There he was on our television screens on the first night of the first Sunday of the NFL season, grinning into the camera with those glimmering ivory teeth and those chocolate-brown eyes and that teen-idol hair. His name—in case you were swooning so heavily that you missed it altogether—is Jimmy Garoppolo, and he is 6 feet, 2 inches tall, and he weighs 225 pounds, and he attended Eastern Illinois University, the same small college that produced another NFL quarterback a few years back. And that quarterback, one Tony Romo, was also undeniably handsome, but it would seem that Jimmy Garoppolo is even more handsome.

And this is what made it weirder: Garoppolo was starting for the New England Patriots, replacing the suspended Tom Brady, the quarterback widely considered the most handsome to ever play the position, a man who models fur-lined boots and marries Brazilian supermodels. It was enough to make you wonder: What the hell is going on here? It was enough to make you ask the question: Are the Patriots now purposely targeting incredibly handsome quarterbacks? Is this yet another element of the vast Nixonesque evil-empire conspiracy that brought us Deflategate and Spygate? Has Bill Belichick, the frumpiest coach in all of football, a man who cannot even abide by the restrictive sleeve length of a normal hoodie, a man who appears entirely oblivious to his own self-image, somehow hacked into human biology to render the Patriots even more of a super-team?

Watching Garoppolo’s stupidly perfect face beam through a postgame interview, I couldn’t help but ask whether we might somehow be on the cusp of a new era in professional football where the face matters as much as the arm.

“I love the handsomeness conspiracy idea—the notion that Belichick has discovered a market inefficiency in the undervalued handsome quarterback and is stocking up on them,” Tufts psychology professor Sam Sommers told me. “Sure, could just be an anomaly…(But) I’m sure the rest of the league would be quick to pounce and accuse the Pats of some sort of cheating scheme by which they are outhandsoming everyone else.”

Perhaps you find this theory of mine ridiculous and shallow. Perhaps you may ask, What could a quarterback as handsome as Jimmy Garoppolo possibly provide that a less handsome quarterback couldn’t? Haven’t there been great quarterbacks with frumpier figures and doughier faces and multiple Papa John’s franchises who have also proven to be great?

This is all true. But watching Garoppolo defeat the Arizona Cardinals that Sunday night, and watching the Patriots coalesce around him, and watching that stupidly perfect face beam through an otherwise stultifying postgame interview on NBC, I couldn’t help but ask whether we might somehow be on the cusp of a new era in professional football where the face matters as much as the arm, where a position long associated with golden-boy looks had reached a new apogee. All I knew is that I could not answer this by simply gazing at the glimmering surface of Jimmy Garoppolo’s cheekbones.

And so I turned to science.

**

There is an archetype at work here when it comes to quarterbacks, and that archetype goes back decades, if not a century, to the moment when Notre Dame first popularized the use of the forward pass in 1913. As the quarterback position developed into the most important role on the field, particularly in the post World War II era, quarterbacks became matinee idols (the Rams’ Bob Waterfield married pin-up girl Jane Russell in 1943). Kids all over the country wore Johnny Unitas’ high-top sneakers in an attempt to emulate his quiet cool, and then Joe Namath broke the mold and became the first countercultural icon to play the position. And so it went, as the NFL and television developed a symbiotic relationship, as our screens grew larger and our pictures became sharper. The quarterback was almost always viewed as the most charismatic dude on the field, as an undeniable leader of men, as the guy who could be (and would be) played by any number of movie stars.

It became a chicken-and-the-egg question, then: Were quarterbacks better-looking because they were the ones often chosen, as young kids, to play the position? Was there a sense of playground Darwinism at work here? Or do we see quarterbacks as being more handsome because this is our perception of what a quarterback is?

