*Published online at Cleveland.com on Dec. 28th, 2017*
PORTLAND — “Nothing is given. Everything is earned” is the motto of NBA icon Lebron James. It’s also a pillar for his newly created I Promise School.
By intertwining a family-first ideology with a rigorous science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum for students in the 1st through 8th grades, the beauty and irony are evident. Someone who has made his entire life putting an orange ball into a hoop understands that a lifetime of success originates inside a classroom — not outside, on a basketball court.
“Nothing is given. Everything is earned in the classroom … first,” might serve as a more accurate descriptor of LeBron’s theory.
As we survey the majority of African-American communities, there lies a common denominator in how society views athletics — as the main mechanism by which blacks rise to success.
In primary schools, a factory-like process is pushed on many young black boys: Perform well on the basketball court in grade school; join an out-of-school team; earn a scholarship or invitation to attend a top athletic preparatory school; become a star recruit at a Division I athletic program; and keep your mind and eyes on the coveted title of “professional athlete.”
As these young boys become young men, there is an industry of coaches and recruiters who look for talent at an early age without valuing the young person themselves.
However, it does not need to be that way. As a young physician and former collegiate student-athlete, I had coaches who instilled values in me and goals on me to succeed in both the athletic and educational realms. If not for them, I would not be where I am today.
These coaches are a rare breed but need to be the common numerator.
The hard truth is that becoming a basketball player in the National Basketball Association is exceedingly difficult, almost like playing lottery odds. In the 2016-2017 school year, according to NCAA.org, there were 550,305 high school participants in men’s basketball, and 18,712 became NCAA participants. Thus, the probability of competing in NCAA collegiate basketball was 3.4 percent for male high school basketball athletes desiring to compete at the next level.
Only 1.2 percent of these NCAA student-athletes make it to the major professional level.
Neither of these aforementioned statistics account for longevity or success as a professional athlete. Suddenly a small fish in a big pond, some players end up in the league even if only for a single game or less. Despite these numbers, families and coaches are emboldened to push their young student-athletes to fight for careers in professional athletics.
However, what happens if we channel the same passion into pushing these young men to concurrently focus on exploiting the educational mission for long-term success?
National studies from 2012 demonstrate that black physicians comprise only 4 percent of active physicians, 6 percent of trainees in graduate medical education and 7 percent of medical school graduates.
If the same fury, encouragement, and will were instilled into young black men in the classrooms, what might be the possibility? Moreover, how much stronger would our entire country be with such a paradigm shift in priorities?
The right direction and guidance — similar excellence and discipline — used to excel at sports can be transitioned into the libraries, research laboratories and clinical rooms where black men are currently sparse. We often see black athletes but, in certain areas of this country, we rarely see black physicians. Pushing oneself to an exemplary level in athletics is nothing short of amazing, but enhancing your knowledge of a certain subject matter is one of the most self-fulfilling achievements in this world.
Lebron James has initiated a conduit for lifelong success for the black community in his hometown of Akron.
He evidences two of the most clichéd sentences in society, and as we know, most clichés ring true:
Home is where the heart is. Classroom is where the success is.
As my 30th birthday approaches, as a young trainee in an anesthesiology residency program, my career is in its infancy. In contrast, for my contemporaries in the world of athletics, most of their careers are in the terminal stages. Excluding environmental occurrences and certain medical conditions that may occur, we all will live at least another 50 years.
In truth, there are many successful athletes, like Lebron James, who have pushed beyond the limited box of athletics, recognizing that the seeds to the future success of the black male are in the classroom and not at the basketball courts or the football fields.
Today we plant the seeds.
And watch them grow.
Dr. Jason L. Campbell, a native of Washington, D.C., is a recent graduate of The Ohio State University College of Medicine and a former Division III All-American track and field athlete at Emory University. He is currently a physician resident in the Department of Anesthesiology at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon.