The case of Myron Rolle [athleticism+academics]

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“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” wrote W.E.B. Dubois in 1903—a prophetic statement. I believe that the 21st century will be characterized by the paradigm shift (or the lack thereof) from individual achievement to group achievement. I say this because while there are literally thousands of examples of African-Americans achieving at the highest levels of every area, there are indicators that show that, as a whole, we are still lagging behind.

Watch: "The Marketing of Myron Rolle":

For African-American youth in particular, collective or group achievement is often used, albeit indirectly, to highlight a deficit. This can be seen in much of the research and scholarly articles as well as best-selling releases such as The Bell Curve, by Murray and Herrnstein. Besides the specious reasoning employed in such work, and their consistent use of ethnicity as a strictly static form of categorization, such publications are damaging because they draw conclusions about an entire group that individuals of that group must now bear. It does the job of reinforcing the racist attitudes of the majority, suffocating future scholars with low self-esteem and high self-doubt and rationalizing the racist actions of those in power.

Any physically and mentally healthy child can and will learn. African-American children come to this world curious and ready to learn. Our goal may be for them to learn academic content (explicit curriculum), but in the process they always learn our values and the expectations we have of them (implicit curriculum). We often concentrate on the former to the neglect of the latter, but they are both important. We teach by examples but, more importantly, we are the examples! In other words, what we decide to teach isn’t more important than what (and how) we decide to learn. It’s nice to hold up successful individuals as role models, but we have to ask: Are we trying to highlight (shame) the many that are not making it or are we trying to inspire our students to do better? If we are trying to get our students to do better, then the end result isn’t nearly as important as the path successful people take to get there. The obstacles we overcome aren’t nearly as important as our desire to overcome them. And yet, so many of the stories we see simply focus on the greatness accomplishments and the wickedness of obstacles. Our focus should be on how we foster the drive for greatness and eliminate the inequality of our expectations.

Myron Rolle is an example of someone who has experienced tremendous success both athletically and academically, but the point shouldn’t be to get more African- American young people to make the exact same choices as Rolle. Instead, the point should be to do things that put many more African-American young people into positions where they can make their own choices. It’s about autonomy: personal and professional. Instead, we see another story of a black man who made it and we are left to wonder why others who look like him can’t do the exact same thing. And given the wealth of information out there documenting so-called black pathology and ineptitude, the conclusion is almost always the same: They fail because they are failures. This conclusion is more troubling than any and all of the poor choices our young people might make because it is the adults who are supposed to guide our children. We are supposed to give them the tools they need to be successful. Simply telling them they are failures or holding up examples of people who succeed and touting the virtue of hardwork is not the same thing as hands-on guidance. Their failure is really our own.

My experience in school was similar to Rolle’s experience in some ways. Like him, I was a student-athlete who understood the importance of education. I had taken several A.P. courses and scored well enough to receive college credit. My experience differs from him in that I didn’t encounter the major problem that he and some researchers believe to be one of the root causes of African-American underachievement in school. John Ogbu, the late Nigerian Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley explored the claim that, for African-American youth, doing well academically subjected them to claims of “acting white” or “selling out” by their peers. Ogbu’s research was rooted in his 1986 study of a Washington D.C. High School, and further probed in his study of affluent black students in a Shaker Heights, Ohio school in 1997.

My experience more closely matches the findings of a subsequent study conducted by Cook and Ludwig. They studied more than 25,000 public and private schools and followed the students from eighth grade through high school. They concluded that African American students were just as eager to succeed in school as their majority counterparts. They attributed the difference in graduation rates to factors like socioeconomic status and father absenteeism. They also discovered that African-American students who were members of an academic honor society were more likely to view themselves as being popular than African-American students who were not members of an academic honor society. As a member of the academic honor society in high school, I believe there were several reasons that explain why I had such a positive academic and social self image.

First, I went to a school where everyone was considered to be very intelligent. When everyone is treated as an intelligent person, then the ridiculousness of the “acting white” claim becomes more apparent. It is only when there is special emphasis (or de-emphasis) placed on members within or between groups of students that such negative and destructive ideas tend to germinate and grow. This has nothing to do with the students themselves! It has everything to do with the environment we’ve created for the students. It is the adults in charge who have created the house/field Negro dichotomy of the 21st century. You have kids who are taught to feel isolated by their “intelligence”.

