Pay Collegiate Athletes If It Is Tied To Their Education: Former Black Student-Athlete Turned Physician Weighs In

There is a script I continue to watch unfold: A young African-American male heralded in college as an elite athlete raises large amounts of money for his university. He then leaves this Mt. Olympus-esque world prior to obtaining a degree for the dream of playing in the National Football League. A few years, seasons and many injuries later this same young man is 30 years old, financially unstable with little to count for his past triumphs but some old newspaper clippings, ESPN highlights found on YouTube and unending aches and pains in his joints. I propose that if the NCAA provides financial compensation under a strict framework of academic compliance and encouragement, multiple issues can be resolved. I am a 30-year-old African-American medical school graduate, a current resident physician, and a former division III track and field All-American.

In 2011, I graduated college and returned to my hometown of Washington D.C., while a savior was moving in from Waco, Texas. Robert Griffin III the former Baylor University QB—nicknamed RGIII—had just been drafted #2 overall by the Washington football team. Each Sunday he had the crowd roaring, game after game, night after night, under the lights and loudspeakers. He was the second most popular person in town next to then President Barack Obama. Years later, as RGIII and I—nearly identical in age—look into the future, divergent futures stare back at us as his career lights are dimming while mine are beginning to illuminate.

Recently, California Governor Gavin Newsome signed the Fair Pay to Play Act allowing collegiate players to be financially compensated for name recognition and to hire agents beginning in 2023. If one steps back, this bill can serve as an opportunity to embolden student-athletes to increase their academic focus for a more enriched future. The financial burden for some players and their families is evident and demands consideration. For many of these families, they send their sons to elite football powerhouses with the hope of winning a national title and the goal of one day playing in the National Football League changing their familial financial landscape. The Fair Pay to Play Act or any bill of this magnitude can be utilized to promote academic compliance through financial compensation. Enforcement of class attendance in conjunction with assignment completion would hold these players more accountable. I propose there be an allocated amount of money a player be eligible to receive on a weekly basis. Yet, missed classes or assignments would result in a weekly reduction or removal of the financial stipend. Daily, the notion of a student-athlete loses its values with certain sports as institutions refuse to hold their student-athletes accountable in the classroom as much as the coaches are holding them responsible on the athletic field.

In 2015, according to Tuscaloosa News, Alabama’s football program earned nearly $46.5 million for the school during their 2015 championship season. Shockingly, this number was nearly $7 million less than the year prior. In the same breath, the organization pushing vehemently to deny these young men the chance to profit from their dedication—the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA—averages nearly 1 billion dollars in revenue annually. These earnings come from exposure and marketing derived from competition and winning, from the coaches who recruit the talent, and from the talent who sacrifice their beings and future. Financial compensation based on academic compliance would allow the players to send money home to their families, to save money and most importantly to better invest in their futures through educational attainment.

I can no longer bear to see former student-athletes holding onto memories everyone else has forgotten not daring to dream of more for their futures. Most NFL players have finished their career by age 30 with no college degree, dismantling financial instability and lasting damage to their bodies. This has to change. There needs to be more retired NFL players becoming businessmen, news personalities, and even coaches. A bill of this nature can create this narrative for these current and future young men. The compass needs to be realigned moving from viewing athletics as the highest point of ones life to utilizing sports and academics to more lifelong achievements.

The importance of sports and athletic prowess is not in question but without a push for education, we are the hurt ones—the men of color.

A Beloved Team & A Beloved Mentor

The last time the Cleveland Browns won, I texted Dr. Kevin Olson.

During the 2016 season, I arrived very early one morning, to a small clinic on the West Side of Columbus. As I knocked on the side door, I was greeted by a middle-aged red-headed woman named Tina. This was Dr. Olson’s right-hand woman–sweet as pie but tough as nails–knowing exactly how to give Dr. Olson a dose of his own medicine. She tried to prepare me for what would happen next, but none existed. The back door to the clinic flew open, entering a man yelling what I heard as offensive football play-calls, and the more I got to knew him, it became the most accurate assumption. After he sat his black briefcase down in his office, I went to greet him. “Good morning, sir. My name is Jason Campbell.”

“Jason Campbell, the quarterback?” he posited.

“Something like that, sir” I smiled.

I felt automatically accepted. Jason Campbell, my namesake, had played for the NFL Cleveland Browns at one point in his multi-team career. From that day forth, I was the former QB from his beloved football Browns—young Jason Campbell—as he referred to me. Each day Dr. Olson would share a piece of Browns’ history, which included rattling off the entire list of players who once carried the reigns for the Browns.

