$40 Million and Two Movies

fortymillion_cover.jpgLately, I have been putting together a syllabus for a course I want to teach on sports and theology, religion, spirituality, ethics…. I have not figured out an appropriate title just yet, but the essence of it will speak to the reality of sports as a field ripe for the discussion of justice, race, gender, etc. Recent scandals in all levels of sport will provide interesting case studies, and the sports sections of both cable television and newspapers will provide primary source material. Furthermore, several books and films deal with these issues as well. One book that will be required reading is William C. Rhoden‘s $40 Million Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. Two films, Hoop Dreams and Blue Chips, serve as illustrations of this controversial text.

In his book, Rhoden outlines the history of African-American involvement in sports here in the United States from the early days of horseracing and boxing all the way to the owner’s box in professional sports. Far from being a level playing field, the African-American athletic experience has been rife with racism, sexism, and all sorts of injustices, just like the African-American experience in general. As sub-headings for each chapter, Rhodes lists a particular dilemma that describes a historical era but that also still confronts African-American athletes today. His eleven dilemmas are

  • Illusion
  • Physical Bondage
  • Exclusion
  • Myopia
  • Inclusion Without Power
  • Appropriation
  • Alienation
  • Neutrality
  • The Double Burden (faced by African-American women athletes)
  • Wealth Without Control
  • Ownership

Rhoden’s book is a well-researched text that draws from his experience as a sports journalist and his encounters with many of the athletes about whom he writes. He outlines a scandalous, but I believe ultimately true, analogy. To sum up, in part, Rhoden’s argument, he sees the African-American experience of sports, especially professional sports today, as an extension of the plantation experience. Quite simply put, African-American athletes (and Rhoden argues all athletes to an extent) serve as high-priced slaves for a largely white ownership. The wealth and fame that African-American athletes enjoy betrays several harsh realities, chief among these are Rhoden’s observations of inclusion without power and wealth without control. While the African-American sports experience has seen great strides since the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Rhoden argues that all is not well. For the most part, African-American athletes are used up by a white system for their “muscle” and simply discarded when their value diminishes, offering little hope for future work on the sidelines or in the front office. The statistics that Rhoden reports on African-American coaches, athletic directors, general managers, or owners in collegiate or professional sports are embarrassingly, appalingly one-sided. There can be no doubt that if an African-American athlete is getting rich, a white owner is getting even richer.

For all their fame and wealth, African-American athletes have no power, no true control over the system that exploits their efforts. Moreover, this system which operates even in junior high and high school (what Rhoden calls the Conveyor Belt) draws African-American athletes away from the larger African-American community and all its struggles. Thus, these athletes almost exist in a social limbo, detatched from the black community but not fully a part of the professional community which they temporarily inhabit. Moreover, the system that throws millions of dollars at these athletes, threatens to take it all away if they do exhibit a social conscious and speak up for their community or any injustice for that matter. (Ocurring after the publication of Rhoden’s text, we can recall LeBron James pitifully sidestepping involvement with his teammates’ protest of the 2008 Olympics being held in China given its repeated human rights violations. James has a shoe contract with Nike. Nike produces its shoes in China.)

These are just a few of the arguments from Rhoden’s book. Yet it is not without a few faults itself. As a friend pointed out to me, Rhoden virtually ignores the contemporary boxing scene in which the promoters, managers, trainers, and boxers are mostly African-American. Instead, Rhoden focuses on boxing in the 1800’s and early 1900’s when Jack Johnson and Tom Molineaux faced vehement racism. While Rhoden’s discussion of Michael Jordan’s exclusion from control of the Washington Wizards signals a grave injustice, he does not delve into Jordan’s extreme gambling habits and how that may or may not have affected the Wizards’ decision to go in a different direction.

chips-thumb.jpgFinally, to see Rhoden’s arguments at work, we can turn to two films, Hoop Dreams and Blue Chips. Hoop Dreams is a documentary that focuses on two inner-city high school students with promising basketball talent yet plagued by financial hardships and broken homes. Nevertheless, the conveyor belt is at work even here as rules are bent and favors granted. Blue Chips focuses on the collegiate side of the system and the increasing pressure on college coaches to get the best athletes at any cost. Here, we see athletes elevated above their peers and detatched from any real sense of community apart from their team.