Aaron Bolds didn’t think about becoming a doctor until he tore a ligament in his knee in a basketball competition when he was 15 years old.
His orthopedic surgeon was Black, and the two got along swimmingly. “When he asked how my grades were, I told him, ‘I’m a straight-A student,’” she said.
Bolds, who is African American, recalls him saying, “Man, this is a terrific fallback plan if basketball doesn’t work out.”
“The fact that he looked like me was even more encouraging,” Bolds says. Bolds, 34, a doctor at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, thinks he might not have gone into medicine if it hadn’t been for that fortuitous encounter.
There were no physicians in his family or wider social network when he was growing up to serve as role models.
And, he claims, his ability for science was not recognized at the schools he attended, and he did not receive the kind of mentorship that young people in more fortunate environments do.
Bolds’ athletic ability was what drew notice to him.
He received a full basketball scholarship at North Carolina’s Lenoir-Rhyne University, where his team won the conference championship.
When he transferred to Bowie State University in Maryland, where he also played basketball, an academic adviser discouraged his pre-med dreams, citing his low grades and lack of research experience, Bolds recalls.
Bolds isn’t the only one who sees athletics as a thorny educational tool.
Even though Black players make up more than half of the football and basketball teams at the 65 universities in the top five athletic conferences and bring in millions of dollars for their schools each year,
graduation rates for Black male college athletes are significantly lower—55 percent compared to 69 percent for all college athletes—according to a 2018 report from the USC Race and Equity Center.
Many Black college athletes don’t have a professional sports contract or a clear job route after graduation.
Now, some educators and advocates are attempting to reverse this trend by bridging the gap between athletics, where African American men are overrepresented, and medicine, where the converse is true.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, 13 percent of the US population identified as Black or African American in 2018, while just 5% of doctors did.
(According to the AAMC data, an additional 1% of doctors identified as multiracial.) Other populations, such as Black women, have benefited from decades of attempts to improve diversity in medical schools, while Black men have seen little progress.
According to Jo Wiederhorn, president and CEO of the Associated Medical Schools of New York, “no other demographic group is broken down with such a huge gap between men and women.”
“And none of them, unlike that group, have remained static.” There is evidence that participating in competitive sports correlates to medical success.
According to data released to Undark by the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), the percentage of Black men entering medical school hasn’t changed significantly since 1978, with only minor progress achieved in the last few years.
According to experts, the shortage of Black male medical practitioners has reverberations throughout the health system, contributing to severe health inequities.
African Americans are more likely than White persons to be diagnosed with cancer or kidney disease later in life, resulting in more advanced disease and early death.
Meanwhile, a new study reveals that Black men who seek medical advice from Black male doctors are more likely to follow it.
According to other research, racially concordant care, in which patients and providers share a common identity, is linked to improved communication and a higher likelihood of using health services.
“We are in a national crisis,” says Reginald Miller, dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai’s research operations and infrastructure.
“I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that the number of practitioners available to see is directly proportionate to the health of communities of color,” he adds. “It’s simply that simple.”
Last year, the National Medical Association, which represents African American physicians, joined forces with the AAMC to remove structural hurdles to progress for Black men. The AAMC’s senior director of workforce diversity, Norma Poll-Hunter, adds, “We need to look at this with a distinct lens.”
According to Poll-Hunter, there is no single solution to such a complex and comprehensive situation.
Some medical schools, she claims, have adopted a holistic admissions procedure that considers a variety of human variables rather than relying solely on standardized test scores, which can disqualify qualified Black applicants.
Furthermore, she claims that pupils of color, particularly in under-resourced public schools, require better access to high-quality K-12 science instruction.
“There are a lot of restrictions that exist early on,” she points out, “and it narrows the access to medicine.”
However, the unique tactic of courting athletes is gaining traction.
High-performing athletes, according to proponents, have many of the skills and attributes that doctors, psychologists, physical therapists, and other medical professionals require, such as focus, commitment to excellence, time management, and problem-solving abilities, as well as the ability to take constructive criticism and perform under pressure.
“When you ask, ‘What is your ideal medical student?’ it’s not only a smart kid. “It’s a child that has grit, is detail-oriented, and understands how to function as part of a team,” Miller adds.
“Because science and medicine are collaborative endeavors.” These young men are already aware of diet, fitness, and other aspects of human biology because they are athletes.
Nate Hughes and Myron Rolle, two former NFL players, just become doctors. Furthermore, there is evidence that competitive sports experience aids medical success.