Sipe. Kosar. Ryan. Graham. Couch. Nelsen. Phipps. Plum. Anderson. Testaverde. McDonald. McCoy. Weeden. Frye. Hoyer. Kizer. O’Connell. Holcomb. Quinn. Ninowski. Dilfer. McCown. Garcia. All men who have hurled the pigskin for the Browns for at least 10 games and Dr. Olson knew each one, their college institution, and their NFL winning percentage (occasionally off by .1).

Every day in clinic was filled with yelling, laughter, frustration and insight. Once, after we had addressed a patient’s rotator cuff tear with multiple physical exam maneuvers, the patient went on to list four or five more problems he wanted Dr. Olson to assess. “You just tore up, from the floor up, aren’t ya?” Dr. Olson said, aloud. With no delay, the patient responded, “Yes sir. I am!” Dr. Olson’s patients had come to love his lighthearted demeanor interwoven with the knowledge of a medical savant.

For me, these little moments have become threads of memories, which are woven into a picture that show the legacy of a great man. A man who embodied the true character of a doctor. Family physician trained, Dr. Olson received a master faculty appointment by Ohio University for his exceptional contributions to clinical training in this sphere. But there was more to Dr. Olson than any award could describe. He made his patients feel whole even when they were the most ill, just like only a die-hard, ever hopeful Browns’ fan could. I walked into countless patient rooms where the entire family had been treated by Dr. Olson—grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter. This all-encompassing trust was shared by more than a few in the community.

If I wasn’t sure of it before the memorial service, I was absolutely certain of it after. Lines and lines of people flooded the funeral home: from the bustling main hall, the filled lobby, and through the parking lot. Multiple photographs of Dr. Olson and his wonderful family, friends, and colleagues were on display. The most lasting one…the one of him in his Cleveland Browns sweatshirt.

A beloved physician proudly representing his beloved team.

A few weeks ago, as I watched Baker Mayfield perform in his splendid brash manner, as he had done for the Sooners of Oklahoma, I knew a cheerful Dr. Olson was reliving the 1986 days of Bernie Kosar, with an incomparable grin on his face. Finally, his team looked like the team he grew up loving.

For me, Thursday September 20th, 2018 was more than a football victory & more than a team overcoming the weight of the world; it was manifested joy by a beloved and unforgettable man.

After his passing, it is near impossible to fathom a Browns’ win without imagining Dr. Olson’s excitement. I always had difficulty understanding his love for the Cleveland Browns with what I saw to be their errors, burdens and faults. But, now I realize those were the exact human qualities that made him love his team and his patients. As a physician, his passion for his patients—through their sickness, addictions, and infections—gave him purpose so, they too, would heal again.

 

I’m a Black Student-Athlete Turned Physician: What Colin Kaepernick and Nike Really Mean

Please see below for my Op Ed published on 9/14/18 in THE OREGONIAN.

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I sat in a football stadium for the Ohio State Buckeyes vs the Nebraska Cornhuskers game on Nov. 5, 2016, three days before the presidential election. About 108,000 screaming fans surrounded me, but I only remember three.

To my right were two white gentlemen wearing “Make America Great Again” baseball caps. This was the first sporting event I attended since Colin Kaepernick, former San Francisco 49ers player began kneeling during the anthem in protest against police brutality against African-Americans.

I stood up. I removed my hat. These actions were done not because I didn’t vehemently stand against police brutality, but because I felt standing for the anthem was the ‘right thing to do’ for me.

Yet all the while, I could imagine all eyes on me.

As I stood, there came laughter from behind, a few seats to my left. An older white gentleman, likely in his 50s, yelled over at one of his buddies, “Hey, hey, look at me. I’m going to kneel,” mocking me and all of what Kaepernick represented. I suddenly felt alone and exposed, maybe even a little afraid. Being there, supporting a team and university that had given me so much, no longer felt like home. The sporting event took a new form as my attention turned from the football game to the underlying game.

The same man who mocked Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling cheered for each move the young black male athletes made. The same men, celebrating their support of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, clapped enthusiastically as the young black male athletes scored point after point for their beloved team.

Supporting and voting for President-elect Donald Trump is not supposed to be incompatible with supporting black athletes, but with recent events, one naturally must question the growing disconnection. The truth is, many of us black males cannot feel calm as we have to constantly look outside of ourselves in order to visualize how our present and future actions might be perceived by others. It’s part of growing up as a black male in America.

Growing up as a black male athlete in America adds more complexity — and becoming a black male physician even more.

As a black male I am unnerved by the stories I read about current or former athletes sustaining injuries leading to a fall from grace. That leads to a harsh realization that they are no longer “needed,” with little to account for all of their hours of dedication. Basketball courts, tracks, football fields and athletic arenas are bursting with black men excelling every day, rain or shine.

The time has come for us to redefine our own values and to focus our potential in different ways. With the right direction and guidance, that same excellence and discipline can easily transition into the libraries, research laboratories and clinical rooms where we are currently sparse.

