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Book Review: Forty Million Dollar Slaves

Posted: Thursday July 27, 2006 5:17PM; Updated: Friday July 28, 2006 5:40PM
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July 2006
Cover Courtesy: The Crown Publishing Group

Inside Forty Million Dollar Slaves
Dick Friedman's review | Read an excerpt | Buy it
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By Dick Friedman, SI.com

What if, in 1945, Jackie Robinson hadn't signed a contract to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers and had stayed instead with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League? Ultimately, concludes William C. Rhoden, the black community -- and most black athletes -- would have been better off.

Tossing aside conventional wisdom in his haunting, stimulating new book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete (Crown, 286 pages, $23.95), Rhoden, a sports columnist for The New York Times, argues with passion and force that despite the multimillion-dollar salaries earned by many black athletes, as a class they are disenfranchised within the largely white sports world and cut off from their own people. He laments the many spiritual losses individual success has brought: "The most significant of these has been the loss of mission, a mission informed by a sense of connection to the larger African American community and a sense of responsibility to the legacy of struggle that made possible this generation's phenomenal material success."

Rhoden has seen hope dashed, as a reporter and as an athlete. In 1968, as a freshman defensive back, Rhoden was on the Morgan State roster for his school's historic game at Yankee Stadium against Grambling. The matchup between these two historically black college gridiron powerhouses in front of a sellout crowd is sweetly rendered. "We were part of the revolution," Rhoden recalls thinking. "This was the dawning of a new day: black athletes, black institutions, black folk flexing their economic and cultural muscle in a collective way." As the years went on, though, he came to realize that the autumn day of such promise was "a mirage."

Cut to three decades later and a comment that inspired the book's ironic title, a remark made by then New York Knick Larry Johnson, who, after being taken to task by the NBA for refusing to speak to reporters, declared that he and some of his teammates were "rebel slaves." The next season, a fan yelled at him, "Johnson, you're nothing but a $40 million slave."

As Rhoden shows, this is not as paradoxical (or as laughable) a notion as it might seem, though many of us would happily sign up for such serfdom. Pursuing his metaphor, Rhoden reaches back into the days of legal slavery to describe the conditions under which the black athlete works: "The power relationship that had been established on the plantation has not changed," he writes, "even if the circumstances around it have."

Using examples from the often tragic history of blacks in sports, Rhoden claims they have been used and discarded at a whim; been shoveled onto a "conveyor belt" that delivers them to exploitive major college sports machines; been ripped off stylistically; and been bought off. (Of course, many white athletes, past and present, are not unfamiliar with these problems.) If the black athlete gets too proficient or threatening, the white power structure literally changes the rules. When late-19th- and early-20th-century black jockeys such as Isaac Murphy began winning too often, the Jockey Club simply stopped licensing black jockeys. Sixty years later, when San Francisco 49ers receiver R.C. Owens -- whose leaping ability gave birth to the "alley-oop" pass that's now a staple of almost every offense -- stood on the goal line and swatted back opponents' field-goal attempts, the NFL outlawed the practice.

One of Rhoden's most poignant chapters, titled "The Negro Leagues: The Dilemma of Myopia," details how owner complacency resulted in black baseball being stripped of its major asset: its players. Within a few years of Robinson's breaking the color line, the Negro Leagues were dead. "The Negro Leagues were invaded for talent much as Africa was invaded for human labor," Rhoden writes.

In arguably the book's most important passage, Rhoden says, "Though integration was a major pivot in the history of the black athlete, it was not for the positive reasons we so often hear about. Integration fixed in place myriad problems: a destructive power dynamic between black talent and white ownership; a chronic psychological burden for black athletes, who had to constantly prove their worth; disconnection of the athlete from his or her community; and the emergence of the apolitical black athlete, who had to be careful what he or she said or stood for, so as not to offend white paymasters. At the same time it destroyed an autonomous zone of black industry, practically eliminating every black person involved in sports -- coaches, owners, trainers, accountants, lawyers, secretaries and so on -- except the precious on-field talent."

The "apolitical black athlete" Rhoden singles out is Michael Jordan, for whom the system has worked -- financially, anyway. "Jordan could have single-handedly consolidated Black Power in sports and transformed the entire industry," Rhoden says. "Instead, Jordan said, 'Be like Mike.'"

However, Rhoden notes, even Jordan got his comeuppance, when he was fired from his executive post with the Washington Wizards. But in explaining Jordan's demise, Rhoden overreaches: "He became a Negro who had to be reeled in." Maybe if Jordan hadn't drafted Kwame Brown, he wouldn't have had to be reeled in.

Rhoden concludes his mostly bleak but profoundly educational survey with a manifesto. "Winning means ownership: owning teams, owning networks, owning the means of communication, and owning our collective image," he writes. He also proposes the creation of "an association of black professional athletes [that] would galvanize the power of a rich past and a prosperous present and figure out a plan for the future." It remains to be seen how many $40 million slaves will so rise, even in semi-revolt.