Golden Shackles

Curt Flood scores for the Washington Senators. (April 5, 1971)
Curt Flood scores for the Washington Senators. (April 5, 1971) (Matthew Lewis / The Washington Post)
Reviewed by David J. Leonard
Sunday, August 13, 2006


The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete

By William C. Rhoden

Crown. 286 pp. $23.95

"A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave." So declared Curt Flood during an interview with Howard Cosell on Jan. 3, 1970. The Gold Glove centerfielder had appeared on ABC television to discuss his grievances with Major League Baseball. Flood uttered his memorable reply when Cosell questioned his description of baseball players as "indentured servants" and "slaves," pointing out that $90,000 per year wasn't exactly "slave wages."

Decades and many millions of dollars later, notable sports figures have continued to second Flood's bold notion. For example, former pro basketball player Larry Johnson once described his fellow members of the New York Knicks as a group of "rebellious slaves," a term similarly used by basketball star Rasheed Wallace and and football All-Pro Warren Sapp. William Rhoden, in his brilliant Forty Million Dollar Slave s , chronicles the saga of Flood, Johnson and numerous other black male athletes who have toiled on America's athletic plantations. Along the way, he shows how their promise as athletes, leaders and agents of social change has long been restricted by the forces of racism on and off the field.

Like Flood, he disputes the widespread belief that athletes (and black male athletes in particular) with seven-figure contracts and commercial appeal cannot be slaves. While recognizing that today's athletes are immensely wealthy, Rhoden links the absence of black ownership, the institutionalization of rules to regulate black athletic styles, and the common description of black athletes as "hot dogs" or "showboats" as evidence of black athletes' subservience to white interests. He makes clear that the absence of power leaves black athletes in a continuously precarious position, still hampered by a history of being "kept out, persecuted, and eased out when white owners and management decided they weren't needed or wanted."

As evidence of black athletes' continuing vulnerability, Rhoden writes about Michael Jordan, often cited as evidence of black male athletic success and the powerful ways in which sports have facilitated colorblindness in post-civil-rights era America. "Flying too high to notice" that he was on the plantation, Jordan was fired by Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin. Like Curt Flood before him, the superstar was "used for his muscle, then discarded."

"As long as black people don't take control of the industry that feeds them, they will always work at the pleasure of the white power structure," writes Rhoden, "a structure that would like nothing more than to wean itself from its dependence on black muscle." Linking the NBA's efforts to create an international (and less black) talent pool to the horseracing industry's exclusion of once-dominant black jockeys at the turn of the 20th century, Rhoden argues, "the story of the black athlete seemed to go from plantation to plantation, from [Tom] Molineaux [a boxer who competed in England during the slavery era] fighting his way to freedom, to pampered millionaires still fighting to own their own labor."

Presenting a history that is neither an "inspirational reel" nor an indictment of today's black athletes, Rhoden offers a "complicated tale of continuous struggle, a narrative of victory and defeat, advance and retreat, the story of an inspiring rise, an unnecessary fall, and uncertain future." He rightly challenges the conventional American notion of sports as a model of integration and meritocracy, where talent and athleticism trump bigotry. For example, Rhoden examines the distinctive styles that Willie Mays and R.C. Owens brought to baseball and basketball, respectively. He reveals how fans and media alike demonized them for violating the values of the game and for merely "having attitude." Persuasively, he finds echoes of their harsh treatment in the condemnation of flashy modern competitors such as the University of Miami football team of the '90s. Through each historic step, forward and back, Rhoden argues that black athletes, like blacks in general, have always been "largely feared and despised," relegated to the "periphery of true power" despite their talents and contributions to sporting life in America.

Forty Million Dollar Slaves is a beautifully written, complex and rich narrative. Rhoden offers a wonderful balance between the often-forgotten histories of great black athletes, such as bicyclist Major Taylor, Negro League entrepreneur Rube Foster and college football great Sam Cunningham, and nuanced social commentaries on the commercial exploitation of blackness, white control of the sporting world, and the devastating effects of integration on the Negro Leagues and the sports teams at historically black colleges and universities.

He describes the recruitment of black male high school athletes as a conveyor belt, a system that goes to every length to "extract those bodies from where they primarily reside -- in the black neighborhoods of rural and urban America -- and put them to work. . . . the ultimate effect of the Conveyor Belt is not so much to deliver young black athletes to the pros, but to deliver them with the correct mentality: They learn not to rock the boat, to get along, they learn by inference about the benevolent superiority of the white man and enter into a tacit agreement to let the system operate without comment."

As much as Rhoden indicts American racism, he also critiques black athletes. He writes, "by the time they reach the NBA, the NFL, or Major League Baseball, black athletes have put themselves on an intellectual self-check: You don't even have to guard them, they'll miss the shot." To recover from their stasis and help their fellow African-Americans "convert all our accumulated wealth and presence into power," black athletes must join with black agents, sportswriters and sports executives to extend their influence "beyond the courts, fields, and diamonds." Greater power, through various types of ownership and collective action, would elevate blacks as a whole, enabling black athletes to "play a pivotal role" in shaping society while reestablishing institutions and community power lost during the era of integration.

Although at times he misses the opportunity to celebrate athletes such as Etan Thomas (a pro basketball player who has spoken out against the war in Iraq) and Toni Smith (a former college basketball player who protested the war by turning her back to the American flag during the national anthem), who have carried on the traditions of those rebellious athletes whom he rightly celebrates, Rhoden avoids the worst qualities found in so much of today's sports commentary on black athletes: contempt and doubt. Instead he provides optimism and the possibility, alongside ample historical context, to illustrate how the exploitation of African American athletes has had far-reaching effects on the communities from which they emerged. ยท

David Leonard is an assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at Washington State University.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company