ON MY TV: the NBA Finals. Men, many black, play a game, making millions.
On my coffee table: a new book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, the thesis of which is that the power dynamic from the old plantations shapes sports. According to the author, New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden, black athletes are, despite their mansions and Mercedes, nothing more than slaves.
Is Rhoden kidding? Is he crazy? Many will think so, based on the book's title, but let's take a look at the case he makes.
The title derives from an episode involving former forward Larry Johnson, who called himself a "rebellious slave" after the NBA fined him during the 1999 playoffs for not talking to reporters. The next season a white heckler hollered at Johnson, "You're nothing but a $40 million slave." Rhoden, 55, an African-American, uses the episode to show how black athletes labor under a plantation system. "[Johnson] saw himself as still being heavily policed and clearly owned," writes Rhoden. "His success ... would always be at the pleasure of the white men who signed the checks."
To Rhoden the root cause of this problem is the integration of pro sports by Dodgers G.M. Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson in 1947. Rhoden calls Rickey "a shark" for luring Robinson from the Negro leagues. Rube Foster, the iconic father of black baseball, had preached a gospel of black-owned businesses that would empower the community from within. Instead of leading a Negro league exodus, Robinson, says Rhoden, could have helped bring a black-owned team to the majors. Rhoden says Robinson "failed to balance the goals of integration and empowerment." Black athletes could play, but they were kept from positions of power.
Full desegregation, Rhoden says, created modern black athletes who, mollified by money, feel unconnected to their community. They don't invest in local businesses or change the "unfair, corrupt, destructive system" that is sports. If they knew their history, Rhoden says, they would understand what sacrifices were made so they could prosper. And they would create a "black economy" the way Magic Johnson does when he opens a movie theater or a Starbucks in Harlem or South Central L.A.
Not that Rhoden mentions Johnson in a book that is short on specifics and stretches the meaning of slave. But the idea that black athletes have the power to break whatever chains still bind them is good news, and not just for black athletes.