Can Scholars Make Dollars in the NFL?

Lee Hawkins
Wall Street Journal
Oxford, England

Myron Rolle put off an NFL career to spend a year as a Rhodes scholar. But his year at Oxford University is doubling as a one-man marketing experiment – can his career as a pitchman start a year before his career as a player?

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Myron Rolle (No. 3), seen during 2008 as a defensive back at Florida State.

Mr. Rolle made headlines when he put off professional football for a year. He plans to enter the 2010 NFL draft and attend medical school after retiring from football.

But while Mr. Rolle is thousands of miles from the gridiron, he and his agents are working to parlay his Rhodes scholarship into a deal with advertisers wishing to highlight an atypical sports name.

Mr. Rolle has long been a dual threat -- a strong athlete with strong grades. He earned all As in high school and breezed through Florida State in under three years with a 3.75 grade-point average while receiving All-America honors on the field.

At Oxford, he is training two hours per day as he pursues an M.A. in medical anthropology, with the ultimate goal of becoming a neurosurgeon. He's trying to bring cachet to a concept that couldn't be further from the tarnished image of a fallen NFL star like Michael Vick.

"Often a lot of so-called friends would say, 'Myron, you're a sellout. you're focused on school so much, you talk properly, you tuck your shirt in your pants. You do things differently than all of us cool kids," he says.

The agents behind NFL prospect and Rhodes scholar Myron Rolle hope their strategy of shaping him as an "enlightened warrior" will earn him corporate deals. But is the scholar-athlete image a marketable one?


Myron Rolle's Father on Encouragement 4:32

Rolle graduated from high school with a 4.0, earning All-American honors in both football and academics. He then finished Florida State in less than 3 years with a 3.75. His father recalls the journey.

Myron Rolle on Postponing the NFL Draft  5:17

Myron Rolle discusses why he chose to take a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford over a promising NFL draft.


Jim Brown on Myron Rolle's New Aspirational Model  4:40

The lasting cultural influence of a football hero/neurosurgeon could serve to introduce an new aspirational model, "the gangster of education," to young blacks, says NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown.

Myron Rolle's Agent on Dollars For a Scholar?  4:18

Myron Rolle may have sacrificed as much as $8 million by skipping the 2009 draft. But his agent Jeremiah Donati is betting Rolle's decision to attend Oxford will help Rolle recoup those earnings.


Race and the Aspirational Sports Hero  5:25

"What Ever Happened to the White Athlete?" author Scott Price discusses the role the aspirational sports hero plays in black communities.

Some experts estimate Mr. Rolle sacrificed up to $8 million by putting off the pros. But his handlers argue the business opportunities he'll derive from his access to the powerful network of Rhodes alumni could help him more than recoup those earnings over time. Mr. Rolle has already garnered one endorsement, from a football helmet company, but he's got a long way to go.

Mr. Rolle's success still will depend heavily on how well he plays once he reaches the NFL. His agents concede that he will compete against a more talented draft class of defensive backs this April than he would have last spring. At Florida State, Mr. Rolle was among his team's top tacklers but only registered one interception over his entire NCAA career. Some scouts already view Mr. Rolle's delay as a sign that he's not serious about becoming an elite player and doubt if he is training well enough in England. And since he isn't playing, some companies have hesitated to sign him.

"With tight marketing dollars and budgets … they want to know hard and fast, 'What can we do with Myron right now?'" said Jeremiah Donati, one of Mr. Rolle's representatives. "And if he doesn't have an NFL team or an NFL city and he's not performing on the field this year, it's tough."

For now, practice beckons. Mr. Rolle is using most of the several weeks Oxford gives Rhodes scholars for European travel to train instead.

He says he's enjoying the experience, meeting new friends from as far away as Zambia and Australia. Before an interview at the Rhodes House, the legendary study hall for Rhodes scholars, including President Bill Clinton, Mr. Rolle mingled comfortably outside with classmates. Some were surprised to learn he was a well-known American football player when they first met him.

Mr. Rolle has used the media exposure around his Oxford stint to try to show NFL scouts and fans that he hasn't fallen out of shape. Still panting after darting down a damp cricket field as part of his early morning workout, he sat down and summoned a cameraman following him.

"You on?" he asked.

Staring fiercely into the lens, he intensified his breathing and delivered a message befitting a Nike commercial audition. "It's hard work right now. It's hard work. My father always told me that. … You can't let anybody outwork you. In time it creates opportunity," said Mr. Rolle.

Mr. Rolle's talent and smarts have gotten him this far. "If they don't know about Myron, they will," Mr. Donati said. "He will be the poster child of the NFL, in terms of what he stands for. Especially given some of the challenges they've had recently with players. Myron will be the golden boy, so to speak, of the league."

But one branding expert said athletic performance would be the main driver of Mr. Rolle's market value. "He's still got to win the starting job and he has to perform," said James Fritz, vice president of a Santa Monica marketing and branding agency. "If he makes the team but he's on the bench, it's going to be a long shot for him."

Mr. Rolle's endorsement deal is with a company that manufactures football helmets designed to provide extra protection against brain injuries. His agents and the company have declined to quantify the value of the deal.

Vin Ferrara, founder and CEO of Xenith Co., said Mr. Rolle's interest in medicine will help him educate young athletes about how to reduce their risk of concussions. "Myron is a great example of someone who is putting his education and his interests as a humanitarian above his aspirations to make money and be a professional athlete," Mr. Ferrara said.

That theme of financial sacrifice is a consistent part of Mr. Rolle's public message – an idealistic notion his handlers want to cash in on. Mr. Rolle's marketing team is targeting businesses that need to appeal to students, like test-preparation companies, while hoping his on-field skills land him the standard sports-drink deal.

Mr. Rolle's off-the-field endeavors have also earned him attention beyond the classroom. He's set up a foundation that has built a free medical clinic in his ancestral home of Exuma, in the Bahamas.

He's started a program to benefit foster kids in Florida. He's also instituted "Our Way to Health," a physical fitness and health program at five Native American schools in Arizona and New Mexico aimed at lowering high rates of diabetes in those communities. Ken Salazar, U.S. Interior secretary, said in an interview that the agency contacted Mr. Rolle after learning about the program, and ultimately worked with him to expand it.

Mr. Rolle says that though some classmates and former coaches have criticized him for his priorities, he has still always sought to differentiate himself.

"Cool is my own definition of cool," he says. "That's what's important. Cool to me is getting straight A's. Cool to me is scoring three touchdowns. Cool to me is shaking the hand of our mayor," he said. "Cool to me is helping out at the nursing home. Cool to me is playing in the jazz band, and playing the lead role in 'Fiddler on the Roof.' I like to define my own path and my own journey.

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