A Call to Arms
African-American sports stars may net fame and cash, but how much power do they hold?
William Rhoden's inflammatorily titled book 40 Million Dollar Slaves isn't as confrontational as its name. It's an exploration of sports history and an appeal to African-American unity more than an angry protest against exploitation. New York Times columnist Rhoden draws parallels between plantation slavery and the power structure in professional sports, where the athletes are disproportionately African-American and the owners are typically white men. Last week, Rhoden was the keynote speaker at UNM's Black Cultural Conference. Before hopping on a plane to the Duke City, he talked with the Alibi about how he got the idea for the book and what it will inspire in its readers.
How did you come up with that title?
When I first started writing the book, I envisioned the title Lost Tribe Wondering because it was evocative of exodus, and it seemed appropriate. My editor humored me, but I think he knew we needed a better title.
40 Million Dollar Slaves actually comes from an anecdote about New York Knicks player Larry Johnson, who told the media that he and his teammates were a bunch of rebellious slaves. Then later, in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers, a fan was taunting Larry and he screamed '"Johnson, you're nothing but a 40 million dollar slave." So it was an interesting point of departure to look at why Larry used the word slave and why that fan used the same word to heckle him.
What was your goal in writing the book?
It's meant as a call to arms to African-American athletes. They have a lot of resources, and they have the allure and the acclaim to really do some stuff. Maybe this is a way to shake them up, because you can't be moved to action unless someone tells you why you should.
What do you think African-American athletes should do?
It would be great for them to form an association of athletes—just like the ones in other professions. Once you're organized, you can launch a lot of initiatives. Athletes need to talk and come up with their own motives and figure out what they want to do. One of the biggest things is seeing if there's a common denominator. Or, in other words, is there something black athletes can all agree on?
Was it fun digging through sports history to research the book?
I've always loved history. I didn't have the patience for it, and that's probably why I became a journalist.
How would you respond to someone who says they'd gladly take the place of an African-American athlete making millions of dollars a year?
I'm sure they would. The book isn't trying to denounce anybody, and it's not about athletes being exploited at all. The players have a lot of power, and one of the big things I hope can come out of this is athletes asking themselves who and what they want to be. It's about players taking the team concept and applying it to their fellow athletes. When you stop thinking about things individually and start thinking of them as a team, you can accomplish even more together.
What do you think about the claim made by some sports journalists that athletes have too much power, especially since some players have been able to just refuse to play until their demands are met?
I don't think athletes have too much power. First of all, there's only a thimble of athletes that have the kind of power you're talking about. You're describing a workers’ issue, where basically you do what the market allows you to do. I think that's a good exercise of power, but there's only a few players who can actually do those kinds of things.
Do you think there are some similarities between the power structure in African-American dominated sports and games like hockey that are played by mostly white athletes?
African-American athletes are in a special situation because of their unique history in this country, but there are issues in sports that go beyond race. There's still the element of not being completely free, because you can be cut, you can be sold, you can be traded no matter what sport you play.
This isn't something that's talked about in your book, but what do you think about the fact that spectators in basketball, football and baseball are disproportionately white?
Yeah, I don't know what that means. It may mean athletes don't want to ruffle any feathers and speak positively about their fans, because that's how their bread is buttered. You know, they may party in the African-American area of a city but their clientele is someone else.
Are sports still enjoyable for you to watch despite the problems you mention in your book?
I still like sports and being a sports columnist. I still love the drama of competition, and I'm still excited about my job.