follows, then, are some grossly categorical statements. Apply grains of salt liberally.

* Hockey players and rugby players are surprisingly intelligent and personable. I think the culture of those sports tends to embrace and reward the types that can deal with the violence without flying off the handle.
* Baseball players are as dumb as a sack of hammers. I mean, wow, they're dumb. And crude.
* Football players are also surprisingly smart, but are very physically oriented. It wouldn't surprise me if many of them would've made good engineers or surgeons or whatnot. High-level quarterbacks are also significantly capable in leadership/business/law roles.
* Basketball players and soccer players are pretty average.
* Golfers are average, but have a great ability to focus. Probably make good doctors.
* Motor sports guys really, really know their mechanical stuff, but not much else. Again, they'd make good engineers.
* Olympic athletes I've met were all pretty smart. Probably because the socio-economics of their sports don't lend themselves well to being as one-dimensional as other athletes. Also, it takes a pretty unique individual to seriously take up, say, the luge events.
posted by frogan at 12:04 PM on January 9, 2006 [3 favorites]


Frogan,

Have to say I could read even more than you offered. Good insights.
posted by docpops at 12:08 PM on January 9, 2006


The NFL requires all college players hoping to be drafted to take the 12 minute Wonderlic IQ test of 50 questions (source). I've never heard of this for other sports though.

BTW, frogan, nice post.
posted by fourstar at 12:13 PM on January 9, 2006


Is it the case that in parts of England, you'd likely only really get into rowing via a university team? That would sort of shoot out of the water a connection between the brains required for the sport itself, and athlete IQ.

I'm thinking hendrixson is on to something - the most likely corralations will be secondary, with the IQ being neither cause nor effect of choice in sport, but both the result of links between other factors.

How likely is it that there is little to no statistically significant difference between the vast majority of sports?
posted by -harlequin- at 12:20 PM on January 9, 2006


hendrixson: I am bastardizing IQ by using it to mean achievement rather than potential though.

Sounds like you are bastardizing "achievement" to mean socioeconomic status.
posted by TonyRobots at 12:21 PM on January 9, 2006


The first division that comes to mind is the difference between sports that everyone plays and those that relate to educational opportunities. In the UK some sports tend to have their player base at Universities (and in the UK we generally don't have sponsorship of athletes for their education). Ultimate (frisbee) for example is a sport where practically everyone is studying for or has already achieved at least a degree as well as the basic qualifications to attend the university. I would suggest this implies an above average IQ. Their are likely to be other social links to some sports which also have an impact.
posted by biffa at 12:24 PM on January 9, 2006


I believe swimmers have one of the highest graduation rates for NCAA athletes, and I can anecdotally confirm that I am undereducated for my swim team because I only have a BA. But there's no good way tell really.
posted by dame at 12:31 PM on January 9, 2006


How can this question possibly be answered?

Actually, at least in football, they have a pseudo-IQ test called the "Wonderlic Test." The Wikipedia article has a good overview which is basically a rehash of the ESPN article:

Pat McInally, a wide receiver/punter from Harvard who played for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1977 to 1985 is the only player known to have scored a perfect 50. In 2005 it was rumored that Ryan Fitzpatrick, a quarterback also from Harvard, scored a perfect 50 but his actual accomplishment was to finish the test in 9 minutes with a score of 38 — the most impressive speed ever seen at the NFL Combine.

For the major sports I don't think professional athletes are less intelligent per se, they just have little need to improve their cognitive ability like the rest of us. Also the less mainstream sports tend to attract those who aren't good enough to compete in the big three (basketball, baseball, football) and have a greater need to branch out. I know people who went on to play professionally and while there's a wide range, those that knew they were going to play professionally just went through the motions in high school and college.