The initial research on these notions goes back almost a decade, to a widely publicized 2007 study conducted by a trio of economists, David Berri, Jennifer VanGilder and Rob Simmons. They collected data on 121 NFL quarterbacks who played from 1995 until 2006 and looked at the factors that impacted player’s pay, and also used a computer program to measure the symmetry of each quarterback’s face. What did they find? They found that a single standard deviation in facial symmetry led to an eight percent increase in pay, which means, as Berri told me, “More attractive quarterbacks—after controlling for performance—are paid more. So NFL teams do appear to take attractiveness into account in evaluating quarterbacks (whether they know this or not).”

According to the software those economists used, Brady scored a 99.1 on the facial symmetry scale, with a max score of 100 and an average score among all males at around 90. So I asked Berri and VanGilder if they could measure Garoppolo according to the same program, and the short answer is that they couldn’t, because that particular software is no longer available. However, they did utilize “another approach,” Berri told me, and they found that Garoppolo “is even better looking than Brady.” In other words, Garoppolo would score somewhere in the 99th percentile as well, VanGilder said. At the very least, Berri says, “The Patriots have hired two very attractive quarterbacks to lead their team.”

So. At least we’ve established that much.

**

But this only scratches the surface of the overarching conundrum, because we still have no idea if the Patriots did this on purpose. More important, is it possible that we are somehow perceiving Brady and Garoppolo to be even more attractive than they actually are merely because they play quarterback? Is Garoppolo’s handsomeness amplified by the fact that he supplanted a quarterback widely acknowledged for his handsomeness? And do these things merely grow over time, and are they affected by our cultural perceptions? Do we, as VanGilder once said, see the quarterback as the most beautiful person on the team because we’ve been trained to think that way?

“I was at Michigan in grad school when Brady played there,” says Sommers, the Tufts professor who recently co-authored a book about sports psychology, This Is Your Brain on Sports. He forwarded me a photo of a college-aged Brady, who was largely a backup at Michigan.

“I don’t remember the guy in the attached photo being a sex symbol,” he continued. “Then he became a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, married a fashion model, et cetera.”

Were quarterbacks better-looking because they were the ones often chosen, as young kids, to play the position? Or do we see quarterbacks as being more handsome because this is our perception of what a quarterback is?

Sommers and his co-author, Sports Illustrated writer Jon Wertheim, built on the research of Berri, VanGilder and Simmons by conducting random surveys asking people to rate the attractiveness of NFL players at several positions, including quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back. What they found was counterintuitive and slightly surprising: The quarterbacks came out as the least attractive of three positions.

What does this mean? It means that quarterbacks are often perceived as being more attractive because they occupy an obvious leadership position; it’s known, Sommers and Wertheim wrote, as the “halo effect,” and it means that if you have positive overall perceptions of a person, their other characteristics—including their physical appearance—are often heightened. Would we perceive Brady and Garoppolo as being as attractive as we do if they played wide receiver or tight end? Perhaps we would—after all, their teammate Julian Edelman is also dating a Brazilian supermodel, and their other teammate, Rob Gronkowski, is now seen as America’s alpha-bro. But, Sommers asks, “If Garoppolo plays another position or is on a less high-profile team or replaces a less handsome quarterback, is he viewed in quite the same way?”

It is a question worth posing as we watch Garoppolo slink his way through these first four games of the NFL season, and as Garoppolo potentially supplants Brady as the long-term starting quarterback for the Patriots. The vast handsomeness conspiracy also does not hold up if we regress back in time, when the Patriots’ backups included Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer, neither of whom were regarded for their pulchritude (and Brady’s best-looking backup, Matt Cassell, has floundered in his post-Patriots career). But maybe this is the new new thing, and maybe this is Belichick’s latest method of gaining an edge. Perception, after all, can be as powerful as reality, and if Garoppolo’s own teammates perceive him to be a more effective leader simply because of his handsomeness, then maybe it renders him something more than merely another pretty face.

 

Michael Weinreb is the author of four books, including The Kings of New York, which was named one of the best books of the year by Amazon. For more, go here.

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