Book Compares Pro Sports to Slavery

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New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden talks about his new book, which explores whether current sports stars are being exploited and whether the athletes are doing enough to help their own communities. Rhoden's book has raised eyebrows with its title: Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete.

ED GORDON, host:

Race in sports has been a controversial topic for years. Some people feel that in spite of the large salaries that pro athletes command, they are little more than hired hands; high-priced slaves to the leagues that pay them. Others feel these multi-millionaires owe a debt to their people and need to be more socially conscious. And then there's the continuing question of racism in sports. New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden has a new book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. In it, he takes a historical look at race in sports and discusses a number of topics, including whether today's stars are doing enough to help their communities.

Mr. WILLIAM RHODEN (Sports Columnist, The New York Times; Author, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete): It really raises that question about social responsibility. And by the way, there are a lot of athletes, you know, brothers doing a lot of good things. You know, Alonzo Mourning, and I mean everybody's got a foundation, but we really need to get back to being a team.

You know, that the problems that are facing our community are much greater than any one individual's ability to solve it. And as you get to this history that I described in the book, you understand that every single victory was attained through a collective movement, whether it was Jackie Robinson or Jesse Owens, there was always a team effort.

What has happened with things becoming so lucrative is that it's become much more of a - and agents and people have kind of convinced guys that, hey, listen, man, you could do this by yourself. You know, you don't need this guy. You know, you don't need this. You know, so you've got all these factions of people doing good things, but they're doing it kind of in isolation.

GORDON: How much of the times of the day, Bill, reflect the athletes of the day? I think back to Jim Brown, Harry Edwards, Bill Russell. Many of the gentlemen who had a socially conscious stance, demeanor, often sometimes saying to owners privately, and sometimes publicly, we're looking for this if you want us out there on Sunday or Saturday or Friday. We don't see that now in the same way, but one might say that just the world today, America today, is not as proactive as it used to be.

Mr. RHODEN: The problem is that the issues are not as black and white. You know, in 1947, it was clear what the issue was. Black guys couldn't play baseball, black guys couldn't major league baseball, blacks couldn't play major league football. You know, in the ‘50s, you know, blacks were getting lynched in Mississippi and couldn't vote. The issues were very, very tangible. There weren't a lot of black athletes, so there was a different type of push.

I think now, Ed, as with a lot of other things, things have become much more complex, not quite as visible. But I think if you're an athlete and you kind of look around and you look at, number one, how much power do we have? You know, collectively, we have a lot of power. We could do things.

You know, you don't really even have to act in opposition to, you know, racism anymore. For most of our history, it's always been reacting, reacting to racism, and we've been so used to reacting and being counter-punchers. You know, what's the worst thing you could do to a counter-puncher? The worst thing you can do to a counter-puncher is, you know, is make him become the aggressor, and he's out of his element.

I think that's where athletes are now, in that they're in a position for the first time, I think, ever, to have the resources and the global acclaim to actually begin to build and to create and not to react. And I think that's very difficult without a mentor, an older person, a wise man or woman, to give you the kind of plan to say, okay, this is a strategy in the 21st century.

GORDON: How much is money the rule of the day. You have a great quote, great in the sense that it's interesting, from Grant Hill. We should note that Grant Hill's father, Calvin Hill played in the NFL. His mom, a lawyer. Here is a young man who came from means, unlike many of the athletes we see today. One of the quotes you have when talking about athletes getting involved in fighting and being socially conscious, he talks about when you're making “$200,000 every two weeks, it's hard to get angry about much of anything." Put that in context, and talk to me about how that speaks to, again, the criticism that we've seen cast toward Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and many others.

Mr. RHODEN: Grant was one of my first interviews, and he was actually saying that in the context of being frustrated that, you know, because his father was a history major and historian, that kind of stuff, and you know, Grant knows about the struggle and that kind of stuff, and he knows the irony of guys having this kind of money and no consciousness.

And it takes a heck of a person to see through that money and understand that there are large numbers of your people who are really suffering, who are really feeling the cold. And interestingly, if you look at the quote after it, Larry Johnson said that, you know - I told Larry Johnson what Grant had said. He said, you know what? That's exactly what's wrong with black people now. You know what happened to the struggle? Black people got jobs."

GORDON: And finally, the title of the book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, we should note, came from, I understand, you mentioned Larry Johnson, former NBA forward all-star with the New York Knicks and a couple of other teams before that, this came from him being heckled by a fan, saying that he was nothing more, in the end, than a $40 million slave. And so, at the end, maybe this is what all of these guys should remember. Often, that is still how they're seen.

Mr. RHODEN: You know, what you'll see also in the book, there were a lot of slaves, particularly jockeys and trainers, who made a lot of money. One guy, Charles Stewart, was so - he made so much money training horses and that kind of stuff that he had to have an agent, and we're talking about like in the early 1800s. But the fact remains that he was still a slave. There were a lot of jockeys who were making a lot of money, and they'd finish a race, and they found out they had been sold to another plantation, but, you know, they made a lot of money.

So clearly the metaphor of slavery and the plantation is troubling in this country just because of our history. But yeah, I think, Ed, you're absolutely right, is that like Curt Flood said, you know, he was kind of like a sharecropper, you know. When you don't own it, when you don't own the enterprise and you could be kind of treated like chattel, that's essentially what you are.

GORDON: And again for people that don't know, either too young or not big sports fans, Curt Flood is the man who really put his career on the line and brought about free agency in the sense of believing that you ought to have some sense of guidance in your own career and that you shouldn't be owned lock, stock, and barrel by that owner and that team forever.

The book is Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. The author is William C. Rhoden. And always good to have you with us, Bill. Appreciate it.

Mr. RHODEN: Ed, thanks a lot. It's always a pleasure.

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