Doctor's orders: Make education part of sports

Updated: February 26, 2007, 3:33 PM ET
By George J. Tanber | Special to ESPN.com

Some might consider Dr. David Satcher a fair-weather fan who jumps from team to team. After all, when he served as the U.S. Surgeon General from 1998-2002 and lived in the Washington area, he was a Redskins fan. He always liked the Dodgers, too. And at present, living in Atlanta, where he directs the Center of Excellence on Health Disparities at the Morehouse School of Medicine, Satcher pulls for the Falcons, Hawks and Braves.

"I generally root for the team where I'm living," the well-traveled Satcher says.

Satcher's rise from an Anniston, Ala., farmhouse, where his parents raised 10 children, to become the nation's top physician is an inspirational tale, a story not unlike those of some of the black athletes he has followed and admired. In addition to his duties at Morehouse, Satcher has continued his career-long activism on the issues of poor nutrition and obesity. He chairs Action for Healthy Kids, a grassroots effort supported, in part, by the NFL that strives to get schools to implement better nutritional and physical fitness programs for their students.

Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher
AP Photo/J.Scott ApplewhiteIn 1998, Dr. David Satcher, then the U.S. Surgeon General, presented President Clinton with his report on smoking.
Satcher, 65, leads by example. A former runner at Morehouse College, he jogged daily for 40 years until his aching knees sidelined him. Last year, he bought a boat; and most mornings before work, you'll find him rowing across Lake Spivey, where he lives with his wife, Nola.

During Black History Month, Satcher spoke with ESPN.com about health and sports, among other issues.

You grew up in a large family in rural Alabama. You and many of your siblings used education as a vehicle for successful careers. Many young and talented African-American athletes view professional sports as a way out of poverty. Few make it; and sometimes, that way out comes at the expense of a college education. How can that mind-set be changed?

That's certainly an important question, because I would not have worked my way out of poverty through sports even though I loved sports. And a lot of other people won't, either, because they're not that good. I think education ought to be a priority for everybody, even if you are good in sports. I think we should try and encourage all of our children to do their best academically. Even if they become professional athletes, it's going to serve them well. We ought to do everything we can to help our children take education seriously and make sure they have all the opportunities they need to be successful. And I think colleges ought to do more to support their athletes in terms of tutoring and things like that. Colleges benefit tremendously from athletes. I think they ought to make sure [the athletes] maximize their education.

There seems to be increasing evidence that football players who have suffered from multiple concussions during their careers are susceptible to postconcussion syndrome, cognitive impairment, depression and other ailments. What are your thoughts on this?

So far, there's more news than science. I think we need to do more research on this. I don't doubt that kind of experience has some lasting effect. As surgeon general, I released several reports on mental health, so issues like depression and suicide prevention are very important in terms of my career. I think it's really critical that we get on top of this issue right away to see to what extent athletes who have suffered concussions are more likely to suffer depression and other mental health problems. For those athletes who do have repeated concussions, I think there are things we can do to minimize their risks. In terms of research right now, I don't think we have all the research we need to speak definitively [on the subject.]

I'm very concerned about something else that probably affects even more athletes, and that is [that] many athletes are physically fit during the time when they are active but they do not develop lifetime habits of physical activity. So many of them gain weight and develop cardiovascular disease and other problems, such as diabetes. I would like to see former athletes develop lifetime habits of physical activity totally separate from their work. I know athletes see physical activity primarily as work, but I think everybody needs a physical activity program just for the purpose of health. And a good nutrition program. I know athletes, especially linemen, like to bulk up in terms of muscle, and sometimes that includes fat. But to develop bad eating habits in terms of high cholesterol and things like that and put yourself at risk for diabetes, hypertension and stroke after you leave the game is not good. We lose too many of our former athletes early. Athletes don't have a great life expectancy after they finish their careers, especially football players.

Surgeron General Dr. David Satcher
AP Photo/ Victoria ArochoSatcher testified on improving children's mental health at a Statehouse hearing in Providence, R. I., in 2001.
A disproportionate number of African-Americans -- especially women -- are obese; and, as a result, are facing numerous other health-related problems. What's the reason for this and what needs to happen for it to change?

African-American, Hispanic, and even American Indian children are much more likely to suffer from obesity than white children. However, the issue of obesity is an issue for all groups in our country. We think there is a combination of things: One, of course, is a lack of regular physical activity; and secondly, eating more high-calorie foods than good, nutritious foods. Many people have diets that provide them with the calories that they need to quench hunger, but they don't provide nutrition. And the food that provides the most nutrition and fewest calories are fruits and vegetables and foods like that. And certainly in many of our communities, people don't [eat] a lot of fruits and vegetables.

I think one of the major motivations for starting Action for Healthy Kids [is] we thought that the school is a place where kids spend eight to 10 hours a day, and they have the opportunity to habituate all children to regular physical activity and good nutrition. I came from a home where neither of my parents finished elementary school, but I was able to go to school. I was able to get an education. I was able to compete with people who came from homes where their parents were M.D.s and Ph.D.s. It didn't stop me from having an opportunity. So I always refer to schools as the great equalizer. Schools provide opportunities for kids that they would otherwise not get. And I want schools to do the same thing when it comes to habituating children to regular physical activity and good nutrition. Now, we have convinced the schools we're on their side. We're not just asking them to help control child obesity. We're asking them to help promote learning because we know that children who are overweight and obese are more likely to be sick, don't perform as well on standardized exams, have more trouble concentrating and are more likely to be depressed.

African-Americans have made enormous gains on the playing field and in the professional coaching ranks. But they lag behind in other leadership positions in sports, and certainly in other fields such as medicine, law and business. What needs to happen for more African-Americans to achieve success in leadership positions in sports and other occupations?

I think things need to happen at several levels. Obviously, the point I made about providing opportunities and motivation for all children to take education seriously. And that good athletes need to be good students because you never know when you're going to need it in terms of ownership and business and things like that. I also think the opportunities need to be there; and when those opportunities are there, we need to be prepared to walk in those doors. And that requires taking education seriously. So I think we need to work with individuals to prepare themselves for a future beyond sports. Future roles as coaches, as owners, as managers, and then I think the opportunities ought to be there. [But we need] to make sure the opportunities are really there. I'm really pleased with the momentum that seems to be going, increasing those opportunities, especially at the coaching level. It gets back to the point that every child needs to be encouraged to be the best he or she can be. If they are great athletes, they ought to be encouraged and supported. But they also ought to be encouraged to make the best of their minds.

Name an African American athlete you admire and why.

There are a few. I was 5 years old when Jackie Robinson started with the Dodgers. It just meant so much. So I have great admiration for [him] for what he did in sports, but also after leaving sports in terms of his leadership role in civil rights. Here, in [Atlanta], Hank Aaron is a tremendous role model. He and his wife Billie are leaders in the community and are at the forefront of about every good thing that happens. He was one of the greatest athletes of all time, without question, and now he's a role model in terms of business leadership. [Former Atlanta Falcon and current Atlanta Brave] Brian Jordan has always been responsive when we called. He started and funded a wellness center for employees at Grady Hospital. I have a lot of admiration for him and all he has done.

If you had been a star athlete, name the sport and your dream moment.

I always fantasized about being a great football player. I'd like to be like Lynn Swann, making all those fantastic catches he made in a Super Bowl game.

Your favorite moment as a sports fan.

Doug Williams' performance as the Washington Redskins' quarterback [in Super Bowl XXII]. Not only because he was the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, but he overcame being injured … and did an outstanding job leading that team to victory [over Denver].

George J. Tanber contributes to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.

George J. Tanber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.