Why you should care
Because it means using your head for more than bashing it into your opponent.
When Arian Foster was introduced to Neil deGrasse Tyson, he said meeting the famed astrophysicist was “surreal.” Typically, it’s sports celebrities who generate the excitement, but the star-gazing moment of the former Houston Texans and Miami Dolphins running back makes sense once you learn Foster is hoping to pursue a degree in physics — just one example in a trend of Black NFL players leaving the football field for careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
The success story of former Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers safety Myron Rolle, who started a neurosurgery residency at Harvard, has prompted many to think there is more to an NFL athlete than the number of touchdowns he makes or endorsement deals he secures. And more and more Black players — who make up about 70 percent of the league — are taking steps toward STEM careers, which, according to the National Science Foundation, includes social sciences. Foster explains his shift toward a STEM path this way: With plans to pursue a degree in physics, he says, “I wanted to learn about the brilliant minds pushing our society forward. I want to learn what they have to give the world … and for me, it’s irresponsible not to pursue the best understanding of that gift that I can.”
These players are showing it is cool to be educated and be a football player, [t0] have a passion for what you love.
Raashaan Myers, co-host, Main Event Sports
The growing spotlight on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, has certainly given players pause — especially in the wake of Bennet Omalu’s 2009 findings that more than 90 percent of American football players suffer from the brain disease. With more research coming out on the devastating effects of CTE, it’s hardly surprising that some football players would pivot away from their pro career — a job that ironically affords them access to do just that. In the words of former St. Louis Rams wide receiver Keenan Burton: “A lot of athletes are intelligent. While you are playing, you get a chance to meet a lot of amazing people, and those people introduce you to different things that could be of benefit to your life.” Burton has joined the STEM career trend by signing on as a representative of IDLife, a personalized nutrition company focused on improving overall health.
Some players are turning pro with a college degree in a STEM-related subject already in their pocket. Stanford University recently awarded degrees to Carolina Panthers offensive guard David Yankey (information science and technology in society), San Francisco 49ers guard Joshua Garnett (human biology) and Detroit Lions cornerback Alex Carter (sociology). Add to that list Washington Redskins wide receiver Jamison Crowder (sociology, Duke) and Lions offensive guard Laken Tomlinson (evolutionary anthropology and psychology, Duke), and it’s clear that opportunities are wide open for these individuals, and those in similar positions, in the burgeoning STEM marketplace. Still others are working toward STEM-related degrees while playing in the league. John Urschel, offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, is pursuing his Ph.D. in mathematics at MIT (he already has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Penn State).
According to the NSF, the number of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded to Black men from 2002 to 2012 increased 45 percent, although that group’s proportion of all science and engineering degrees over the same period has remained flat at around 6 percent. So, the trend of retired NFLers heading into STEM-related fields is significant in that it shows Black athletes can succeed in careers outside of sports after they hang up the cleats. Until recently, most retired players gravitated toward commentary, coaching or entrepreneurship — worthwhile options, but with the rise of STEM careers, Black athletes have more choices before them.
When asked about NFL players heading into STEM careers, Jemele Hill, co-host of SC6 with Michael and Jemele, said, “It’s providing a great example, because there’s a stereotype that African-Americans aren’t adept [at] or attracted to math, science and technology-based fields.” She added that it’s an important message for youth in the Black community: “The kids will be drawn to them because of their athletic abilities and achievements, but Black athletes use that entry point to expose young Black people to pursuits beyond sports.”
To that end, players like New York Jets offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum have participated with organizations such as Project Lead the Way, which helps introduce Black youth to STEM careers. Raashaan Myers, co-host of Main Event Sports, a radio show/podcast out of Louisville, Kentucky, says, “These players are showing it is cool to be educated and be a football player, [to] have a passion for what you love.”
If the trend continues, it’s conceivable for Arian Foster to be working alongside Neil deGrasse Tyson or for Myron Rolle to be celebrated during Black History Month for his contributions to medicine. Black athletes in the NFL have given the world thrills and excitement — now could be their chance to help change the world.