Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete by William C. Rhoden

I had my composition students read this excellent article by Jemele Hill at The Atlantic, as we discussed issues in higher education and the rhetorical tools that make for good argument. I felt the memorable book title mentioned, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, rang a bell. I was motivated enough to go looking for a copy; I ended up getting it through interlibrary loan (ILL) at the college library, which fit neatly into our library instruction period – I got to show the students how to make the request, and I brought it to class when it arrived, so we could see how far it had traveled (just down the highway from Morgantown’s West Virginia University) and how long I’d get to keep it (sixteen weeks!). After all that, I was interested enough to read it, too.

William C. Rhoden’s deliberately provocative title comes from a racist comment made by a white fan at a Lakers game, and refers to the problematic relationship between Black labor and white profits. There’s a paradox at work here: the highest-paid Black athletes in professional sports pull truly unimaginable sums of money, but they still lack power over their own circumstances in some vital ways, and the owners, coaches, and powers-that-be in sports are still overwhelming white. It might seem counterintuitive to call someone a ‘slave’ who makes tens of millions, but Rhoden has some strong arguments to make about power dynamics. His book is partly a history of Black American athletes since the beginning of commercial sports in this country, and even before that. It is also partly a call to action: Black athletes have contributed for too long to the enrichment of white authority figures.

Because I’ve been trying to teach my students the strategies of argument this semester, I thought of this book in those terms. Rhoden has a strong thesis; we know from the outset his position on the question of Black athletes in the contemporary American sports scene. He offers substantial and substantive evidence, throughout history and in examining several perspectives (athletes, agents, parents, coaches, owners). Some of my students balk at arguments that voice a strong opinion; they have gotten it into their heads somewhere that ‘neutrality’ is desirable, but I argue that neutrality is first of all dishonest, and secondly, how will you ever convince anyone of anything if you are afraid to take a stand? Yes, Rhoden’s stance is clear from the start. And it’s worth noting that, as his audience in this instance, I was prepared to follow him: I was predisposed in his favor. But I think I can still say that his evidence, and the means and organization of his audience, were well-designed.

I learned a lot of history from this book. Major Taylor I knew, of course, but I did not know Isaac Murphy (horse jockey), Moses Fleetwood Walker (baseball), or Jack Johnson (boxer from Galveston). I knew Jackie Robinson, but not Curt Flood or Rube Foster. Althea Gibson and Wilma Rudolf were vaguely familiar at best. A number of individual stories, these and many more, I found fascinating, so involving that I was in danger of heading down a rabbithole until Rhoden brought me back to the larger picture. Also, I learned in this book that the alley-oop originated not in basketball but in football!

Chapters are named for the dilemmas he identifies as running through history: the dilemma of illusion, the dilemma of physical bondage, of exclusion, of inclusion without power, of neutrality, of the double burden (being both Black and female), etc. He coins the term “Jockey Syndrome,” for what happens when those in power change the rules in order “to maintain control in the face of a perceived challenge to white supremacy.” As the term suggests, this began with horse racing. When I read about this concept, I immediately thought about the unspoken ‘rule’ and general resistance against the jump shot, early in basketball history, and the NBA’s official rule against the slam dunk in the 60s and 70s. (Tell me that wasn’t racist.) He comments meaningfully on the “Conveyor Belt” that carries young Black talent from lower-income or at-risk areas through college and into professional sports, all the while impressing upon them that they should feel grateful for the opportunity, and meanwhile capitalizing on their skills. He decries Michael Jordan’s neutrality on social and political issues – race issues – as a lost opportunity. “Black athletes like Jordan have abdicated their responsibility to the community with an apathy that borders on treason.” He criticizes Bob Johnson, founder of BET (later owner of the Charlotte Bobcats), for using race and Black culture to make his billions but failing to deliver much in return.

At the center of the problem he identifies is the relationship of Black Americans to the larger American culture and socioeconomic systems in which they live. It’s vital that he takes this longer-term historical perspective, beginning with slavery and following through Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and whatever we’re going to call this present ugliness we’re living. Had the first Black owner of a major sports team come a generation earlier, Rhoden argues, the community would have celebrated; it would have meant the beginning of substantive change in power structures. But the success of integration, he writes, has led to the disintegration of Black communities and a certain sense of solidarity. What we have in place of a more segregated but more self-sufficient Black community is the Bob Johnson model. For example, the integration of Southern minor-league baseball meant the dissolution of the Negro Leagues. “A pattern was set: A black institution was dead, while a white institution grew richer and stronger. This was the end result of integration.” Johnson’s mentality, “of using backness as a way to get a piece of the pie without necessarily feeling any reciprocal responsibility to sustain black institutions… was the natural outcome of a half-finished mission.” That half-finished mission was integration, perfectly represented by highly-paid but powerless professional athletes. In other words, Rhoden’s argument about Black athletes is about something much larger than sports.

Rhoden has been a sports journalist since I was born, credited with elegantly handling the intersection of race, sports, and social history. This book was proposed in 1996 and published in 2006, and feels a bit dated already, in some of its details; but the essence of the problems he identifies has absolutely not changed. It’s an important argument; these are important conversations to have. Recommended.


Rating: 8 dollars.

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