On the other side of the fence, you have kids who are taught to view “intelligence” as an isolating factor. They both are beginning to pick up on the notion that the way we learn and relate to knowledge and each other has been “racialized”. This can be seen with popular portrayal of mathematicians and scientists as eccentric or neurotic, antisocial and White. Despite the popular portrayals of mathematicians and scientists and scholars in popular culture, it is possible to be both knowledgeable and socially adept. Myron Rolle is a prime example of this possibility. It is possible to study calculus and love hip hop music despite the popular conceptions (or misconceptions) of both.

There are some studies that indicate that social skills are more important than content knowledge in becoming successful (Black & Langone, 1997). Gresham, Sugai, and Horner (2001) observe that deficits in social skills are key in defining many high-occurring disabilities that hinder students’ academic progress. We cannot discount the importance of networking and cooperation in teaching African-American youth how to be successful. The key to navigating our way out of the educational mire we find ourselves in may be to take the learning process and make it a more humane, cooperative process.

In my senior year of high school, I decided to take advanced math classes to satisfy my intellectual curiosity. Unfortunately, I hit a wall in Pre-Calculus and Calculus. I ended up with a “D” in the class and I can admit that my math teacher was being generous with my final grade. For someone who graduated from an elite High School in New York with a 95 average and in the top 10 percent of his class, this represented a moment of cognitive dissonance for me. I had never encountered a subject that I couldn't master easily. Fortunately, I saw this as a challenge and not an obstacle. As I learned more about limits, I also learned how not to limit myself. I started to become a truly thinking person by encountering something I did not understand. It was precisely because of my poor performance in mathematics that I decided to make it my major in college. I wanted to master the only subject that had ever provided a real problem for me. For some, the challenging subject may be Calculus. For others, it may be English or History. The particular class or issue itself is not as important as your willingness to engage it. It is this type of audacity, commonly seen in playgrounds and ball parks, that we need to channel into the classroom.

When I entered college, I was one of eight African-American first year students in a small private college of roughly 2000 people. There were five black men and three women. Four years later, I would be the only black male to graduate. My best friend, and the sole remaining male of my cohort, would follow me one year later. All three women (two of them were best friends in High School and the third was in a relationship with my best friend) would also graduate in four years.

There is an important lesson here to be learned here. It wasn’t that I’m academically, gifted or that my peers who didn’t graduate are deficient in some way, even though I could easily and misleadingly pretend that was the case. To use my story as an example to hold up for others to as some sort of self-diagnostic to determine what’s wrong with them is to miss the point completely. The key should be to find out what made it more likely for me to succeed. In my case, it was very important to have a strong support system. This means more than just having supplemental services like tutoring or academic remediation. It means having friends and confidants available to talk about and resolve the issues that we inevitably encountered. It means having people who can really understand the psychological impact of having racial slurs scrawled across your door. It means having people who are sensitive enough to detect the smug, arrogant attitudes of classmates and staff members who believe in their inherent superiority. It means having people who can provide the kind of encouragement and comradery that makes success the only option. All of these things are largely independent of what takes place inside the lecture hall. And while it may not be possible to model this same kind of support through strictly formal channels, there are still implications for those caring, dedicated and committed individuals (parents, educators, etc.) who understand the depth of the problem and are willing to work formally and informally with the students. Myron Rolle is a great example of success. I just hope we take away the right lessons from his example.


Black, R. S., & Langone, J. (1997). Social awareness and transition to employment for adolescents with mental retardation. Remedial and Special Education, 18(5), 214-222.

Cook, P.J., & Ludwig, J. (1997). Weighing the Burden of “Acting White”: Are There Race Differences in Attitudes towards Education? Journal of Policy Analysis and Managemen, Vol. 16, No.2, pp. 656- 678.

DuBois, W.E.B. (1973). The souls of black folk. New York: Kraus-Thomson.

Fordham, S., & Ogbu, J. U. (1986). Black students school success: The burden of acting white. The Urban Review, 18, 176-206.

Gresham, F. M., Sugai, G., & Horner, R. H. (2001). Interpreting outcomes of social skills training for students with high-incidence disabilities. Exceptional Children, 67(3), 331-344.

Murray, Charles and Richard Herrnstein. The Bell Curve. New York: The Free Press, 1994.