I have to disagree with frogan (while admitting that those are all broad generalizations). I know several rugby players that play on top-rated teams. Biggest asshole jocks you'll ever know. Total inferiority complex, always having to remind you that they play rugby and could kick your ass. They seemed to be composed of guys who weren't good enough for football or got kicked out of football for doing stupid things. Hockey players seem cool though.
posted by geoff. at 12:33 PM on January 9, 2006


I'm not sure if this is common sense, unsupported by evidence or both, but I wouldn't be surprised if IQ scores were lower among athletes who get hit in the head a lot.
posted by box at 12:44 PM on January 9, 2006


As a codicil to my previous comment I would also suggest that the fact that athletes in the UK do not get sponsored though university means that some professional sports have less graduates in them. While this may simply be that in some sports this just means less players have taken the opportunity for education, in others I would suggest that becoming a professional, (particularly in football) and attempting to access the rewards that go with it is in some cases the best opportunity for less intelligent players. On the other hand more intelligent players have additional options, namely an education. The high risk of seeking wealth in professional sports vs the lesser risk in the professions sees some of those with the choice take the less risky option.
posted by biffa at 12:46 PM on January 9, 2006


it always struck me that michael schumacher must be pretty smart. i hesitate to call formula 1 a sport, or the drivers athletes (although i don't question that they're typically in very good physical shape), but if you're looking for someone who apparently combines natural ability with a very sharp tactical mind then he's an excellent example. the bastard.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:47 PM on January 9, 2006


I assume you are restricting your question to some standardized IQ test. And that makes the question impossible to answer without running the numbers for real.

Also - If you want to open the debate to asking which athletes are "smartest", or the best educated, then we'd need to spend most of our time trying to figure out how such a thing is defined.

It always seemed to me that many IQ tests are really a measure of memory, education, and puzzle solving. So sports that required those skills would probably have higher IQs.

Given that, I think NFL quarterbacks and running backs would probably rate highest, but receivers probably not. Other sports seem to have a much lower level of problem solving. That is, you can be great based on skill and practice rather than smarts.
posted by y6y6y6 at 12:47 PM on January 9, 2006


It might be a gross generalization, but there are a lot of stereotypes about the way intelligence ranges depending on position in sport--specifically, quarterbacks are supposed to be smarter than linebackers; pitchers are thought of as smarter than first basemen. What's funny about that stereotype is how it also plays out in the relationship between race and sports-- whites are proportionally overrepresented as QBs and pitchers, in part, no doubt, because of racist generalizations about the "intelligence" of races.

As for rugby, it's worth pointing out that the sport has different backgrounds in different countries. In England, where rugby is a public (i.e., prep) school sport (like, say lacrosse in the US), the players can be assumed to be certainly better-educated (although probably not inherently "smarter") than their counterparts in Australia, where rugby is more of a working-class sport. Here in the states, most rugby is played at the college level, so I'd think you'd see intelligence levels vary; the kids I know who play rugby at my school range from dumb as rocks to near-geniuses.
posted by maxreax at 12:49 PM on January 9, 2006


What you need is a study that measures IQ by sport, but corrects for socioeconomic status, setting (e.g. fencing and rowing tend to be at university), knocks to the head, etc.
posted by acoutu at 12:50 PM on January 9, 2006


There are several factors in play, socio-economic being the most important one. Intelligence correlates strongly with wealth and social status and obviously some sports either require money or are otherwise popular among wealthy people or well-educated people. Some sports also reward intelligence more than others and that would steer smarter people towards those sports. For example, ball games generally reward tactical thinking more than most solo events. Many sports also require varying levels of spatial cognition.
Using these parameters to make a somewhat educated guess, I would have to go with sailing, which requires a lot of money and both tactical and analytical skills or aviation stuff like aerobatics or sailplaning. Of course, some might not even consider that one a sport and we might want to specify what kind of intelligence we're looking. There is also variation within a sport; in general football quarterbacks are probably smarter than receivers, boat skippers are smarter than winch grinders etc.
posted by fred_ashmore at 1:21 PM on January 9, 2006


Wonderlic IQ test

The Sports Illustrated article is a great overview of how they use it at the combine. Hint: Having a high score is NOT always seen seen as being a plus. You don't want to draft a "clubhouse lawyer."

I know several rugby players that play on top-rated teams. Biggest asshole jocks you'll ever know.


I have the least amount of experience with that sport, so my perspective is admittedly limited.

it always struck me that michael schumacher must be pretty smart.

High-level motor sports guys are very similar in demeanor to fighter pilots. Smart, level-headed guys that are savants in their one area of expertise.


