Forty Million Dollar Slaves by William C. Rhoden tells the history of Black athletes navigating the racist efforts to limit their participation in sports. Largely focused on athletes in America, the book begins in the 1700s and continues into the 2000s. Through the stories of various athletes, Rhoden presents his case for how organized Black athleticism as a means of control was first cultivated on plantations and shows how that mentality continues into the present.
Forty Million Dollar Slaves makes three major points, the first two of which there is no denying.
- Black athletes’ ability to thrive and dominate in situations where physical ability is a determining and equalizing factor is indicative of what Black people at large might be able to achieve in other industries and areas of society with a level playing field and equal access to resources.
- Black athletes have been a significant physical presence in sports such as basketball, football, and baseball but with little actual authority or ownership in these professional leagues.
- The journey of Black athletes to integrate major sports was difficult but resulted in a culture of them representing Black masses united by a shared experience. The irony is that in exchange for being allowed to play in the majors, Black athletes have had to sever ties to the Black community and become a part of the mainstream. And as part of this trade-off, they had to stop speaking out about race and social issues to remain non-threatening and palatable to their general fans.
The book’s title is coined from a phrase that was shouted at the basketball player Larry Johnson during a game. Johnson had previously made comments about how Black athletes were treated and the industry’s efforts to get the group to see themselves as separate from the larger Black community. His lamentations were dismissed as merely sour grapes. Griping form a highly paid athlete who should have been grateful for the opportunities given to him.
In actuality, his ability to look at his success and see how lucky he’d been to find sports and use it as a way out of poverty did not result in him seeing himself as special or the people in his old neighborhood as being the problem. Instead, he recognized the overall unfairness of being locked into poverty and having your odds of escape be dependent on catching a lucky break.
In some ways, Forty Million Dollar Slaves is an incredibly astute metaphor for the impact of integration on the broader Black community. But the title struck me as inappropriate because regardless of what current professional athletes might endure, in no way possible is their experience anything like what our ancestors had to deal with. There are levels to this. I’m sure the title was selected because it’s provocative and would generate attention. But it detracts from the book’s potential impact because the flawed comparison collapses a large part of the book’s thesis.
I get that the physical prowess of athletes is exploited for the financial gain of wealthy individuals and large organizations. And they are put on a development track geared towards making them better athletes while at the same time socially moving them out of their community and fully into the sports industry. But, I dislike the lazy shorthand of using the term “slave” to haphazardly describe any individual who faces difficulties or unfairness. Being paid millions of dollars in exchange for the use of your body while having your mind and larger aspirations ignored because of your race is certainly unfair.
But, it can’t begin to compare to having to perform backbreaking labor, being bought and sold like property, having your family torn apart, and living under the ever-present threat of violence from which you can seek no protection. And all of this takes place while being considered three-fifths of a human and receiving no payment for your troubles. Having a choice in whether or not you participate in a sport negates comparisons to being a slave.
The title Forty Million Dollar Slaves would have been more relevant if the book focused on college athletes who risk their bodies but do not get paid despite generating large amounts of revenue for their colleges and sports-related companies. Or even to a lesser degree, the countless number of professional athletes who make millions during their careers only to wind up relatively broke.
The practice of using Black bodies to produce labor from which White institutions generate wealth has existed at this point for several hundred years. But one might assume that following emancipation and certainly integration, Black athletes would be able to not only profit from their physical labor but also occupy positions of authority in the sports leagues within which they play. Rhoden is at his strongest when diving into examples aimed at showing that this is not the case.
Forty Million Dollar Slaves shows a repetitive cycle that occurs throughout history across various sports. One of the book’s strong points is when it dives into specific stories showing how the cycle took place in horse racing, bicycle racing, boxing, etc. A new sport would emerge or an existing sport would become more formally organized. Black athletes would begin participating in the sport or league. And as the popularity of the sport grew it would begin to offer bigger paydays resulting in more athletic hopefuls and increased competition. Black athletes would be viewed as a threat when they began to become more wealthy, prominent, and/or dominant. The governing bodies would then either prevent Black athletes from competing outright or would bend the rules to give White athletes a competitive advantage.
