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Bahamian American neurosurgery resident and retired NFL safety Myron Rolle 35, knew he wanted to become a neurosurgeon at a pretty young age. Growing up his Bahamian parents instilled in him the advantages America could award if you have a goal and apply yourself to the best of your abilities.
But like many other young black kids growing up in America, he also wanted to be an NFL football player. Little did he know at the time that the two would intertwine so perfectly, it would ultimately make him a better physician.
“The discipline, the focus, the being coachable, the mitigating pressure, sticking to my fundamentals, communicating, working together with people who are different than me; all of that led into my life as a neurosurgeon now.” He said while we talked on the phone during my morning stroll to the local coffee shop.
The conversation a shocking moment for me. I had played football for many years before I put down the pigskin and picked up a pencil. Never once had a correlated the skill set of being a successful college athlete with the mental makeup you need to be a successful doctor. It made me ponder on the question of how come black colleges athletes aren’t pursuing jobs in the medical industry?
Black college athletes, particularly football and basketball players, make up more than half of the athletes at the 65 universities in the top five athletic conferences in the NCAA and make millions of dollars when these kids perform. But according to a 2018 report from the USC Race and Equity Center, 55% of black college athletes graduate as compared to 69% of college athletes overall. Black college athletes are only being prepared to be drafted in leagues that only select a few, leaving many educated young black men ill-prepared for the working world.
Black people make up about 13% of the U.S. population, but only 5.4% of physicians are black and that number hasn’t changed in almost 120 years.
Being a student-athlete is a grind. Most people go to college with a purpose of finding a career. College athletes are no different, except their path is unbelievably time-consuming and filled with influences as well pressure to do whatever you need to do to win that “starting job.” These pressures include maybe skipping on that premed class because lab time might interfere with position meetings. Black athletes are funneled into spending the majority of their college career focusing on a sport that less than 2 in 100 will do professionally. It’s weird.
But for Myron Rolle, who played 3 seasons in the NFL, it was different. Because he was the #1 ranked high school player in the country and he already had a plan, that gave him leverage when it came to universities.
“I think my situation was unique for the fact that I was the #1 ranked player coming out of high school. I had a lot of offers and a lot of attention and I felt I had a bit of a power dynamic over the school to be able to dictate what courses I wanted to take, when I wanted to graduate, the academic pursuits that I wanted to have, he said.” So I went to my requiting visits saying look, I’m gonna be a premed student, I’m gonna take these labs, they may conflict with practice or meetings but this is my path, so I need y’all do whatever y’all can to help me get there. If y’all can assure me that this can happen, then you will get the athlete that you want on the football field who can make some plays for you.”
Yes, Myron’s situation was unique. He was fortunate to have the cache out of high school to pursue a career path that conflicted with his passions for football and most college athletes don’t get that opportunity. But it’s not the opportunity that stood out to me. It was his plan of action that can be cultivated into more college athletes becoming physicians.
Black athletes need more resources and guidance allotted to them around things other than their respective sports to ensure their success after higher education.
Among the resources should be the cultivation of interests aligned with the skills learned as a college athlete; teamwork, discipline, motivation, performing under pressure, all the things that would make an amazing doctor.
“Working in an operating room, I’m the captain, said, Rolle. “I’m the quarterback of the operating room. I have to communicate with everything, I have to perform under mitigating pressure. If we get into a bleeding artery that we have to stop, but we still have to take out this tumor, how do you stay calm? You go back to your fundamentals and finish your job because the most important thing is saving that person’s life. That is the collective goal of our team. It’s a team sport and team effort as a physician. It’s beautiful how those two lives crossed over and intertwined throughout my trajectory and it’s been a blessing to be able to do that.”
Black college athletes should continue to strive to be the best athletes they can be, but also be taught their skill sets actually prepare them for careers long careers after sports. Careers that could change the black employment disparities among U.S doctors.
Universities should also see the problem they play in this. If a young black athlete can come to your school and make you millions of dollars, the least you can do is ensure them the best possible opportunity to achieve outside of sports when that is where most of them will have to achieve anyway.
The cultivation also starts before higher education. Many young athletes feel pressured to dream in a box with a football, a basketball, or a mic when in all actuality, that box can be filled with whatever they want. They also never realize that what makes them a great athlete is perfectly aligned with what can make them great after they are done being an athlete.
“I think that the way you start creating a pipeline is awareness and exposure, said Rolle. If there’s a way for a curriculum in high school or even pre-high school to start speaking to these young black athletes about how being a physician, being a medical doctor, isn’t as much about the years that you put in to be that physician, but more so about how your sport perfectly leads into a career that can do for a long time. When you’re an athlete and you see a problem, you wanna fix that problem. You wanna anticipate if a receiver is lined up outside the numbers, then you know he only had a certain amount of routes he can run. You anticipate his routes, you cut off the rights he could run, then you make it hard for him and his quarterback to make a play just like in medicine. If you see that somebody is becoming hypertensive, and you say well you have the risk factors for hypertension in this respect, let’s cut off the things that can move you down the road towards getting a stroke or some sort of heart disease. So let’s fix your diet, let’s fix your lifestyle, let’s make some better behavior choices, let’s have you exercise more. Let’s cut of these things so you have a good chance of winning this play. It’s the same thing.”
If young black athletes are already being indoctrinated with some of the skills it takes to be a successful doctor, we should nurture that at as much as we can and not push them to only see a path to professional sports. We need more black doctors and creating a pipeline from college sports to the medical field for our black athletes can start us in the right direction to meeting that goal.
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