I think NFL quarterbacks and running backs would probably rate highest


Surprisingly, offensive lineman have the reputation of being the smartest guys on the field.

It always seemed to me that many IQ tests are really a measure of memory, education, and puzzle solving. So sports that required those skills would probably have higher IQs.

True 'dat. They also don't measure the kinds of "physical" smarts I alluded to. It's the difference between a research scientist in a lab and somebody out in the field, actually doing the work. High-level athletes would likely fall into the latter categories.

Another thing I think everyone needs to realize is that at very high levels of performance (NFL, NBA, etc), the athletes are nearly always insanely competitive. I mean, they're competitive at everything. It's why you see so many gambling and drinking problems, and so much bling. These guys don't want to come in second in ANY category.

They are that competitive because they have to be in order to succeed. For example, everyone in the NFL is really f'n strong and fast. Everyone. There's really not that much difference in, say, measurable 40-yard speed between top-notch receivers and third-string subs. In fact, the top-notch guys may be significantly slower, but make up for it in other skills. It really is true that the winners are the ones that are mentally the toughest.
posted by frogan at 1:21 PM on January 9, 2006


Everybody knows that pro cyclists have by far the highest IQs.
posted by fixedgear at 1:44 PM on January 9, 2006


just a quick note - sports car drivers are NOT athletes.
posted by indigo4963 at 1:53 PM on January 9, 2006


sports car drivers are NOT athletes

We would have huge knock-down, drag-out arguments about the definition of a "sport" versus a "game" versus an "event." And even more about whether the participants were "athletes" or merely "players." We never had answers, of course, but the general consensus was that sports car drivers were athletes, in that the races require great physical endurance, mental concentration and fine motor muscle control.

If a sports car driver isn't an athlete, then neither is a golfer, a slalom skier, a bobsled driver, etc.

It's an endless argument with no clear winner.

Makes for a great beer-fueled evening, though. ;-)
posted by frogan at 2:04 PM on January 9, 2006


Which sport's athletes have the highest and lowest average IQ?

First, I'd draw a sharp line between college sports and professional sports. Factors that attract and keep an athlete in a college sport are different from those that drive an athlete to succeed at the professional level. For all but the top sports (baseball, basketball, football), it's a college activity and not a career. Your college athletes will graduate to a working career and only a statistically insignificant number will become professional athletes, the majority of whom put academics in second chair to their sport.

acoutu said: What you need is a study that measures IQ by sport, but corrects for socioeconomic status, setting (e.g. fencing and rowing tend to be at university), knocks to the head, etc.

Actually you don't want to correct for these factors. The OP was asking for the sports that have athletes with the highest and lowest avg IQ. Correcting for socioeconomic factors, setting, and head injuries would answer which sports creates athletes with the highest/lowest avg IQ, ie. will my son be smarter if he plays baseball or soccer?

After all said and done, I'd personally have to go with harlequin's answer that there would be little statistical variation from one big professional sport to the next.

Somebody should get one of the social economics writers (Surowiecki, Gladwell, Levitt/Dubner, Schwartz) to tackle this one.
posted by junesix at 2:16 PM on January 9, 2006


frogan's experiences correlate strongly with comments I've heard from other sportswriters.
posted by jjg at 2:18 PM on January 9, 2006


I'd expect divers, soccer players, and boxers to have lower IQs in general. All three activities cause brain damage.
posted by malp at 2:33 PM on January 9, 2006


Marcus Vick is probably astonishingly low on the scale.
posted by xmutex at 2:44 PM on January 9, 2006


maxreax: As for rugby, it's worth pointing out that the sport has different backgrounds in different countries. In England, where rugby is a public (i.e., prep) school sport (like, say lacrosse in the US), the players can be assumed to be certainly better-educated (although probably not inherently "smarter") than their counterparts in Australia, where rugby is more of a working-class sport ...

