Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Future of the Black Athlete: William Rhoden's "Forty Million Dollar Slaves"

also published in The Black Scholar journal (2008).

Rhoden, William. Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. New York: Crown Publishers, 2006.

In March 2007, controversy erupted when CBS radio shock-jock Don Imus, on his nationally syndicated radio show, denigrated the women of Rutgers University’s Women’s Basketball team by labeling them “nappy headed hoes.” Immediately, a nation-wide, almost uniform response to his unabashedly racist and sexist comment emerged, and he was roundly rejected by members of the media, politicians, and pundits of virtually every ilk. Though executives at CBS and other media elites offered a de facto defense of Imus, the vast, organized, and unequivocal call for Imus to apologize (and furthermore, for him to be sanctioned sternly) and for racist vitriol of this sort to cease without severe consequence forced the hands of both the executives who employed Imus and the advertisers who sponsored his work. Imus was fired within a week of making his denigrating comments, largely due to the effect of the concerted response of Rutgers President Richard McCormick and Head Coach C. Vivian Stringer, and the poise and determination of her players, which galvanized the support corporate sponsors who funded Imus’ on-air vitriol. These scholar-athletes serve as a model for athletic leadership in our society as they stood up for justice, equality, and their own humanity amidst a public spectacle thrust upon them, confirming the long-espoused adage of sport culturists that, in sport, we sometimes see justice served as it can and should be for all Americans.

It is exactly this kind of leadership in difficult times that William Rhoden charges contemporary black athletes with in Forty Million Dollar Slaves. Unfortunately, it seems as if this is the kind of leadership that contemporary athletes have demonstrated that Rhoden all-too easily overlooks.
The book’s subtitle, “The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete,” indicates that Rhoden is more than a historian, but a nostalgian fully convinced that the black athlete’s historical willingness to advocate for social and economic justice for all black people has diminished--and perhaps disappeared--in recent times. In order to drive home the suggestion that a vacuum of leadership has led to black athletes becoming a lost tribe, he relies heavily upon the metaphor that the relationship between athletes/owners/sport-industrial complex is akin to the relationship between the slave/master/plantation. In other words, though contemporary athletes receive lucrative compensation for their labor, they still rely exclusively upon white owners--who buy, sell, and trade them, and ultimately control their fates--and thus are condemned to exercise silence, complicity, and coercion when it comes to issues that impact the entire black community. After all, in the end, “anyone who exercises power over them is white, and they feel […] that the owners are taking more value out of them than they are putting in” (xi). Additionally, as in times of slavery, their athletic prowess exists solely at the “spectacle of white owners” and is further complicated by the fact that they are coached predominately by white men and evaluated by an almost exclusively white sports media[1] (8).

Controversial, certainly, and hyperbolic, perhaps, but Rhoden carefully chooses the slave/master/plantation metaphor and explicates it deftly throughout the text, relying upon historical examples of athletes who embodied the black struggle for self-determination through their athletic exploits, and profiling contemporary athletes who most aptly fulfill the slave/master relationship in contemporary times. Rhoden believes that the “common cause” that once united all black athletes has been fractured by their disconnection from the black community via a conveyor belt system that prepares them for professional athletic competition and the ancillary public relations requirements (5). And he pulls no punches when he accuses contemporary black professional athletes of abdicating their responsibility to their community with “treasonous vigor,” a point he endeavors to drive home by profiling black athletes such as Tom Molineaux (boxer), Jack Johnson (boxer), Isaac Murphy (jockey), Arthur Foster (Negro Leagues entrepreneur), and Jackie Robinson (baseball), whose athletic exploits and pursuant social action inspired social movement, black solidarity, and paved the way for future black successes both in and out of the arena of sport (8).

Rhoden’s accusation that contemporary athletes have failed to lead and inspire America’s black population (as he claims those of previous generations had done) begins to unravel, however, due to the thoroughness of his historical research and analysis. After more than a century of black athletes who faced the most dire consequences--loss of livelihood, death threats--we have now entered a period where an unspoken code encourages contemporary black athletes to avoid ‘rocking the boat’ lest they risk losing their lucrative sponsorships. Rhoden carefully explains the mechanisms that have disenfranchised and excised black athletes (the “Jockey Syndrome” p. 61) who challenged racist hegemony and the system )the “Conveyor Belt” p. 177-78) that compels contemporary black athletes to avoid the political arena and avoid drawing any attention to themselves that could leave them characterized as ungrateful malcontents who will face what has often been repudiation and reprisal from reactionary sports media. It is no wonder that black athletes more often than not choose to avoid hot-button political issues and, as Rhoden puts it, concentrate on “making those in positions of power feel comfortable with (their) blackness” (178).

Rhoden’s charge that contemporary black athletes of great import (think Kobe, LeBron, Donovan, Tiger) have not seized upon their global popularity in order to take up issues of racial justice and equality fails to consider the fact that social, political, and economic forces in professional and amateur sport have forced the consent of these athletes … or else. Furthermore, mechanisms exist to completely disfranchise athletes who do ‘stand for something,’ be it the constant attacks in the media, being characterized negatively by coaches and team administration, and personal risk of losing scholarships or livelihood. And yet in the face of those odds, individuals such as Etan Thomas, John Amaechi, Warrick Dunn, Joe Horn, refuse to, as Dave Zirin puts it “Be like most athletes and just toe the line, drink Coke, wear Nike and tap-dance on cue”[2]. As the women of Rutgers have proven, contemporary black athletes are capable of carrying on the tradition of their brave brothers and sisters before them who led their teams to victory on the field and led the way in challenging racial disunity and injustice in the world outside the athletic arena.

[1] See Richard Lapchick’s “Crime and Athletes: The New Racial Stereotypes of the 1990's.” Center for Sport in Society, 2002. <>.
[2] See Zirin’s column “In Defense of Etan Thomas” on edgeofsports.com,