Why Do Former High-School Athletes Make More Money?

Research hasn’t yet borne out whether sports breed go-getters or whether they attract kids with a knack for navigating the professional world.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

This project was a slam dunk, that one was a home run, and it’s just the way the ball bounces—the last thing the business world needs to catalogue its accomplishments is another facile sports metaphor.

But it’s not just athletic metaphors that proliferate in the business world—it’s also athletes themselves. A recent study documented just how much the labor market smiles upon people who played sports as children: Former high-school athletes generally go on to have higher-status careers than those who didn’t play a sport. On top of that, former athletes’ wages are between 5 and 15 percent higher than those of the poor trombonists and Yearbook Club presidents. This earnings advantage doesn’t appear to exist for any other extracurricular activity.

What Kinds of Jobs Do High School Athletes Go on to Do?
Kniffin et al.

“The thrust of the new article is to scratch the surface of the long-term, and workplace, relevance of playing competitive youth sports since it's not a topic that's been closely studied, despite the fact that sports offers a common experience for more than 40 percent of the population,” says Kevin Kniffin, a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University who co-authored the study (as well as a childhood baseball, football, and soccer player).

Kniffin and his fellow researchers, Cornell’s Brian Wansink and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s Mitsuru Shimizu, also found that high-school athletes were perceived to be better leaders and more confident than people who participated in other extracurriculars—which hints at a possible pro-athlete bias in hiring processes.

Another finding was that former varsity athletes reported giving more money to charity and volunteering more time in their old age than their more sedentary classmates. Strikingly, this correlation was statistically significant even 55 or so years after the majority of this cohort—hundreds of WWII veterans—had graduated from high school. (This research involved people who attended high school well before the Title-IX era and thus necessarily focused on men, but women who played high-school sports enjoy an earnings premium too.)

Are high-school sports conferring leadership skills and self-confidence onto a bunch of otherwise unambitious kids? Or are they simply signals, activities that professionally gifted youth gravitate toward? It’s not exactly clear. On one hand, team sports, with their constant passing of balls, pucks, and batons, might teach children and teens cooperation. And young people might learn something just from being in situations when they’re subordinates. But on the other hand, the likelihood that someone plays a sport could have to do with several variables not recorded in the data: coming from a family that can afford the proper equipment, that has the time to shuttle kids to practice, or that puts a premium on physical activity. Also, “popular” kids might be more likely to play sports, and popularity is really just a proxy for networking prowess—something that the business world prizes.

Kniffin hopes that he can whittle down the possible explanations with further research. “With data provided by the NCAA, I'll be looking at the question of whether there is variation across types of sports with respect to behaviors like volunteering time for others,” he says. “For example, do rowers, whose sport places a real premium on cooperation, also show more other-oriented behaviors in other parts of their lives?”

While recruiters might not directly ask about a candidate’s athletic history, “What are your hobbies?” is often a natural lead-in to talking about sports. Is that a fair interview topic? There’s agreement that traits beyond someone’s control, such as height or skin color, shouldn’t affect job prospects—and yet, they do. High-school sports are several degrees more voluntary than physical characteristics, but there are tons of perfectly capable people who simply have no interest in sports, and might be at a slight disadvantage because athletes are thought to be better leaders.

Whatever the virtues of high-school sports end up revealing themselves to be, it’s worth remembering that there could and should be a thicker barrier between high school and sports. In Germany, where some youth sports don’t exist in an academic context, being an athlete still was associated with higher earnings down the line, which suggests some of the same dynamics might be at work even when sports are decoupled from school. So if it’s indeed the case that athletes gain skills with lasting professional relevance, that says nothing of the loss of skills that comes when schools direct money away from academic programs to support their athletic teams instead.

via Kevin Lewis