- Jemele Hill, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine
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The most notable snub in this year's NFL draft wasn't Jimmy Clausen, Dez Bryant or Colt McCoy. It wasn't even Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead, who went undrafted despite being considered a potential first-round pick a year ago.
I wish I could say Rolle's free fall was strictly football-related, but it's become apparent the biggest reason Rolle tumbled was that some NFL coaches and executives were unnerved by Rolle's tremendous off-field success, which included winning a Rhodes Scholarship.
Seriously, I'm not making this up. When Rolle chose to study at Oxford for a year rather than complete his senior season at Florida State or jump to the NFL, some teams in the league not only took that as an indication Rolle wasn't completely devoted to football, but also worried that he was a little too ambitious and free-thinking. The fear was that his dream of becoming a neurosurgeon might compete with his desire to play on Sundays.
"Sometimes when you're as acclimated to life away from football as he is, it can hurt you," said Corey Chavous, who played in the NFL 11 years and created Draftnasty.com, which covers the draft year-round. "It's a balance. I'll put it like this: I went to an academic school in Vanderbilt, but I don't think there was any question [among scouts] that I wasn't going to do anything as far as my major goes. You can go to an academic school, but when you decide to take a year off, then those questions are legitimate. You're in the middle of trying to prove yourself -- granted, you were the No. 1 player in high school -- but you're not a dominant player at your position yet. Do you feel like you're good enough to take time off?"
To be fair, there were some genuine concerns about Rolle's football ability, especially with his taking a year off. Rolle ran a subpar 40-yard-dash time, and although he was named Sporting News' ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, his lack of statistics at Florida State -- one interception in three seasons -- underwhelmed many NFL teams.
But if Rolle had passed on Oxford and returned to Florida State, NFL scouts probably would have considered that more of a demonstration of character than Rolle's having his own foundation and stating that his goal is to one day open a free medical clinic in the Bahamas.
As unhealthy as it sounds, NFL coaches prefer players who won't challenge the league's well-established groupthink mentality. They value warriors, not thinkers. They want players who can't survive without football. They want players they can control and influence, and some of them might have felt intimidated if they thought they were coaching a player who was smarter than they.
And the unfortunate fact is that Rolle's missing a quarter of FSU's game against Maryland his junior year to interview for the Rhodes scholarship may have raised more red flags for teams than if he'd failed a drug test. When discussing his year at Oxford, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers asked Rolle how it felt to desert his team.
"I'm not sure how far I dropped because of taking the year off," Rolle told me. "I think it did affect it and raised questions about my commitment to football. It was a legitimate concern by the team. I came into the draft thinking pragmatically that the first or second day wouldn't be my day. I thought the third day would be my day, but I didn't expect to be the last pick in the sixth round."
It's an unfair slippery slope. The single-minded passion players exhibit when it comes to football is what makes them invaluable to an organization and makes the league so popular among fans, but it also explains why the NFL is rife with players who constantly demonstrate poor judgment away from football.
I understand the NFL is a business, and ultimately, for franchises to win, they need talented athletes, not priests or future neurosurgeons. But Rolle's plunge shows players who don't fit the meathead stereotype are sometimes penalized. Despite lip service to how much character was a factor in this year's draft, a lot of teams still don't understand that poor integrity often undermines even the most gifted athlete.
The New England Patriots -- supposedly one of the organizations that place a premium on character -- drafted Florida tight end Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round even though he reportedly tested positive for marijuana several times in college. (He admitted to one positive at Florida in talks with teams at the NFL scouting combine.) Hernandez passed his drug test at the combine, but what does it say that he's considered a better investment than Rolle? What does it say that the Bucs chose Syracuse wide receiver Mike Williams 106 picks before Rolle, even though Williams was accused of cheating on an exam in 2008 and quit Syracuse's team seven games into last season?
"There were a lot of guys who were taken ahead of me that I know I'm better than," Rolle said.
Hernandez and Williams had been projected to be taken higher than they were, and while I'm not saying Rolle should have been a first-day pick, he deserved to be more than a sixth-round pick -- even with the year off. Did any of the geniuses who passed on Rolle ever think that graduating from Florida State in 2½ years while juggling a full football schedule proved Rolle could handle just about anything? Did they not understand that Rolle's choice to play in the NFL when he could arguably be more successful outside of football was evidence enough he really wants on the field? Rolle appears too smart to put his body through the NFL grind if football were going to be just a hobby.
Maybe Rolle would have been more desirable to NFL teams if he were as popular as Tim Tebow, who was still a first-round pick even though he has often said his commitment to Christianity is more important than football.
The irony is that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell met with Rolle on April 21 because he was so proud of what Rolle stood for. During the meeting, Goodell told Rolle the NFL needed more players like him. Obviously, 31 teams didn't agree with that.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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