On the flip side, we also see the cycle of sports being integrated. Black athletes would be eliminated from a sport or mainstream league. The league would continue to exist but lose some popularity and excitement because part of the audience would leave with the Black athletes and the remaining participants would be fairly homogenous. Black entrepreneurs seized the opportunity to build teams and leagues from the now available Black talent. But, eventually, team owners and managers in the mainstream leagues would become aware of what had been built with Black talent and aspire to add it to their rosters. There would then be another push to integrate Black athletes back into the leagues while at the same time wrestling control and ownership from Black owners, coaches, and managers.
Yet in either case, the examples of transition phases during the integration of sports disprove part of the book’s thesis. There’s an obvious divide between Black players and team owners/coaches regardless of the race of the coach or owner. Black coaches and owners are shown as being just as willing to use Black athletes for their physical abilities. But, with the difference being their willingness to develop and educate Black athletes without cutting them off from Black social concerns.
Rhoden repeatedly states that Black athletes are now highly paid slaves because they don’t have authority and don’t use their platform to speak out against racial injustice. But this is not a new or recent phenomenon as athletes are shown to operate in this manner throughout the book regardless of whether or not they are playing on mainstream teams.
The examples of the Negro Leagues and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) losing Black players to White leagues explains that they took for granted what turned out to be their temporary monopoly on Black talent. Granted, this wasn’t necessarily as nefarious as it might sound. The reality was that Black colleges and team owners didn’t have the same relationships as their White counterparts.
Black team owners often didn’t own their stadiums and experienced difficulty in establishing revenue streams. HBCUs for a variety of reasons didn’t offer training facilities or media exposure on par with White schools. As a result, the major and mainstream leagues remained more lucrative aspirations for Black athletes. When the opportunity came to play in such leagues it would likely be more financially rewarding and offer more resources. Thus, given the chance to play in the mainstream leagues, Black athletes seized it.
Black athletes were in the position of having to choose between being merely part of the crew on a huge ship or captain of a small boat. Is it better to retain ownership by remaining independent and managing your own team or league that plays to smaller audiences? Or to give up control and freedom to make decisions in exchange for more money and larger audiences?
Some of the team and league owners thought their teams might be integrated as a whole into the mainstream leagues. Instead, the star players were identified and signed into the newly integrated leagues as individuals. It’s eye-opening to see how this method of integration allowed the mainstream leagues to launch the practice of grabbing Black bodies while leaving the minds behind. Black coaches and team owners had essentially scouted, recruited, and trained Black athletes only to have their investments spirited away with the arrival of integration.
Overall, I found Forty Million Dollar Slaves to be informative and agreed with most of the points that it tried to prove. But it contradicted itself on one of its major points. Rhoden posits that Black athletes are physical symbols of what Black people could accomplish in other areas of society if the playing fields were level. He also believes that Black athletes bear some responsibility to the Black community. It’s obvious that Rhoden believes this and he believes that Black athletes are slaves because they are prevented from reaching their full potential in this regard by the White sports establishment.
Some Black athletes such as Larry Johnson might lament this or like Muhammad Ali push back against these ploys. The author himself stated that some of these past athletes didn’t identify with the black community and saw themselves as above other black people. How then does the theory come about that this is a relatively recent development that occurred as a result of integration?
Jack Johnson fought the “Great White Hope” but nothing is said of him advocating for Black people. I’m not saying that he didn’t, because honestly, I don’t know. It seems like he was a great boxer who lived lavishly, dated White women (which was scandalous at the time), and was pursued by the government. In essence, he lived life on his terms but I didn’t see examples of him consciously fighting on the behalf of Black people.
Older Black athletes such as Issac (Burns) Murphy, Moses Fleetwood Walker, and Marshall “Major” Taylor are also profiled. They straddled that early period during which Black athletes were initially allowed to participate in mainstream sports before being forced out. Some of these athletes were certainly gifted but did little else for the Black community beyond living relatively lavishly for Black people during their respective time periods. In some cases, the athletes are shown to be dismayed at experiencing discrimination not because it’s wrong but because “they’re not like other Black people”.
Who is to say that any of these men would have been activists once integration was in effect if they too were merely fighting for acceptance into mainstream sports?
