One of the biggest comedic tropes within the education community is “imagine if teachers were glorified like athletes?”
This usually leads to something Key and Peele expertly brought to life in a skit in 2015.
I’m lucky to enjoy the joint perspectives of a former collegiate athlete, a diehard sports fan and a professional educator; and one of the relationships that has always been difficult to reconcile for me is the relationship between high-level athletics and higher education.
The unfortunate reality is that the demands of both parts of the athlete-scholar duality make almost impossible to do both well. Sure, we have amateur sports bodies, namely the NCAA, that superficially promote academics, but when push comes to shove, sports trumps academics every time. This is even more true in the professional ranks. While each major league loves to say the right things regarding their players’ off the field pursuits, they’ve remained frustratingly inept at actually supporting them.
No clearer is this than with the rare athlete-scholar. In recent weeks, we’ve seen this issue arise again, as Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif officially completed his M.D. from McGill University, in Montreal, Quebec. “LDT”, or “Larry”, as most anglophones prefer to call him, had been studying in the offseason since before making the NFL as a sixth-round pick back in 2014. This spring, he became the first active NFL player on record to achieve a Medical Doctorate. Not only did he accomplish this while starting in the NFL, but he also did so from one of Canada’s top universities (#42 in the world, according to the most recent Times rankings). He also did it in his second language, since as the name may have indicated, his native language is French.
He is, by any measure, a remarkable human being, one who is infinitely marketable and a role model in every aspect for young kids. Yet, when LDT requested permission from the NFL to put “M.D.” on the back of his jersey, they denied him.
This is not the first example of the NFL being less than supportive of an academic trying to also be a part of their league. Myron Rolle was a safety out of Florida State who famously received a Rhodes Scholarship. He had to face questions throughout his entire career about whether his true focus was enough on football. Those questions deflated his draft stock and dogged him to the point that his career never fully got off the ground, lasting just a couple of seasons on a practice roster before deciding he had better things to do. Duvernay-Tardif has also stated on record that the majority of NFL teams considered his medical aspirations a detriment during the pre-draft process, and only the Chiefs communicated to him that they considered it a virtue. Just a year ago, John Urschel, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, decided to retire at 26 to protect his brain and allow himself to focus on completing his PhD in Mathematics at MIT. Urschel had spent multiple years in the league before the NFL seemed to clue into his exceptional achievements and featured him as the foil to JJ Watt in a Bose commercial.
The NFL is just the most high profile example in North America of this issue, but it’s something that pervades the sporting landscape. Why don’t we glorify the players who are as intelligent as they are athletic? Does it intimidate us? Are leagues just worried it’ll take attention away from the sport itself? Maybe the issue is that it draws attention to how few athletes do excel in the academic world as well.
Of the different feeder systems into a pro league, the NFL actually requires the highest education, as players need to spend three years in post-secondary before entering the league (and even then, education has nothing to do with it, there just aren’t any feasible alternatives to play competitive football that aren’t tied to Colleges). The MLB, NHL and most FIFA leagues require nothing, and the NBA requires a single year. This leads to an environment where a not-insignificant number of the athletes we look up to don’t even have a high school diploma, something that has become essentially the standard baseline of education for adult life. Beyond that? The stats are dismal. For example, as of 2016, just 4 percent of MLB players have a college degree.
With that complaint in mind, I, as an educator, would like to shine the light on those athletes who have done things the right way off the field of play. We’ll do these pro leagues a service and take this platform to rightfully highlight their best and brightest in a segment called “The Pro Sports Honour Roll”.
Brett Jones — Our first player on the list shares some notable similarities with Dr. Duvernay-Tardif. Jones is also a Canadian born, bred and educated offensive lineman juggling a starting job with his education. After making the New York Giants in 2015, Jones, who almost didn’t play pro football entirely in favour of focusing on his studies, tore his MCL early into his rookie season. He then spent the season back in Regina, Saskatchewan; rehabbing and finishing his engineering degree. He is still playing for the G-men, and has indicated that he plans to transition into engineering once his career is over.
Richard Sherman — Probably the most high-profile North American athlete on this list, Sherman is better known for being a firebrand than a scholar, but his academic achievement is incredibly compelling. Sherman finished second in his class at Dominguez High in the heart of Los Angeles’ infamous Compton district with a 4.2 GPA. He then became the first person in 20 years to qualify for Stanford academically from his high school and went on to get his degree in Communications while he was at it. After entering the NFL and quickly becoming a perennial Pro Bowler, Sherman then went back to school and began work on his Master’s degree. It’s a testament to the lack of value we put into this that I can’t find confirmation anywhere online as to whether he ever finished said Masters, even in a lengthy bio on his own personal website.
