by Shaun Powell
Human Kinetics, $22.95
THE NOV. 13, 1989, cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED featured Deion Sanders decked out in dark shades, black leather and pounds of gold jewelry. The cover line read PRIME TIME LIVE, and in the accompanying story Sanders, then a Falcons cornerback, outlined his ethos: "They don't pay nobody to be humble." At the time Neon Deion was at the heart of a debate over what sort of image black athletes should project. Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Chet Fuller, who is black, wrote that Sanders was "the latest in a disappointingly long line of hype-mongering sports stars ... [who] sickeningly glorify the flashy, quick-success, easy-money lifestyle ... cheating thousands of young kids who hang on their every word." Fuller's Journal-Constitution colleague Mark Bradley, who is white, asked, "Why must prominent blacks have a constituency when prominent whites are free to be regular guys?"
The debate still rages, and Newsday columnist Shaun Powell dives in with Souled Out? How Blacks Are Winning and Losing in Sports. Powell, who is black, agrees with Fuller. Because black athletes, unlike their white counterparts, are saddled with representing their race, black America can't afford athletes like the materialistic Sanders or miscreants like Pacman Jones. "They're a burden for those of us who strive to present a balanced view of black people to America," Powell writes.
Souled Out picks up some of the themes of last year's Forty Million Dollar Slaves, by The New York Times's William Rhoden. Like Rhoden, Powell takes the modern black athlete to task for a lack of social consciousness, for failing to be this generation's Muhammad Ali. "A sizeable group of young athletes today ... have no concept of history or the athletes who paved the way for them," Powell writes. He goes on to argue that it's not simply up to blacks to grab sports business and leadership opportunities; it's up to white executives to open those doors.
Powell, 47, has a sweeping knowledge of sports since the wide integration of the 1960s, and his analysis of how the prevalence of fatherless households leaves many young black men without role models is trenchant. But he is so image-conscious, so obsessed with how blacks appear to white America, that he loses sight of how the personality and style of athletes like Sanders have revolutionized sports. One reason may be that Powell solicits the opinions of too few current athletes, relying instead on historical anecdotes and his experiences in more than 20 years as a reporter and columnist. Powell states his case from the press box, not from the locker room, and it feels distant. As a result, Souled never reaches the soul of the black athlete.