Just a note -- rugby's seen as an upper-middle-class/elite sport in Australia. The game's strongholds have traditionally been private and grammar schools and the universities. Rugby League (very different game), on the other hand, is definitely a working-class sport in Australia (and England, and New Zealand).

junesix: I'd draw a sharp line between college sports and professional sports. Factors that attract and keep an athlete in a college sport are different from those that drive an athlete to succeed at the professional level. For all but the top sports (baseball, basketball, football), it's a college activity and not a career. Your college athletes will graduate to a working career and only a statistically insignificant number will become professional athletes, the majority of whom put academics in second chair to their sport.


But what about the evidence [contains Real Media] that elite US colleges are increasingly recruiting athletes to compete in collegiate sports (and not just the obvious ones)? The authors of this book suggest that athletes are making up a larger and larger proportion of undergraduate classes at places like Swarthmore and Dartmouth; shutting out similarly or better qualified applicants; and performing significantly (and increasingly) worse on academics than other students.
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:23 PM on January 9, 2006


As for rugby, it's worth pointing out that the sport has different backgrounds in different countries. In England, where rugby is a public (i.e., prep) school sport (like, say lacrosse in the US), the players can be assumed to be certainly better-educated (although probably not inherently "smarter") than their counterparts in Australia, where rugby is more of a working-class sport.

Just like to correct maxreax above, while confirming the connection in different types of rugby between education and socio-economic backgrounds.

Rugby union (that most popular form of rugby in the U.S.) has its roots in the UK public school and Australian private school systems (which are, a little confusingly, the same thing; i.e. maxreax's prep school analogy is correct -- the schools of those who can afford to pay for their child's education in its entirety).

Rugby league broke away from rugby union in the late 19th century (essentially over the issue of professionalism) and became established as a working-class sport in Northern England and, over time, Australia.

So traditionally, rugby union has been played in the UK and Australia by the supposedly better-educated, and up until recently (rugby league and union players have begun switching codes depending on where the money is), it was generally very easy to tell whether a footballer being interviewed on TV was a union or league player by whether they spoke in fully-formed sentences or not.

So all this is basically another data point on the connection between socio-economic status/educational attainment and the type of sport played. Sorry about the history lesson, but otherwise my point wouldn't have made a lot of sense.

On preview: what Sonny Jim said.
posted by bright cold day at 3:49 PM on January 9, 2006


Soccer players who head the ball a lot may suffer cognitive impairment. See this and this.
posted by i love cheese at 5:38 PM on January 9, 2006


I can't believe this many responses piled up without a mention of light heavyweight Mensa member Bobby Czyz. I delight in the idea of Bobby suckerpunching somebody at a Mensa mixer.
posted by 12XU at 8:04 PM on January 9, 2006


* Baseball players are as dumb as a sack of hammers. I mean, wow, they're dumb. And crude.

from 10 years in the motel business, i can tell you that there's nothing we dreaded more than amateur baseball players ... the behavior of rock and roll musicians, crack dealers, exotic dancers, professional wrestlers were dependent on the individual people involved ... and much of the time, no problem

baseball players inevitably raised hell, trashed the rooms and generally made themselves a pain in the ass ... it got to the point where my boss refused to take reservations from them
posted by pyramid termite at 9:17 PM on January 9, 2006


Fixedgear, (though I'm guessing you're being tongue-in-cheek) from reading up on cycling (inside the postal bus in particular), many cyclists skip college to devote their time to the sport.
posted by drezdn at 10:07 PM on January 9, 2006



Track cyclists are extremely dumb. IMHO. (Worked in a bicycle shop for 6 years. Owner was State coach for a time.)

And what other people have alluded to regarding rugby.

Rugby Union: Nice, intelligent people.

Rugby League: See the description for baseball players.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:48 PM on January 9, 2006


Sonny Jim said: But what about the evidence that elite US colleges are increasingly recruiting athletes to compete in collegiate sports (and not just the obvious ones)?
In that case, I'd believe even more strongly in my position that there wouldn't be a large statistical variation between sports.
posted by junesix at 10:52 PM on January 9, 2006


Ultimate fighters have surprisingly high IQ's. Lightheavyweight champ Chuck Liddell is a CPA, and about half of fighters have college degrees. The same cannot be said for boxers.
posted by merlin17 at 3:28 PM on January 10, 2006


« Older Can someone explain the Americ...   |  Steam cleaner for sealed hardw... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.