For example, a 2012 study of doctors training to become ear, nose, and throat specialists at Washington University found that having excelled in a team sport was more predictive of how faculty rated their quality as a clinician than having received strong letters of recommendation or attending a top-ranked medical school.
In a 2011 study, an elite skill, such as high-achieving athletics, was found to be more predictive of finishing a general surgery residency than medical school grades.
The athletics-to-medicine pipeline’s proponents emphasize its practicality.
Thousands of Black men have either enrolled in college or are on their way there thanks to athletic scholarships.
They claim that it would only take a small percentage of them selecting medical vocations to increase the number of Black male doctors to match the proportion of African American men in the general population.
No one believes it will be simple.
One barrier, according to supporters, is a shortage of role models.
Some young athletes may never meet a Black medical expert, even though black sports personalities are well-known.
“People don’t believe they can be what they don’t see,” says Mark R. Brown, Pace University’s sports director.
Many experts believe that to have the best chance of success, these young men should create and pursue medical objectives as early as possible, in addition to their physical training.
“The rewards at the end are great for those students who can do both,” Miller says. Adults in their lives, on the other hand, may not feel the dual-route is conceivable.
“They fall into a distinct category the second they tell a science instructor or someone else that they’re an athlete,” Miller adds.
‘They aren’t interested in science and medicine; they’re simply passing through, so I don’t expect this youngster to achieve much.’
According to observers, rigid course and practice schedules make it difficult for busy sportsmen to pursue tough and time-intensive science majors.
“A culture shift, not only a cultural change among athletes,” is required.
Miller explains that the entire institution is undergoing a cultural shift. He continues, “Everyone is enthusiastic about the idea of the physician athlete because it makes sense.” When the rubber meets the road, though, it is a challenge.”
One of the first people to see the possibilities of pushing Black athletes toward medical careers was Donovan Roy, the assistant dean for diversity and inclusion at Western Michigan University’s Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine.
Roy, a former collegiate football player who is Black, grew up in Inglewood, California, in a working-class neighborhood dominated by Black and Latino people.
It was eye-opening to attend an elite private high school on a football scholarship.
He recalls seeing a walk-in pantry for the first time at a friend’s house. He remembers it being stocked like a convenience shop.
“Five different kinds of Hostess, Ding-Dongs, sodas, and every kind of snack imaginable.” Speaking with another friend’s mother, a lawyer, was also surprising.
He says, “I’d never seen a road map to success in my community.”
Roy’s athletic ability continued to open doors—he received a scholarship to the University of Southern California at the age of 18—but he struggled academically as a result of the under-resourced public schools he had attended through ninth grade, and he dropped out of both USC and another university where he was also on an athletic scholarship.
Roy eventually got his feet and went on to work as a learning specialist. He wants to help others with their academic problems after overcoming his own.
Roy went to UCLA Medical School to work as a learning skills counselor. He assisted pupils who were having difficulty with classes such as anatomy and genetics.
He returned to USC as the director of academic support services at the Keck School of Medicine in early 2015.
Something Roy noticed at both of these medical schools stuck with him for a long time, albeit it took a few years for it to become clear.
Even though they didn’t need it, a specific type of student requested assistance.
These were the athletes, and a large number of them were African-American or Latino.
“They were continuously asking, ‘How can I excel?’ “How can I improve?” he recalls thinking.
They were in their 90s and aspired to be 100.
Roy enrolled in a doctoral program in teaching in 2015, the same year the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) released a critical study on the absence of Black men entering medical school.
This was a personal and professional catastrophe that Roy was well aware of.
He decided to interview 16 Black male students at Keck School of Medicine for his dissertation.
He wanted to know what it was about them that had gotten them there against all obstacles.
The answer, he realized, was social capital, as defined by academics.
Social capital can take the form of a family friend who organizes a summer internship at a biotechnology lab or a well-funded high school that provides advanced placement science classes for medical students from rich families.
For the most part, the young guys Roy spoke with did not have access to such resources.
In a separate interview Roy recorded for a documentary he’s filming on the matter, medical student Jai Kemp stated, “Growing up, I didn’t see a Black male with a college degree until I came to college.”
Parental support, science enrichment programs, and organizations peer social networks, faculty mentors—and the privileges that come with athletics—were all used to help these young men get into medical school.
“Sports were the only thing that got me through,” Kemp added. The puzzle pieces began to fall into place.
