Black athletes may dominate, but they lack power over system

September 17, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

A lot of people can't get past the title.

That's not entirely true - enough people got past the title of William C. Rhoden's book, $40 Million Slaves, to land it briefly on The New York Times best-seller list this summer, and to make it one of the most popular sports books of the year.

But to those who, like many a bookstore customer and interviewer, have gotten stuck on the harsh juxtaposition of that title, consider this a request - no, a plea - to keep reading. Read the subtitle The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete, and everything that follows.

Early on you'll see the origins of the title, and as you progress you'll find a convincing argument for why it fits. After that, if you're still not sure, look around this weekend at the games you pour so much money and emotion into, see who is playing and making massive salaries - and think hard about who actually still controls the field, and whether it is as level as it might seem.

Think about it, in fact, while oohing and aahing over a run by Reggie Bush, or over the trouble he's in. More on that later.

After a century of molding the sports culture in this country into what it is today, the African-American athletes who have long dominated the major sports (and now a few of the minor ones) have little if any power in the system that lives off their sweat.

Rhoden - a New York Times sports columnist, a former Sun jazz critic, a former Morgan State student and football player - brings history, personal experience, reporting, research and perspective together to make his case in a taut 270 pages. That case? From Slaves' prologue: " ... black athletes journeyed from slavery to segregation to an exploitative integrated sports world, never finding a true Promised Land."

As in slavery, blacks either never owned a true stake in the fruits of their labors, or gave it away or let it be taken from them. Looming over them then and now, Rhoden writes, is nothing less than the old plantation system, getting more deeply rooted by the day, with the athletes seeming to put up less resistance to it by the day.

"In their failure to heed the lessons of history," the book says, "today's black athletes are squandering the best opportunities yet for acquiring real power in the sports industry."

Rhoden, of course, isn't the first to use the slave analogy; Curt Flood famously made the connection in his attempt to overturn baseball's reserve clause in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The book title itself emerged from the New York Knicks' Larry Johnson referring to himself and his fellow players as "rebellious slaves" during a contentious series of interactions with the media at the 1999 NBA Finals.

The two were tied together by Rhoden in Chapter 10 of Slaves - but the previous chapters established the connection long before.

This is far more than another exploration of the "gladiator" theory of sports, or of the lack of diversity among coaches and executives. Slaves draws the line all the way back to colonial days, when slave owners arranged sprints, horse races and fights between their slaves and bet on the outcomes. It recounts how - as far back as the 18th century - individual black boxers, horse trainers and jockeys, and even bike racers, once ruled their sports, then were ruled out of them by covertly racist tactics, and others that didn't bother to be covert.

It illuminates the origins of "black style" and how it was later co-opted, marketed and then turned against its creators by the powers-that-be (think of how the NFL punishes end zone dancing while sanctioning video games that program it in).

Feel-good stories about integration, assimilation and crossover acceptance at every level, from Jackie Robinson to Sam "The Bam" Cunningham to Michael Jordan to Robert Johnson, are punctured with tales of the consequences to black autonomy, social consciousness, and connection to the community, including black colleges like Rhoden's alma mater.

Slaves has the most provocative title of any recent sports book because it presents the most provocative premise: Just because LeBron James gets $90 million from his shoe contract doesn't mean everything is fine and dandy.

One recent event proves the point. Reggie Bush is now on the hot seat because his family reportedly received benefits worth $100,000 last year while he was still playing football at USC.

That would be $100,000 more than he was being paid by USC, which rode him to a berth in the Rose Bowl national title game that paid the school just under $15 million and drew the highest TV rating for a college game in 18 years.

Just call Bush a $100,000 slave. Why? Read the book. david.steele@baltsun.com

David Steele -- Points After

Now that Steve Slaton has exacted his revenge against a Maryland program that pulled back its scholarship offer to him, who knows what fate lies ahead for the others who have snubbed the West Virginia running back?

The Orioles agreed on a six-year, $72 million contract with Slaton, then changed their minds and gave it to Miguel Tejada.

Slaton was supposed to be the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars, but got bumped out of the role by James Earl Jones.

The Trail Blazers passed him over in the NBA draft in favor of Sam Bowie.

Agents withdrew their offer of $100,000 in benefits to his parents, giving it to Reggie Bush's parents instead.

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