Brighten their holiday. Enrich their everyday.Give The Atlantic

Do Athletes Make Better Bankers?

Not many Ivy League athletes make it on a professional team, but quite a few make it on Wall Street. That's the topic of a Bloomberg article this week, which explains that athletes at top schools are recruited by an "alumni mafia" who make sure they get good jobs in finance after graduation. Is there good reason for this or is it just another form of nepotism?

The Bloomberg article says that the path from sports to finance is particularly well-trodden at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School:

Penn's athletic board of overseers includes George Weiss, founder of the George Weiss Associates Inc. hedge fund in Hartford, Connecticut; Robert Wolf, chairman and chief executive officer of UBS Group Americas in Stamford, Connecticut; and Mark Werner, the former JP Morgan Securities Inc. vice chairman who is co-founder and CEO of Pierpont Securities LLC, also in Stamford.

Having that kind of board helps the Quakers land better players, coach Al Bagnoli, who led the team to the Ivy League championship last season, said in a telephone interview from the school's campus.

The article also explains how Columbia University's athletic director focuses on preparing athletes for careers in business through etiquette lessons, mock interviews, and other such activities. A colleague I spoke with who went to Princeton said that an athletic director there bragged about how playing sports often leads to "out-earning your GPA" due to the network you can tap into after graduation.

The NCAA might want to explore whether or not it's okay to lure students to athletic programs through the promise of future jobs on Wall Street. But this criticism shouldn't get far if there's some evidence that athletes make better bankers and traders. That was certainly the claim of some of the banks that visited my university's campus when I was going through the info session, application, and interview process.

Some investment banks were simply crazy for athletes. I recall Goldman Sachs, in particular, loving athletes. They claimed that teamwork was very important at their firms, so having played a team sport provided an edge on cultivating this skill. Others said that athletes have proven discipline and work ethic, since they have grueling practice schedules and must balance their academics as well.

There's certainly some truth in this logic. But are these purported advantages really unique to athletes? Based on my experience actually working as an investment banker and consultant before that, any such advantage is minor, at best.

For starters, "teamwork" in finance is kind of a joke. Sure, it helps if you work well with others, but there's no shortage of successful bankers and trades who don't. And many careers require some interaction and teamwork as a significant part of the job. Those skills aren't more important on Wall Street than on Main Street. Moreover, there's so much turnover, hiring, and firing at Wall Street firms that it's hard to develop deep trust or relationships with your colleagues anyway. Sufficient experience to prepare a college student for such teamwork can easily be provided by study groups alone. Playing on a team doesn't provide a major edge.

Second, plenty of college students can keep themselves quite busy, relying on good time management and little sleep, without playing sports. If one student dedicates 20 hours per week to athletics, how is that different from another student who has a campus job for 20 hours per week? Both have the same extracurricular time commitment. Yet, "Varsity Lacrosse" has far more value on a resume than "Resident Assistant" to many Wall Street firms.

These firms chasing athletes is just another form of nepotism. Rather than hire the students who are the best and brightest, these firms instead rely on half-baked arguments like, "Well, his GPA might be lower, but he played basketball -- so he'll be a great team player." Or maybe his lucky genetics provided above average height and he would rather spend his free time playing a game instead of in the bowels of a particle accelerator as a research assistant.

Of course, it's the right of these firms to hire whoever they want. And getting a job thanks to who you know, instead of what you know, is hardly a new phenomenon. But the guys who run these firms shouldn't pretend there's a deeper reason behind hiring athletes other than personal bias.