Why do we think that our sports figures shouldn’t also be intelligent and well-educated? Matthew Facciani explores the un-talked about pressures on athletes to not succeed intellectually.
I played many sports in high school, received terrible grades, and frequently got into trouble. The last thing on my teenage mind was education. I was convinced that I was going to become a professional baseball player.
Breaking my ankle shortly before baseball tryouts junior year forced me to reconsider a few things. I quickly realized the pro baseball idea might not work out, and that I should focus on my grades. Fast forward a few years later: I’m a PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience and trying to make the big leagues by landing a tenure track faculty position. I got lucky, but many other kids focused on sports do not end up with the same admiration for education as I did. In my experience, education, science, and curiosity were simply not cool for those involved in sports culture.
Just how does our sports culture compete with the appreciation of education?
The story of Myron Rolle provides a gripping example of anti-intellectualism in the sports world. Rolle was a highly talented college football player and excellent scholar. Rolle’s academic prowess even afforded him a Rhodes Scholarship which is one of the greatest academic achievements one can receive. Rolle’s passion for education was noticed by his teammates and he constantly had to prove himself to avoid being labeled “soft.” Rolle definitely proved himself on the field as he was considered by many to be an obvious first round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. However, he deferred the NFL Draft in order to complete a master’s degree in medical anthropology at Oxford with his Rhodes Scholarship.
After completing his degree, Rolle went into the next NFL draft where he was selected in the 6th round. Rolle again didn’t feel like he fit in. His coaches treated differently and thought he lacked “dedication” due to his academic background and focus. After spending a couple years relegated to practice squads, Rolle retired without appearing in an NFL game. With Rolle’s intellect and passion for medicine, it would have been easy to imagine him speaking out about the NFL’s problem with brain trauma. Or many many other worthwhile issues.
Sports writer Aaron Gordon speculates:
“Perhaps the NFL wasn’t scared of Rolle simply because of his intelligence, but because they were afraid of how he might use that intelligence.”
Anti-intellectualism in sports culture even spreads to the media, as recently shown when an ESPN reporter was suspended for defending science on Twitter.
Aversion to academics isn’t limited to the NFL, but it does seem to be more prevalent in higher revenue sports such as football.
Overall, the graduation rates of college athletes is not bad until athletes in high revenue sports (such as basketball and football) are considered. Additionally, graduation rate isn’t always a great indicator as colleges can rig the academic system to benefit athletes.
Unfortunately, the lack of focus on education in sports—or put another away, the focus on sports to the exclusion of all things, including education—may debilitate professional athletes. Check out the shockingly high bankruptcy rates of retired NBA and NFL players.
Emphasizing the importance of education would not only lower dropout rates and help prevent bankruptcy, but it would also help reduce the sexism and misogyny in sports. The link between a lack of education and sexist beliefs is an important one to consider for the sports world. Sexist attitudes are seen from the misogynistic language in locker rooms to athletes engaging in sexual assault and domestic violence.
Hypermasculinity plays a crucial role, but education would certainly help encourage better behavior. I would argue that when men start to critically analyze their world, it will lead them to see through many of the harmful gender roles placed on men and women.
There are definitely some well-educated athletes who are changing the culture which makes me optimistic.
NFL player Richard Sherman may be the highest profile athlete in this bunch. He played football at Stanford where he also started a master’s degree. Beyond his academic stats, Sherman is an excellent communicator and damages the “dumb jock” stereotype every time he is interviewed.
NBA player Pau Gasol is another high profile athlete who is speaks well and was planning on going to medical school before an opportunity to play professional basketball arose. ESPN did do a great piece covering Gasol’s love of medicine and opportunity to observe spinal surgery.
However, it will take many more Shermans and Gasols to change sports culture.
Not every professional athlete has to be a Rhodes Scholar to reduce the anti-intellectualism in sports, but athletes and sports culture as a whole would benefit from respecting education more.
Of course, this starts with institutions. Look at the many big-time college football programs that heap far more money and attention on sports programs than academics. It’s not hard for any casual observer to see what is being deemed important and what is not.
It also carries through to individuals. Athletes have tremendous influence over the kids who look up to them and shouldn’t waste that power. I would love to see more athletes speak to younger athletes about the value of education. MLB player and Columbia University graduate Fernando Perez talks to local high schools about the importance of education.
After one of his talks a sophomore student said “I’d love to take baseball as far as I can go, but I know I need to study hard and focus on my education.”
If one of my athletic heroes told me this in 10th grade, I might not have had to break my ankle to appreciate the value of education.
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Simon Evans
Join our BRAND NEW Good Men Project Sports Facebook Page!
And, if you like that, you might want a daily dose of Good Men Project awesomeness delivered straight to your inbox. Once a day or once a week for Good Men Project, or sign up for our once a week GMP Best of Sports email newsletter, your choice. Join the mailing list here.