Can one be too smart for the NFL?

Can one be too smart for the NFL?

USA Today – May 14, 2010
By Sam Gill

As a former Rhodes Scholar who weighs 150 pounds on a good day, has a vertical leap under an inch, and probably couldn’t run 40 yards in under 10 seconds if my life depended on it, I finally figured out why my career in professional football never got off the ground.

I was too smart.

That, at least, is the now widespread criticism of Myron Rolle, a former Florida State standout who decided to forgo the 2009 National Football League draft to study medical anthropology at the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. During the recent 2010 NFL draft, Rolle was taken with the last pick in the sixth round — far later than many expected.

While many have reacted to the Rolle’s plight with sympathy for a thoughtful young man who seems not to be receiving his due, the real tragedy is what this controversy says about the role of sports in our society.

Laughable questions

Rolle’s purported smarts have prompted an almost shocking profusion of criticism from across the football world. Former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick questioned how Rolle’s intelligence would affect him on the field: “If you want to create hesitation on a guy, make him think. This guy can’t help but think.”

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper raised concerns about Rolle’s commitment to football, asking, “You wonder about the dedication to football. These teams want the guy to be a 24-hour, 365-days-a-year football player.”

I don’t know Myron Rolle personally. He entered Oxford a year after I graduated, and I’ve never met him. But having spent two years with 31 other Rhodes Scholars from the U.S., and dozens more from around the world, I can report confidently that these concerns are laughable.

Rolle would not have been elected as a Rhodes Scholar without passing through a grueling selection process that requires dedication, time, effort and maturity. And he won a Rhodes Scholarship because he displayed a high level of commitment and excellence across a wide range of activities.

Most of my Rhodes Scholar peers did not have trouble balancing their myriad pursuits. They instead seemed to lead and excel in everything that they did, whether it was school work, volunteering, starting and operating a non-profit organization, conducting high-level research, or playing sports.

An NFL team is probably the only employer who hires a Rhodes Scholar and asks, “Will he be committed enough?” The Rhodes Scholar who works in business, politics, science, or medicine probably has diverse interests beyond her narrow profession. But her ability to pursue those interests at the same time that she does her job more than well is exactly what makes her a Rhodes Scholar.

The problem emerging in the curious case of Myron Rolle is not, however, what it means for perceptions of Rhodes Scholars, but what it means for our professional and collegiate sports leagues.

Our sports culture has turned student-athletes into athletes who carry student IDs. According to the University of North Carolina’s College Sport Research Institute, only 54.8% of athletes in the top division of college football graduate — almost 20 percentage points lower than their non-football playing peers. The numbers are worse for top division basketball, where fewer than half of players graduate.

The ‘student-athlete’ failure

Kiper is probably right. Professional football teams probably want a “24-hour, 365-days-a-year football player.” But it’s hard to live up to this expectation and earn a college degree at the same time. For the thousands of athletes who aren’t drafted, this gamble can have disastrous consequences.

Many of Rolle’s defenders bemoan the absence of truly great student-athletes, such as former U.S. senator Bill Bradley (a Rhodes Scholar and NBA Hall of Famer) or Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page (an NFL Hall of Famer).

It is disappointing that such figures may be left in the past, but it’s only realistic to expect that the increasing professionalization of sports has made the true scholar-athlete a rarer find. The real tragedy is that the demands — and potential rewards — of professional sports seem to have put even a basic degree out of reach for the many collegiate athletes lucky enough to have earned their way to higher education through sports.

Myron Rolle deserves special recognition. He is a supreme talent on and off the field, and by all accounts is a wonderful person. Whether or not he succeeds in the NFL, his life will probably be a great success, for himself and for those around him. But if professional sports devalue intelligence and a diversity of interests as much as it seems, we have larger problems than Myron Rolle.

Sam Gill, a consultant in Washington, D.C., was a Rhodes Scholar who graduated from the University of Oxford in 2008.

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