— A defining moment in sports as it relates to African Americans, at least for me, came one day last year when kids in South-Central L.A. and the South Side of Chicago and parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn took down their posters of Kobe Bryant. They replaced Kobe with a player whose claim to fame was — get a load of this — being the leading scorer for his small private high school team. And he didn’t fetch a single college scholarship offer. At least not for basketball.
Barack Obama turned out OK, anyway, and managed to captivate and inspire as many kids as Kobe times 10. For a long time, too long actually, athletes were front and center when it came to role models for kids in poverty. It was an unhealthy relationship, not because kids should be denied their sports heroes, but because of the imbalance. It was way out of whack. These kids didn’t have many influences who wore Brooks Brothers and had an Ivy League degree and made an honest living without throwing a ball. They needed to see something else, and someone else, if only to let them know a whole other world of possibilities did exist.
For a new generation, then, it’s important to show a different type of black athlete, someone who doesn’t place his entire fate on being just an athlete, just in case sports doesn’t work out in the long run. You know, like it doesn’t for roughly 99 percent of mankind. And so I’m reassured, not just by a president who now only plays an occasional game of pickup ball, but also by someone else, who might become one of the most important black sports figures of our time.
And I bet there aren’t six kids or even three non-sports fans who ever heard of him.
He didn’t even suit up this season.
That’s fine. Myron Rolle was occupied by more important stuff the past several months. He was busy listening to lectures on microbiology and attending health care seminars and reading textbooks as thick as a Sicilian accent. He was busy studying courses I never heard of, nor can pronounce.
He was at Oxford, over in England, already preparing for his second career, well before beginning his first: pro football.
Rolle eventually wants to be a neurosurgeon and open a medical center in the Bahamas, where he has family roots. You might know the story, how he starred at Florida State and became one of the country’s finest defensive backs in 2008. And was even better in the classroom. And became a Rhodes scholar, just like one of his mentors, Bill Bradley. And decided to skip the 2009 NFL draft to study abroad, delaying his pro football career by a year and costing himself quite a few dollars.
“It was an easy decision,” he said recently.
Rolle is important because he shatters all stereotypes of athletes, especially black athletes. He studied at a prestigious prep school in New Jersey yet was widely considered one of the top players in the country. He balanced the rigors of major college football and the classroom, where he didn’t exactly major in Microfootballogy. And his vision, at an early age, was larger than sports. He saw his “Rolle” in society as something greater and more important than entertaining folks on fall Sundays.
Yes, Rolle was lucky enough to have educated parents and to grow up in a stable household where books were prioritized. Those were built-in advantages lacked by others. And yet he’s a perfect example of what every athlete who goes to school should be. Rolle applied himself in the classroom as aggressively as he did for the Seminoles on the field. He didn’t have a plan; he had plans. There’s a difference. Rolle took advantage of a free college education, which is often taken for granted, and parlayed that into a Rhodes, the Heisman Trophy of academics. And now he has career options: Play football as long as his body is young and strong, then use his medical anthropology degree to become a doctor and save lives.
Or perhaps become commissioner of the NFL. You think the league is going to let someone like him slip away easily?
My only wish is for this generation of black athletes to take notice of Rolle and seize opportunities the way he’s doing. Maximize the college experience, but first, prepare for college in order to reap all the benefits. Be more than an athlete, since athletes don’t enjoy long careers anyway. Become respected for intelligence, for making solid choices, for contributing to society and building communities. Be known and admired for doing something without a ball.
In terms of blacks and sports, most of the frontiers have been crossed and conquered, anyway. The color barrier? Broken. Quarterback in the NFL? Done. Coach the winning Super Bowl team? That, too. Own a professional sports franchise? Yep. This isn’t your father’s generation. We’re at the point in sports where a black coach or quarterback or swimmer or hockey player doesn’t draw many, if any, double looks anymore. And thank goodness for that. Actually, thank Jackie, Mr. Rickey, Ali, Ashe, Dungy and a few others for that.
There’s still more precious ground to cover, though, and one area is in education. What black athletes do on the fields and courts, in the big picture, doesn’t mean much. The attitudes they change, the people they touch, the communities they change and the legacies they leave? Means everything.
Myron Rolle can last until the fifth round in the April draft, play six seasons, flame out, never make a Pro Bowl or win the Super Bowl, and yet why do I suspect he’ll turn out like the private school basketball player who replaced Kobe on bedroom walls?