Roy was well aware of the advantages athletes have, including not only admission to higher institutions, but also travel, enrichment, and academic benefits such as tutoring and early class registration.
Athletes also have a social cachet on campus, and with more exposure to different types of individuals, they may feel at ease in circumstances that would be intimidating to other young people from underprivileged backgrounds.
Roy also recalls the athletes who attended his tutoring programs having a strong desire to succeed academically.
He says, “I had this epiphany.” “To improve Black male presence in medicine, why don’t we look at student-athletes? They have the most social capital and network on predominately White campuses.”
However, when Roy approached his medical school colleagues about recruiting athletes, who, according to a report from the Center for American Progress, make up 16 percent of Black male college students receiving sports aid in the Big 12 athletic conference, most were skeptical.
When he worked up the courage to make the recommendation publicly at a 2018 conference in Orlando, Florida, the same thing happened.
The concept went against the grain. He explains, “I think people try to group athletes into one category.”
“They just believe athletes are gigantic meatheads,” says the author.
Roy was acutely aware of this truth, as his offensive lineman’s stature of 6-feet-6-inches and 300 pounds makes him stand out in academic situations. “Everyone looks at me,” he says. “They didn’t anticipate me to be in this position.”
Roy had no notion that the concept was gaining traction elsewhere, including the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
The NCAA’s chief medical officer, Brian Hainline, says he and the AAMC’s Poll-Hunter are in negotiations with several universities about starting a pilot program to help African American athletes interested in medical vocations.
Meanwhile, Miller established Scholar-Athletes with Academic Goals in 2018. (a.k.a. SWAG, a name he hopes will resonate with young people).
The program connects promising athletes with a variety of programs that can assist them in pursuing and succeeding in science and medicine. Miller recently collaborated with Pace University leadership to develop a program to encourage Black college athletes interested in medical school, which is set to start next year.
Pace officials hope that the project would attract out-of-state athletes and serve as a model for other colleges.
“My hope is that colleges and universities will call two years from now and ask, ‘Wow, how did you achieve this?’” says athletic director Brown.
“I believe it has the potential to develop if we have some success and proof of concept.” Bolds completed his medical school education in 2018 and is currently completing his residency at Mount Sinai.
He aims to treat injured athletes and work as a team physician, with a concentration on rehabilitation medicine.
While in medical school, he earned a business degree, and his long-term objective is to create his interventional spine and sports medicine practice, specializing in preventing and repairing injuries in athletes and non-athletes, as well as assisting serious players in improving their performance.
However, there were some difficult times along the way, such as the confrontation with the academic adviser, which Bolds claims only served to encourage him.
“Wow, this individual doesn’t believe in me,” he thought at the time. So give me a chance to convert them,” he says.
“Honestly, that was a turning point for me moving ahead. Because I realized that unless you give people a reason to trust in you, they won’t.”
Bolds began to approach his pre-med classes with an athletic mindset. “I was doing the same grind of having to get up at 5 a.m., get to the gym, get shots up before anyone else gets there, to put in that extra time with my studies,” he says.
“I would arrive at the library before everybody else.” Professors began to notice and assist Bolds when he improved his scores, he claims.
Despite this, he claims that his MCAT score, which is required by practically all medical schools in the United States, was on the cusp.
Rather than abandoning up, he attended several events at Howard University’s medical school, where he met supporters.
It was the only medical school to which he was accepted.
Whereas Bolds had to bushwhack, he watched other Black students slip off the medical path—and his Black teammates completely avoided it.
Many athletes are caught up in a profit-driven system that may or may not emphasize their education.
In recent years, the NCAA has been chastised for its long-standing prohibition on profit-sharing with collegiate athletes, which was only recently reversed under interim restrictions.
Others have claimed that Black workers have been particularly exploited. According to reports from 2014, just about 2% of NCAA athletes will go on to play professionally.
Universities, critics argue, often guide athletes to “academic routes of least resistance” for self-serving purposes (Clemson University’s football club, for example, made $77 million in average yearly revenue from 2015 to 2017).
Many schools use a strategy known as “major clustering,” in which players are assigned to the same relatively undemanding major, such as communications so that they can focus nearly totally on their sport.
According to a 2009 study of 11 university football teams, major clustering is more prominent among athletes of color.
According to the survey, over three-quarters of non-White football players at six of those colleges were enrolled in only two academic majors, even though dozens of majors were available.
