How Royce Muskeyvalley Dealt with a Career Ending Injury and Transitioned from College Basketball to Education

What happens when an injury cuts your career short? As athletes we don’t prepare for those scenarios, but they are a part of the game. Royce Muskeyvalley was surrounded by basketball his whole life. His whole family having played the sport, it was natural that he’d find his way toward the game. 

After leading the Rock Island high school team to a state championship title, Royce committed to play basketball for the University of Chicago Maroons in 2011. After suffering an injury his junior season, Royce was no longer able to play the game he grew up around. Now working as an educator, Royce looks back on his experience as a college athlete and how its affected him.

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Talk about why basketball was so important to you.

My brother, dad, cousins, uncles and many of my friends played basketball growing up. Everyone I was surrounded by was very immersed in the sport, and it kind of went without saying that I would play too. By the end of high school, I had spent so much of my time committed to basketball and was really excited to take the next step. I have also always loved college basketball- we used to buy tickets to watch the NCAA tournament.

What was arriving at the University of Chicago like?

Coming to the University of Chicago was very difficult. There were many cultural differences outside of academics that made it hard to fit in at first. Even though we were all from very different places, my teammates and I really bonded and helped each other feel more at home. We all had each other’s best interests in mind both on and off the court. Even though the academics were really challenging, you learn a lot about yourself and what you want to do with your life.

Academically, what was your experience like?

I had an affinity for writing and studied both Political Science and Creative Writing. However, I was kind of turned off to the field of politics at the time and did not want to dive really deep into it following graduation. I ended up hearing about Teach for America, which sounded really interesting to me. It sounded like a step in the right direction because I was interested in understanding more about public education.  

You experienced an injury your junior year? What was it like having to step away from the game?

I had a pretty serious injury before my senior year, and I did not end up playing my last season. My gradual release from the sport was really tough. I had spent so much time of my time and energy focused on basketball but being just a student in that last year gave me some time to get ready for the next part of my life. In other words, my injury gave me a year outside of who I thought I was. I had to ask myself, “without bouncing a basketball, who am I? How am I more that an athlete?” I realized that what made me successful on the court never left me: I was a successful athlete because I was a decent person. I learned how to be a leader and how to handle myself while facing loss and injuries. How I approach my work today directly relates back to the skill set I developed as a basketball player. I cared for my teammates and had their best interests in mind. I learned how to take their constructive criticism and how to communicate on the court. 

What are some challenges that you faced when you first joined Teach for America?

When I first started working for TFA, I was placed in a 4th grade classroom in a public charter school in Cleveland. Working in that environment forces you to confront reality. I was young with little teaching experience, but these kids had no choice but to learn from me. This job, like basketball, was about more than just me, my ego or my certifications. My biggest challenge was to confront the inequality that these kids faced and to remain positive and optimistic. My growth as an educator was happening live in front of young faces that reminded me of people that I knew growing up. 

As both a basketball player and a teacher, I have really seen the importance of being able to honestly look myself in the mirror. I' had to ask myself whether I was truly putting in all the hard work for my teammates and the kids I teach now. 

Why did you stay in Cleveland after TFA?

I stayed in Cleveland after Teach for America as an Economic Opportunity and Equity Analyst for the Cleveland Neighborhood Progress because of the people. From the moment I got to Cleveland, the kids, the families and the community all gave me a feeling of home. Right now, I develop and implement strategies to further city-wide progress toward eliminating the educational disparities amongst students of all racial and economic groups. This means that I have to collaborate with local committees and stakeholders to develop and sustain systemic shifts towards eliminating the racial and economic predictability and unequal educational experiences. I really get to analyze the issues of institutional racism at a deeper level. 

What does education mean to you?

Teaching is definitely not about the money. Rather, I am interested in creating a real relationship with these kids. I always had to keep in mind that other people were trusting me with educating their children. The skills that I teach them now may stick with them for the rest of their lives. I still remember what older men and women said to me when I was in third and fourth grade. A huge part of my job is trying to figure out how best to teach black children in inner city schools. Like the other educators in my city, I have to consider both the racial dynamics inside and outside the classroom. 

How does teaching relate to basketball?

In the field of education, especially for disadvantaged youth in areas of concentrated poverty, it is so important to remember that what you are doing in the classroom is larger than you. Every action you take has to be in support for the larger goal; in this case, the larger goal is giving these kids an opportunity to succeed in the classroom despite poverty and systemic racism.

Have you stayed involved in the sport?

I knew I wanted to stay involved in the sport after I stopped. Basketball gave me so much joy, and it makes me happy that I can share that joy with other kids. I coach a lot because I believe basketball serves as a vehicle to learn those important life lessons like communication and compassion that I mentioned earlier. More than that, basketball is a language that I was taught really well, and I don’t want to lose the ability to communicate in that way. I see coaching as therapeutic because I get as much from my players as I give to them.

What advice would you give to current student-athletes?

Basketball gave me the opportunity to travel and led me to so many people that I am still friends with today. My best friend actually plays for the Washington Wizards. I would say that when you’re competing, you’d being doing yourself a disservice if you did not try to enjoy it. It’s really easy to put too much pressure on yourself or get caught up in the difficulties of school. Sometimes, you feel like you barely have your head out of water and there is no time to really reflect on or appreciate the experiences you have. Playing basketball in college was really a luxury. Playing sports in college is about more than the performance; it’s about the memories you take away.