When news broke last week that Boston Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown had been named a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab, more than a few fans likely wrinkled their collective brows.
Some, of course, came from those who believe athletes should live in the gym, focused on training to win and nothing else.
While that narrow-minded perspective is undoubtedly behind at least some of the impetus of why Brown chose to get involved in such a project in the first place, at the time, the rest of us were simply curious to what the Cal product was planning with his fellowship.
The press release, while interesting in the scope of individuals being brought on to this year’s class of fellows, seemed purposefully vague, describing Brown as:
“… an NBA basketball player for the Boston Celtics, [with] a wide range of interests, including history, finance, technology, and meditation. Considered an innovator by his peers, he entered the NBA draft in 2016 without an agent, and a year later, created a stir by pulling together a networking event for rookie players at the NBA Summer League, which was followed by a “Tech Hustle” event at the NBA All-Star Weekend that attracted venture capitalists, rap stars and corporate chieftains to help players understand investment.”
All true and good but what will the fourth-year wing do with his fellowship?
The release does note a basic description of expected activities for fellows, equally vague in its framing, stating “the Director’s Fellows network will be 70-ish persons strong”, and that it ” … may collaborate on projects with students and faculty, serve as advisers, bring a project idea into the Lab or work on projects together”; it’s hard to think of a way to describe an organization’s purpose with less details.
Director Joi Ito hints at plans obliquely, noting her intent was to bring a diverse group into the lab because “technology and engineering alone cannot address the complexity of the challenges we face” today.
Her description of the lab as “antidisciplinary” may sound like the sort of approach that would strike fear — or disgust? — into the hearts of those who believe athletes should be seen and not heard but it’s also ideal for a player like Brown. The Georgia-native has been honing his academic chops at least since his stint playing for Berkeley in between graduate-level courses on diverse subjects.
Brown —who made noise in the league almost upon being drafted for more than just his basketball acumen — has been outspoken in his support for everything from social justice to the financial literacy of his NBA peers, acting as an organizer for events designed to connect disparate actors from the worlds of professional sports, technology, and finance, among many other such activities.
He’s roundly rejected any such posturing trying to paint NBA players and athletes more generally as the sort of ‘dumb jock’ stereotype that has lingered over the years despite countless examples to the contrary across the four major US sports in recent decades, stereotypes which mirror — and for many — overlap with minorities in US public schools.
In an exclusive interview with Fast Company’s Claire Miller, all these strands came together to weave the tapestry for Brown’s plans for his MIT Media Lab; seeking to highlight the disproportionate effects on social contexts and the history built into them in the form of issues like institutional racism, poverty, and structural barriers like standardized testing, the Celtics starting two-guard will organize a group of ten local disadvantaged children to craft study programs using MIT’s resources.
In the hopes that a program tailored to each student’s capabilities and interests instead of meeting baseline scores for the SAT and similar such testing regimes, Brown hopes to lay the foundation of a shift in educational paradigms nationwide in a longer-term scope.
Returning to the concept of an “antidisciplinary” angle, he’s also hoping to generate a lot of interest and support across backgrounds and industries in support of his project:
“It doesn’t matter what background they come from … If they support education and they support our youth, I want to ask them to be a part of the initiative, to extend their reach and help push this forward. I want to have a bunch of people make education cool.”
In a league increasingly fueled by venture capitalists who made their money in technology and other fields despite — or perhaps because of — dropping out of traditional higher educational paths followed by so many in the past, Brown sees little difference between them and athletes such as himself who only spent a short time in college despite his interest in the Academy:
“It is literally the same thing. It’s just as hard. [Getting into the] NBA might even be harder … I think they’re both impressive. And I’ve always had the ability to do both.”
For Brown, it’s not about getting smashed into one hole or the other. Furthermore, just because he’s worked his way up to a space where such a perspective can have legs in a way that can reach beyond his own circle of people doesn’t mean he plans to let the work that built such a platform limit the reach of this and similar initiatives that matter, either.
“People look at me like, ‘Jaylen, you’re an NBA player. What are you complaining about?’ But just because I escaped the barriers that society has put up, why should I forget about the people who didn’t or won’t?” Brown says. “I had to shoot over a million jump shots to be able to stand in front of you today. My goal is to prove that the journey can be a little bit smoother for the next kid, and I plan to bridge that gap.”