The beauty lies not in the fact that we have to choose one over the other, but in what I believe and personally know to be true: Black men can excel in both realms. It is time that we stop letting others limit us as we move forward.

That’s what Nike and Colin Kaepernick mean.

 

 

 

 

sanc·tu·ar·y

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.” 

That quote hangs on my wall in my childhood bedroom.

I first started running with my mother as “punishment.” I don’t know if I thought, at the time, it was a form of punishment but looking back I think that is the most accurate classification. I truly only have one distinct memory of running with her although I know it happened multiple times (I guess like other heinous acts, I have blocked those other times out). I was attending one of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) conferences with my mother in which, like most research scientists and physicians, she used these annual 4-day conferences as a family vacation. We were in Orlando, FL and my mother and I left the hotel setting out to glide under the hot blue sky. If you’ve ever been to Florida, you know how long and incessant those black roads are lining the roadways in this never-ending fashion with the sun of the sunshine state glaring down. A few minutes into the run I was tired, frustrated and annoyed by the pace she had set troubling my short-legs and untrained lungs. I remember a school bus driving by and I thought, “They’re going to think I’m slow behind her.” As a result of my despair, she quickly became irritated with me as I was disturbing her peace. She always used to articulate how running was her escape from the perils of life—it was her sanctuary. I didn’t understand that then.

Not until one night when I walked out the doors of the Emory Athletic facility—The WoodPEC—onto the track. A cool spring Atlanta evening greeted me after a long day of medical training. Before I even stepped onto the track to begin warming up for my workout, I went into the bleachers and just sat there. My eyes circled around the red track, from curve to straight to curve to straight away. I can’t remember what I thought about but I know I was calmed. From that moment on I always viewed the track as a safe haven, a place where, even if everything was wrong in my world, the track was always right.

A few minutes from my present home, there’s a track here in Portland at the Under Armor Satellite Headquarters. I always drive by it on my way home from the hospital. It is not the most direct route, but it soothes me after a long intern day. The track represents so many memories—joy, sadness, humor, accomplishment, and defeat. Whether it was my mother pinning my racing bib on my 14 year old self at my first official race as my on-looking teammates teased me from afar, or watching the University of Michigan relay team run 16:04 with a 3:52 anchor leg for the 4xMile or running third leg on the 4x400m relay team that led us to a comeback conference win for our Emory’s Men team or being named captain of the Emory University team or being a part of the coaching staff for the first Ohio State Men’s Track and Field Big Ten Championship since 1993. The memories flow as I do when I am on the track.

One of the greatest races of my career came at a Junior AAU meet in Florida. The night before, I had run a 1500m time, slower than some of our 11-12-year-old girls, that resulted in me finishing second to last. I didn’t know how to “hurt yet,” or maybe I didn’t want to experience the pain and agony that is necessary to race the middle-distance events well. The next morning, I woke up ready to respond. As I began my warm-up today felt a little different. I spoke with Mikias Gelagle, one of my teammates at the time, who went on to be one of the best high school runners out of the state of Maryland in the 2004-2006 era. He gave me a game plan of which mostly I do not remember but I remember him distinctly telling me if I started out way in the back that’s where I was going to end up. He urged me to “go out near the front and to believe in the training I had under my belt.” This was a 3000-meter race I was lining up for, and most of my teammates were still back in their hotel rooms. As the gun sounded, I shot to the 5thor 6thposition and found my cadence. Lap after lap I was in it and as the race began to thin out I found myself running alongside a runner from another DC track club—The Pioneers. In his all-purple uniform, his crowd, situated opposite my contingency, would cheer him on as we ran past, giving him the motivation to pull a step ahead of me. As we rounded the track, I would do the same as my DC Redwings’ coaches implored me to “do what I knew I could.” Three laps later, this dance routine continued, but the only difference was that most of my teammates had now arrived from the hotel. Probably to their astonishment I was in the race, and to my delight they began cheering for me as we closed in with two laps left. Our cadences had become one at this point, synchronous like the Olympic swimmers, but I knew only one of us could cross the finish line first. As we approached 200 meters to go I started quickening my stride and using my arms to drive my tired legs forward. Down the straightaway we came, and I barely crossed the white line before him. I think I finished fifth in the race. The glory was all internal, but externally, the congratulations from my teammates and coaches, was the prize I needed. I finally felt like I belonged—one of the sacred feelings in life. It’s the emotions, the coaches’ turned fathers and the teammates turned brothers and sisters that make me proud to call myself a runner.

“Once a runner, always a runner.” For me, that motto transcends time. Whether you’re an Olympian or a has-been/never-was, if you’ve spent time lying on the ground in exhaustion, eyes closed, swallowing your saliva because there was no water in sight, then you’re a runner.