Sheron Mark, an associate professor of science education at the University of Louisville, co-authored a case study in 2019 about two young Black males who came to college on basketball scholarships and planned to major in computer science and engineering, respectively.
Due to pressure and blandishments from coaches and faculty advisers, both found it difficult to manage academics and athletics.
Many Black players have been sold the idea for a long time that they don’t have many options, that pursuing a professional sports career is one of the only ways to advance their station in life, according to Mark. She believes it’s critical to have a backup plan because “the odds aren’t in their favor.”
Coaches, on the other hand, may discourage academically hard majors because they may cut into practice time, and collegiate athletes are not always capable of pushing back because their financial packages are related to team responsibilities, she says.
Many Black college athletes, according to advocates, are already great candidates for medical school, while others may require additional academic support to compensate for disadvantages acquired in under-resourced K-12 schools.
They may also require post-graduation training to enroll in science programs that they were unable to attend while working long hours as athletes—some of whom work more than 20 hours per week.
“How are they being mentored, guided, and safeguarded in their future planning?” Mark inquires. “They are top achievers in sports and aspire to be high achievers in the classroom.
Why don’t we provide a hand to them?” When people ask Mark if student-athletes can succeed in science and medicine, he says, “It’s on us.” It is our responsibility to assist them in doing so. That’s how we’ll be able to expand their representation.”
“Did you see what Jackie Robinson did? Take a look at Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick, for example. Athletics has traditionally catalyzed social change.”
Assistant Dean of Western Michigan University’s Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine, Donovan Roy Pace University hopes to achieve just that.
The school already encourages academic excellence in its athletes, who earned a B+ average last year, but premedical studies have never been a good fit, according to athletic director Brown, in part because afternoon practices often interfere with extended lab classes.
Pace scientific departments have agreed to offer flexibility in course section offerings as part of the school’s new initiative to accommodate football obligations.
Athletes of color from any sport are invited, but football was chosen because it has the largest and most diverse team, as well as the most difficult schedule, according to Brown.
The school also intends to make changes to its advising, tutoring, and library services to ensure that pre-med athletes don’t fall behind when dealing with personal concerns or difficult academics like organic chemistry.
“Instead of saying, ‘Oh, chemistry, nobody loves chemistry, you’re right, you should just abandon it,’ it’ll suddenly be, ‘Yeah, you’ve got to buckle down.’ And here’s how we’re going to do it,'” says Hillary Knepper, associate provost for student success at the institution.
In the meanwhile, Brown will instruct his coaches to vigorously recruit Black and Latino high school athletes who are interested in pursuing a career in medicine. Brown claims that in the past, his coaches were less likely to choose such children due to scheduling conflicts.
However, Pace is now attempting to form a collaboration with a nearby medical school in which pre-med athletes who have finished the Pace curriculum will be given priority consideration. “With our new method, you’ll not only have the ability to do it, but you’ll also have a support system to ensure that you stick to the path,” he explains.
Some proponents of the athlete-to-doctor paradigm consider this activity as part of a greater social justice movement. “Did you see what Jackie Robinson did? Take a look at Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick, for example,” Roy says. “Sports has always been a catalyst for social change.”
Medical practitioners have the potential to influence public policy, amass riches, and empower those in their sphere of influence. “The effects ratchet up pretty quickly,” Mark adds, “from just that individual to your family, your neighborhood, your social network, and society—people you’ll never meet, and across generations.”
According to studies, African American doctors are more likely to practice in underprivileged areas. They may also be more aware of and motivated to address healthcare disparities.
According to research published last year, Black newborns are half as likely to die if they are cared for by a Black physician. Bolds is very aware of the health inequities that exist in Black neighborhoods, and he seizes every opportunity to teach other young Black men and show them that they, too, can be doctors.
“It appears as if there are so many steps that they never end,” he says. However, he says, seeing someone “who you can relate with who is at or has already over that finish line—I believe that’s extremely crucial to their success.”
Darius Ervin, a skilled Black basketball player from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, who is currently a student at Cornell University, is one of the persons Bolds has connected with.
Ervin and Bolds met during a virtual event hosted by SWAG late last year, at which Bolds spoke.
After that, the two talked, and Bolds now checks in with Ervin regularly, which he says he enjoys. “Those are folks who, like me, once laced up their shoes and went out on the court to play, and now they’re at the hospital helping people,” he says.
“Being able to communicate with those individuals provides me with the visual, allowing me to understand that there is an opportunity and that it is doable for me to accomplish.”