Being a Team Player: Why College Athletes Succeed in Business

Being a Team Player: Why College Athletes Succeed in Business


Persistence. Teamwork. Grit and grace in victory and defeat. Intercollegiate varsity sports may build such skills that employers prize—and that later propel former players into management roles faster than their classmates, suggests a recent study tracking the careers of Ivy League athletes.

Members of these colleges’ sports teams secure higher-level jobs and better pay after graduation than their non-athlete peers, finds the analysis of more than 400,000 Ivy Leaguers over the past half-century. Ivy jocks tend to earn some 3.4 percent more during their careers and are more apt to land in C-suite roles than their classmates, says Paul Gompers, the Eugene Holman Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, who is one of the study’s co-authors.

“It certainly makes sense that that kind of intense commitment means there are things that you learn that are hard to learn otherwise.”

Gompers, an All-American runner who graduated from Harvard College in 1986 and held the Harvard record for the 10,000 meter race in track for thirty years, says intercollegiate varsity athletics forges valuable soft skills that help explain the career boost. Working well with and learning to lead people from different backgrounds are skills that may be better honed on the field and court than in the classroom.

“You’re spending—and this is true of most varsity athletes—20-plus hours a week in that activity year-round,” Gompers says. “It certainly makes sense that that kind of intense commitment means there are things that you learn that are hard to learn otherwise.”

Co-authors on the paper include George Hu, a doctoral student in the Harvard Department of Economics; Natee Amornsiripanitch, senior financial economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia; Will Levinson, a doctoral student at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business; and Vladimir Mukharlyamov, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

Socioeconomics not the whole story

After compiling 5.3 million profiles from 44 institutions using website and yearbook data, the researchers chose to concentrate on the eight Ivy League schools for their initial research, following the career trajectories of 401,785 graduates from 1970 to 2021. They combined that data with career information, such as LinkedIn profiles, for the athletes provided by the labor analytics firm Lightcast.

The numbers indicate that these athletes’ careers take off five to 10 years after graduation, with the achievement gap widening even more 20–25 years out. While the study didn’t control for socioeconomic status or race, which the researchers plan to do in future studies, the career bump applies across almost all sports, not just those associated with prep schools, such as rowing, squash, lacrosse, and equestrian.

Using sports popular among the affluent as a proxy for wealth, the researchers found those players tend to slightly outperform athletes from sports more common in public schools. However, the athletes with the best long-term career outcomes are athletes on teams with slightly lower academic college admission standards, such as football, track, basketball, and hockey, as well as athletes from racially diverse sports including football, basketball, and track for both women and men, the authors find. These results support the conclusion that socioeconomic status alone cannot explain the superior career outcomes of varsity athletes.

No surprise: Many jocks go into finance

Some 54 percent of the athletes in the study were men. Those men were more likely to go into finance, law, or tech services, while female athletes more often chose education and health care.

Graduates who participated in such “lower academic admission standard” sports were more likely to go into finance following graduation at more than 20 percent, while college academics was the least popular career choice at 3.5 percent.

Among all the Ivy League graduates:

  • 21 percent held at least one finance job after graduation.
  • 8 percent made it to the C-suite, the highest level of management at most companies.
  • 14 percent pursued science, technology, or engineering degrees.
  • 15 percent earned doctoral degrees.
  • 12 percent had law degrees.
  • 5 percent were physicians.

“Going into business, you’re generally working with others as opposed to, say, a field like medicine or a field like academics; those tend to be a little more solitary,” Gompers says. “Some of the skills, potentially, that you learn in athletics are highly valuable in places where you have a lot of interactions with others.”

How to tap the athletic advantage

The findings are a springboard for researchers to study other areas, including how activities such as student media, orchestra, or theater may create the same types of bonds. “The question is how important those networks and friendships are later in life,” Gompers says. “It’s something we definitely want to explore.”

There may also be implications for diversity, equity, and inclusion in corporations and organizations. Skills learned in diverse college sports teams may apply well in diverse workplaces, including elevating women and helping narrow the gender gap, Gompers says.

“If I were an HR person, and two people were pretty similar, and somebody spent 20 hours a week doing women’s basketball, I’d give them the nod.”

“I spent 20 to 30 hours a week with a bunch of really impressive, intense women, some of whom are still my closest friends in the world,” he says. “I think that may mean I think about these issues differently than somebody who was perhaps spending that same 20 or 30 hours a week with a bunch of bros or guys.”

For hiring managers and companies, the findings also send a signal about potential beyond academic performance. Gompers’ advice? Look at candidates in a “much more holistic sense.”

“If I were an HR person, and two people were pretty similar, and somebody spent 20 hours a week doing women’s basketball, I’d give them the nod,” he says. “Because I think that they’re likely to have those other kinds of skills that are just far more difficult to achieve.”

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Image note: The illustration was created using art generated by Midjourney, an artificial intelligence tool, and AdobeStock/master1305



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