I get Rhonden’s idea of Black athletes being viewed with pride as the Black community’s “Great Black Hopes”. But without athletes taking it upon themselves to step into that role, is it reasonable for the Black community to expect this kind of ownership over Black athletes? And is this an expectation of the Black community or just Rhoden. Now, I am certainly very pro-Black and for Black empowerment. But in general, I’m not very impressed by Black athletes or entertainers. It’s not that I don’t like them but I don’t believe in putting them (or anyone else) on pedestals. So I don’t understand the expectation of Black athletes advocating or sacrificing on behalf of the Black community when these expectations are not also placed on less prominent everyday Black folks regardless of their profession or station in life.
I do agree that a trade-off occurred when Black people began to be allowed into formerly all-White industries and organizations. But, Black people as a whole lost a good deal of community solidarity and self-sufficiency as a result of integration. A lack of feeling responsible to the Black community is not solely endemic to Black athletes.
In exchange for access to schools with more resources and better-paying jobs, regular Black people are also expected to not rock the boat. As with sports, the institutions controlled the amount and types of positions that would be filled by Black people. Low levels of Black ownership and people in management positions also exist in many other industries. Though admittedly, unlike sports, Black people may not be a sizeable amount of the workforce.
Don’t get me wrong, Forty Million Dollar Slaves is a good book but it requires overlooking some flawed arguments. From reading the book, I got the sense that William C. Rhoden derived a lot of personal pride from Black athletes. They had an impact on him as a person, his view of the world, and ultimately his career. There’s nothing wrong with liking sports or athletes. But there’s some obvious bias here in discussing people he thinks should be heroes because of their profession rather than their deeds.
I also don’t understand being surprised at the lack of Black ownership and management in sports. Imagine that you’re treated badly and eventually kicked out of a league because of your race. You go off and start or play in another league largely comprised of people of your race. Eventually, the old league comes to realize your talent and invites you back to play. There are some terms and conditions but you’re offered a salary and a spot on a team. But why would you expect the old league to willingly offer you a seat at the table? How often do people just willingly give up power or money? Especially if they’ve shown in the past just how little they care for or value you? Would you be surprised at them not also including an invitation for you to coach, manage, or own a team?
I get viewing Bob Johnson as being problematic because of some of the content aired on the channel that he founded and comments he’s made. But, I didn’t think Rhoden’s argument against Johnson selling his company to Viacom made much sense. He seemed to believe that Johnson should have taken less money and sold to another Black company seeing the difference as somehow giving back to the Black community. I agree with supporting Black-owned companies but do not agree with the idea of holding Black-owned companies to unreasonable expectations that are not also applied to companies owned by members of other races or ethnic groups. Just think of the numerous companies with little to no Black people in management but they’re not disparaged or boycotted.
After Michael Jordan left the Bulls for the second time, I stopped watching basketball and lost track of what was going on in the industry. I knew that he’d returned to the Wizards but never watched a game. It was interesting to learn about how his brand was developed early in his career. But I was surprised to learn the details of his final retirement. Making that story the foundation of Forty Million Dollar Slaves and using it to anchor the other examples of Black athletes being shut out of or tightly controlled in various sports would have likely resulted in a nearly perfect book.
It should be noted that Rhoden does attempt to also address how the machinations of the sports industry have also affected Black women. He rightfully points out that as with the wider Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements, the concerns particular to Black women have been overlooked if not outright ignored. But, this is all pretty much limited to one chapter and just one thorough example. While stating that Black women are often an afterthought in the sports world, he also manages to make them seem an afterthought here. Despite the trove of nonsense that has been directed towards the Williams Sisters, I was surprised to not see their story covered.
Forty Million Dollar Slaves is certainly a book about the various sports industries and athletes. But you shouldn’t be put off by the idea of reading it because you are not a sports fan. To be clear, I was a huge sports fan as a kid, especially a fan of Michael Jordan and the Bulls, so reading about the behind-the-scenes stories from that time was interesting and somewhat nostalgic. But I have refused to watch basketball since Jordan retired from the Bulls and it’s been a few years since I’ve watched a non-Super Bowl football game.
Yet I still found Forty Million Dollar Slaves to be incredibly interesting as the stories told focus less on sports trivia and more on the strategies to get Black athletes into leagues or to keep them out. Granted some specific games and matchups are discussed in detail but they’re sprinkled throughout the book and told within the wider context of the sports figures’ lives.
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