The rocky road traveled by Black American athletes

By Juan Haines

Professional athletes have always earned higher salaries than the average wage earner. Yet, the lack of African-Americans in sports team ownership is a carefully crafted plan, according to Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete (2006) by William C. Rhoden.

To show athletes are in a slave/master relationship, Rhoden, who is a sports writer for The New York Times and a Peabody Award winner, links a number of historical facts.

Forty Million Dollar Slaves considers how games and sports were acceptable pastimes for slaves, so it was routine for slaves to excel in individual sports, such as running, wrestling and boxing.

“Sports, as well as dance and music, were vehicles through which transcendence and transformation could be achieved, in which slave could be master, the powerless could become powerful,” Rhoden writes.

In American sports teams, players were largely drawn along racial lines. Yet, when Blacks began organizing their own sports teams and created a level of socio-economic independence, the integration of Blacks into baseball, basketball and football had the effect of actually stalling and reversing the gains.

“Integration fixed in place myriad problems: a destructive power dynamic between black talent and white ownership; a chronic psychological burden for black athletes, who constantly had to prove their worth; disconnection of the athlete from his or her community; and the emergence of the apolitical black athlete, who had to be careful what he or she said or stood for, so as not to offend white paymasters. At the same time, it destroyed an autonomous zone of black industry, practically eliminated every black person involved in sports — coaches, owners, trainers, accountants, lawyers, secretaries, and so on — except the precious on-the-field talent,” Forty Million Dollar Slaves concludes.

Rhoden puts forth a clear argument, showing how the socio-economic and political stagnation of Blacks connect to what he terms “The Jockey Syndrome.”

The Jockey Syndrome refers to events that ended African-Americans as the predominant riders in thoroughbred horseracing.

Little known fact:

The first Kentucky Derby winner in 1875 was a Black man named Oliver Lewis; moreover, 13 of the 15 riders in the first Derby were Black.

However, when the earnings from thoroughbred horseracing began to skyrocket, White jockeys, backed by White owners, excluded Blacks from riding by forming the Jockey’s Guild, and overnight there were no more Black jockeys.

This phenomenon was not an isolated incident.

In 1920, Arthur “Rube” Foster created the Negro National League. It was a professional baseball league of Black owners — organized, managed and played by African-Americans.

“It would be a crime for the Negro who has such an abundance of talent in such a progressive age to sit idly by and see his race forever doomed to [be excluded from] America’s greatest and foremost sport,” Foster said, as the reason for creating the league.

When the Negro League faded into the history books, Rhoden wrote, “A black institution was dead, while a white institution grew richer and stronger. This was the result of integration.” The solution, according to Rhoden, is Black ownership.

“At a time when the number of black males attending college is increasing at a slower rate than the number being incarcerated, young black men with stellar athletic ability are still hotly pursued, coddled, and showered with gifts for a promise to attend major colleges and universities,” Rhoden writes.

Forty Million Dollar Slaves is critical of these modern African-American athletes. They have unfettered access to young minds and have more influence than politicians and clergy — “their reach could potentially extend so much wider, and deeper.”

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