Athletes Black and Blind

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, February 4, 2007

Are black athletes wasting their considerable wealth?

Sportswriter William C. Rhoden thinks so.

Considering that February is Black History Month, I thought it was a perfect time to discuss whether black athletes are failing to use their money and influence to significantly tackle the social ills -- such as poverty and unemployment -- that are still plaguing the black community.

Rhoden adds a powerful voice to this debate. It's why I've chosen his book "Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete" (Crown, $23.95) for the February Color of Money Book Club.

Rhoden's book raises provocative questions about wealth and responsibility. If wealthy black athletes donate money to charity, are they obligated to donate their personal time as well? If they donate their time, are they obligated to become spokesmen for a political or social cause as well? How much is enough? And who decides? Such questions are particularly important to ask of those among us who have been blessed with considerable economic resources.

Rhoden, who is African American, has been a sportswriter for the New York Times since 1983. He's written the "Sports of the Times" column for more than a decade. He's been up close and personal with the best-paid black athletes in this country. In his new book, Rhoden gives a much needed slap-down to wealthy, spoiled and socially unconscious African American professional sports figures.

Rhoden acknowledges that calling millionaire athletes slaves would stir up controversy. Even so, he says he uses that term because these players' professional lives are controlled by white team owners.

"To the general public, athletes have achieved the Promised Land," he writes. "The inference never far from the surface is that they should be grateful -- more grateful than their white peers -- for the money they make."

Rhoden's point is timely, considering all the media attention on the fact that for the first time two black men are head coaches in the Super Bowl. However, what I find fascinating about this book is that Rhoden doesn't just criticize white sports-team owners. He spends far more time criticizing black athletes for not being more vocal about social issues important to the community.

Perhaps it's not fair to swipe at them without a full analysis of all their personal charitable contributions, but I was nodding in agreement at Rhoden's assessment of the modern black athlete.

We shouldn't strive to be like Mike, according to Rhoden. Because what exactly has Michael Jordan stood up for off the basketball court?

Well, little more than making money and hawking products, Rhoden argues. Jordan has again and again chosen commercialism over important community and political advocacy, he says.

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