College jocks—not nerds—turn out to have more successful careers and earn $220,000 more, new research finds

 It’s an age-old tale that the jock gets the girl, experiences immense school popularity, and makes prom king. Meanwhile, the nerds often endure their high-school years being sidelined with the promise that they’ll get the last laugh—perhaps, by going on to become a Fortune 500 CEO. But as it turns out, it’s all a lie. Really, being that sporty kid at school is more likely to result in bringing home $220,000 more in cumulative wages than your nerdy peers.

At least, that’s according to a new study that followed the career outcomes of 400,000 athletes and non-athletes attending America’s notoriously competitive Ivy League colleges, like Harvard University, from 1970 to 2021.

The researchers found that sporty students were significantly more likely to land finance or business-related jobs after college. They were also statistically more likely to do an MBA—as well as an MBA from an elite institution than non-athletic students.

What’s more, being a jock—or a soccer player, wrestler, or basketballer, for that matter—means you’re more likely to attain a more senior position at work and outearn your clever but not sporty classmates.

Overall, the paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, concluded that workers with an athletic background earn 3.4% more during their working lives than non-athletes from the same college who work in the same industry.  

In real terms, due to their higher ranking and status at work, athletic students earned cumulative wages of $1.82 million over their career, peaking at $135,000 a year, while their non-athletic counterparts earned (a still sizable) $1.60 million in cumulative wages and $126,000 annually at their peak. 

Want to up your LinkedIn game? Join the varsity team. 

Of course, some sports cost more to play than others, with the likes of lacrosse and horse riding synonymous with elite private prep schools.

Therefore, it could be easy to assume that the reason athletic students are earning more and gaining a higher ranking in offices than their non-athletic peers is because they’re from a more privileged background with better connections.

However, the researchers found that even athletes from more socioeconomically diverse sports teams and from teams that have lower academic admissions thresholds have better career outcomes than non-athletes.

This could be because, by dedicating their downtime to practicing and competing in a sport—which often relies on teamwork, communication, and dedication—athletic students are banking skills that are highly desirable in the corporate world. 

In fact, while looking at athletic student’s LinkedIn profiles, the NBER’s research found that they were far more likely than their non-athletic counterparts to be endorsed for management-related skills such as management, leadership, and strategic planning.

Assumptions that nerds are analytical and athletes are confident in high school seemingly follow them into the working world, with the researchers highlighting that athletic students were slightly less likely to be endorsed for their research and data analysis skills.

What’s more, those playing sports from a lower socioeconomic background were the most likely to get praise on their LinkedIn profiles for their management skills.

“At least a portion of the superior outperformance of athletes over their careers is due to the development of specific types of human capital that may be valued in the labor market,” the paper concludes.

CEOs who played sports in college

It’s not hard to see NBER’s theory play out in reality—just look at some of America’s top chief executives and you’ll soon take stock that many played some form of sports growing up.

In 2011, Fortune even rounded up the Fortune 500 CEOs who were most successful on the playing field, with Samuel J. Palmisano, IBM’s former CEO, Walter E. Robb, Whole Foods former CEO, and Boeing’s ex-chief James McNerney all making the impressive list.

The CEO-turned-politician Meg Whitman, who led eBay before becoming the United States’ ambassador to Kenya, once wrote about how she uses sports lingo in the boardroom in her book, The Power of Many.

“I liked team sports the best,” she wrote. “When I’m pulling a business team together, I still use those basketball aphorisms I learned as a young person: ‘Let’s pass the ball around a little before game time.’ ‘Do we need man-to-man or zone defense?’”

Meanwhile, Bank of America’s long-standing boss Brian Moynihan, who played rugby as an undergrad at Brown and during law school at Notre Dame, echoed that the experience influenced his later success as a CEO.

“The lessons of leadership do transfer—how to motivate people, how to try to get people to do more than a team can do apart,” Moynihan told the Brown Daily Herald. “You can only win in rugby if you play as a team. I mean, every person has to carry the ball, every person has to tackle, every person has to pass the ball, so you have to work as a team.”

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