Jed Lowrie — The journeyman infielder is currently posting an excellent season for the Oakland Athletics in his second tour of duty with the team, and may be one of the sought after names at the upcoming MLB trade deadline. Before all of that, he was a standout on the Stanford baseball team that won the Pac-10 title in 2004, and graduated with a degree in Political Science.
Craig Breslow — Breslow is a player I’m stretching a little bit to include, as he’s currently plugging away in the Blue Jays’ minor league system with Buffalo of the AAA International League. That being said, Breslow definitely merits mention here as a man once profiled “The Smartest Man in Baseball”, boasting a Yale degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. At the age of 37, here’s hoping he gets another crack at the Majors soon, if only to laud his excellence as a human being.
Pau Gasol — A true renaissance man, Gasol is known for reading historical books for fun and chumming around with famous Spanish tenor Placido Domingo. He’s fluent in five languages, having taught himself Italian and French to go along with his fluency in Catalan, Spanish and English from his youth. He was also well on his way to earning his own M.D. when he reached the NBA, a move that was inspired by Magic Johnson’s 1991 HIV diagnosis. To top it all off? The six-time All-Star was one of the first prominent voices to rise in support of Becky Hammon, the league’s first female coach. Yet, fewer people know this than know that he’s averaged 17 points per game in his career.
Malcolm Brogdon — The 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year comes from an incredible family of scholars, and declined an offer from Harvard to attend the University of Virginia, where he entered an accelerated Bachelor’s/Master’s of Public Policy program. He twice declined to declare for the NBA draft to finish his degree and was rewarded by sliding into the second round of the draft. He excelled on the court anyway, recording over 10 points and 4 assists a game to win ROY, all with that MPP in his back pocket. His Wikipedia page, like most of the members of the Honour Roll, makes no mention of his academics; you’d need to visit the National Basketball Players Association’s site to find out about that he likely knows more about public policy than the sitting President.
Tarik Black — Black is a great story. He physically embodies all of the characteristics that racists would use to judge him as a thug — a physically imposing black man from Memphis with a body just about tattooed from head to toe. Underneath that, however, Black is an exceptional scholar with a humanitarian side. The Houston Rockets forward not only holds a degree in Organizational Leadership, completed in three years at his hometown University of Memphis, but he also has added a Masters in African American Studies, which he plans to use to help elevate African American people.
Alex Killorn — Education level in hockey is slowly rising as the relevance of the NCAA (and the Ivy League, in particular) as a training circuit continues to grow. Recent retiree and NHL front office official George Parros (Princeton, Economics) led the previous generation of hockey scholars, but the current champ has to be the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Alex Killorn. Killorn has become a valuable member of one of the best teams in the league, recording 18 goals and 47 points this past season. What’s much more impressive, however, is him recording a 3.5 GPA at Harvard while completing his degree in Political Science. Hopefully, we’ll continue to see more and more examples of this, as the NCAA (and academic hockey programs in general) continues to challenge the archaic junior hockey system as a pro-pipeline.
Giorgio Chiellini — The standout Juventus defender, though on the downside of his career, continues to be one of the most prominent players in Serie A. Chiellini has received 96 caps with the Italian national team, been named the best defender in Serie A three times, and just recently added a nod as a member of the UEFA Champions League Squad of the Season for 2017–2018. Off the field, he’s in the conversation for the most impressive person on this list: he holds an MBA from the University of Turin, completed in 2017. It’s an unbelievable duality for a player to twice grace the cover of the FIFA video game series and hold such a prestigious academic honour.
Vincent Kompany — One footy-scholar standout you can actually enjoy in the current World Cup (Sorry, Azzurri) is current Belgian national team captain (and Manchester City [BPL] captain), Vincent Kompany. Kompany’s on-pitch resume speaks for itself, as he’s been part of elevating both his club from also-ran status to title contender, and as a part of the “golden generation” pushing Belgium’s Red Devils to new heights. Off the field? Well, he has also recently added an MBA, juggled alongside his season at the University of Manchester. World-Class defenders apparently also can have outstanding business minds.
I mean no disrespect to Women’s leagues, golf, tennis or any other sports by not including them in the column, but I had to limit my scope somewhere. What should become clear, however, is that pro sports need to do far more to both encourage their athletes to pursue education and celebrate those that do. In an ideal world, maybe we even start producing generations of kids that want to be like the Laurent Duvernay-Tardifs or John Urschels of the world; people that excel both in their chosen athletic pursuit and their chosen academic field. Until then, this educator can only fantasize about his first multi-million dollar contract to teach AP History.