Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton was undeniably one of the NFL’s most talented individual players of all time. His ability to generate yards despite the circumstances — to elude tacklers with deceptive speed and agility — made him nothing short of a legend.
While most remember Payton as the star back of the Bears at the height of their success — he rushed for 1,500 yards and 9 touchdowns in 1985, leading Chicago to their first title in 22 years — he also put up consistent numbers playing for really bad teams and in really tough conditions early in his career.
By the end of his 13-year career in the NFL, Payton had accounted for 21,000 yards from scrimmage. He was chosen to 9 Pro Bowls, was named the NFL Player of the Year twice (1977 and 1985), and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1993. 27 years later, he still holds Bears records for total rushing yards (16,726) and total rushing touchdowns (110).
But read Sweetness — a biography on the back written by Jeff Pearlman — and you’ll find out that Payton wasn’t exactly a team player.
What caught me by surprise was that instead of running out of bounds late in games when the Bears were trailing by 3, Payton would often fight for extra yards to pad his individual stats. While some fans saw his refusal to be tackled as evidence of a rugged determination to deliver punishment to defensive backs, his teammates saw it as a selfish act that cost Chicago victories.
Looking back, Payton’s 16,000 rushing yards are pretty darn impressive no matter who he was as a person. But his “accomplishments” are harder to admire when you learn that his pursuit of yards over victories was often self-serving and costly to his peers.
The lesson to be learned: Professions that celebrate numbers above all are inadvertently incentivizing the wrong behaviors.
Like most professional athletes, Payton’s contracts weren’t tied to the number of victories that the Bears put up each year. Instead, his contracts were tied to the individual numbers that he generated, regardless of the damage that he caused by pursuing those numbers. Payton figured out that putting up 1,500 yards was the key to getting paid — even if putting up 1,500 yards meant making choices that hurt the overall health of the organization.
What does that same selfish behavior look like in education?
Teachers grinding through impossible curricula in hopes of covering content before end of grade exams, even when they know that stepping out of bounds and stopping the clock is the right choice for kids. The end result: Teachers with higher “value added scores” even though their students quickly forget everything that they’ve memorized in preparation for testing season.
Are these REALLY the kind of results — and instructional behaviors — that we want to reward?
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