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Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete


Renowned "New York Times" columnist Rhoden deconstructs the black athlete in this explosive and absorbing discussion of race, politics, and the ... Show synopsis

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Reviews of Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete

Overall customer rating: 4.000

William Rhoden?s Call for Black Athletic Leaders

by WillB on Jun 14, 2007

Black athletic leadership is the kind of fearless activism in difficult times that William Rhoden charges contemporary black athletes with in Forty Million Dollar Slaves. Unfortunately, it seems that in his ardor to praise past generations of black athletes who have answered the call, Rhoden has suspiciously overlooked the many ways in which contemporary athletes demonstrate the willingness to lead that he so ardently calls for, even though he accomplishes the task of identifying the mechanisms that predicate the apolitical stances of a majority of contemporary black athletes. The book?s subtitle, ?The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete,? indicates that Rhoden is more than a historian, but a nostalgist fully convinced that the black athlete?s historical willingness to advocate for social and economic justice for all black people has diminished--and perhaps disappeared--in recent times. In order to drive home the suggestion that a vacuum of leadership has led to black athletes becoming a ?lost tribe,? he relies heavily upon the metaphor that the relationship between athletes/owners/sport-industrial complex is akin to the relationship between the slave/master/plantation (Prologue). In other words, though contemporary athletes receive lucrative compensation for their labor, they still rely exclusively upon white owners--who buy, sell, and trade them, and ultimately control their fates--and thus are condemned to exercise silence, complicity, and coercion when it comes to issues that impact the entire black community. After all, in the end, ?anyone who exercises power over them is white, and they feel [?] that the owners are taking more value out of them than they are putting in? (xi). Additionally, as in times of slavery, their athletic prowess exists solely at the ?spectacle of white owners? (8). According to Rhoden, as Marvin X points out in ?How to Recover from the Addiction to White Supremacy,? many contemporary professional athletes? ?Desire to possess things upon things for no other reason than greed and selfishness? eradicates their desire to stand up for others who are excluded from the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Controversial, certainly, and hyperbolic, perhaps, but Rhoden carefully chooses the slave/master/plantation metaphor and explicates it deftly throughout the text, relying upon historical examples of athletes who embodied the black struggle for self-determination through their athletic exploits, and profiling modern athletes who most aptly fulfill the slave/master relationship in contemporary times. His censure of Michael Jordan is gripping and wonderfully metaphoric. Jordan, Rhoden claims, rose to global popularity because he was marketed as capable of transcending of race, and Jordan avoided race politics because of the threat to his brand as a player. However, when Jordan aspired to executorial ranks in the NBA and was denied entry, he was spurned after his labor was exploited to revitalize the Washington Wizards? brand (206-209). When even arguably the world?s most well-known athlete is discriminated against because of his race, Rhoden asserts that no athlete is immune to racism, heightening his call for activism and quest for racial justice among contemporary athletes. In the context of riveting narratives about the athletic and social movement exploits of Tom Molineaux (boxer), Jack Johnson (boxer), Isaac Murphy (jockey), Arthur Foster (Negro Leagues entrepreneur), and Jackie Robinson (baseball), whose athletic exploits and pursuant social action inspired social movement, black solidarity, and paved the way for future black successes both in and out of the arena of sport, Jordan?s experience seems all the more divergent. Rhoden deserves high praise for pulling no punches when he accuses contemporary black professional athletes of abdicating their responsibility to their community with ?treasonous vigor? (8). Their stories serve as blueprints for breaking away from the plantation and slave-master, and offer useful metaphors for black independence and entrepreneurship against great odds. Rhoden does show flashes of compassion and even sympathy for the contemporary black athlete?s condition relative to engaging in social activism. He believes that their disconnection from the black community and the reprisal black athletes face from reactionary sports media has fractured the ?common cause? that once united all black athletes when they stand for causes for social justice. He offers an analysis of forces in American professional sport that disconnect black athletes from the black community (the ?Conveyor Belt,? p. 177-78), detailing the process by which they are prepared for professional athletic competition and the ancillary public relations requirements (5). Throughout the process, by which potential professionals are isolated and alienated from their native networks and increasingly cloistered into new networks as they become corporatized entities, they are excised from their communities as they fulfill their professional responsibilities and disconnected from the networks of people, in many cases predominately African-American, who once comprised their ?community? (177). Furthermore, for black professional athletes who do remain connected to the black community in significant ways, Rhoden focuses on the harsh reprisal that they are likely to face at the hands of a largely white, reactionary sports media (209). Rhoden?s accusation that contemporary athletes have failed to advocate social justice (as he claims those of previous generations had done) unravels at the hands of his own thorough historical research and analysis. Rhoden?s charge that contemporary black athletes of great import (think Kobe, LeBron, Donovan, Tiger) have not seized upon their global popularity in order to take up issues of racial justice and equality fails to consider the workings of Gramscian hegemony that dictate their actions. In The Prison Notebooks, Gramsci defines hegemony as ?cultural consent? and ?force? used in a society to create compliance with societal norms defined by the majority. It is easy to see these forces at work as Rhoden carefully explains the mechanisms of white supremacy that have disfranchised and excised black athletes (the ?Jockey Syndrome? p. 61) who challenged racist hegemony and the ?Conveyor Belt? system through which potential athletes develop new cultural values. One wonders how athletes can answer Rhoden?s call against such sobering odds. In fact at times, when reading about the personal turmoil encountered by previous generations? athlete activists, Forty Million ? reads almost as if it were a cautionary tale compelling contemporary black athletes to avoid the political arena and avoid drawing any attention to themselves that could leave them characterized as ungrateful malcontents. After centuries of black athletes who faced the most dire consequences--loss of livelihood and death threats--we have now entered a period where an unspoken code encourages contemporary black athletes to avoid ?rocking the boat? lest they risk losing their lucrative sponsorships and opportunity to compete professionally. It is no wonder that black athletes more often than not choose to avoid hot-button political issues and, as Rhoden puts it, concentrate on ?making those in positions of power feel comfortable with (their) blackness? (178). Given the swiftness and severity with which athletes are vilified for publicly discussing politically sensitive issues, it has become increasingly dangerous for them to do so. And yet in the face of those odds, individuals such as Etan Thomas, John Amaechi, Warrick Dunn, Joe Horn, and Carmelo Anthony refuse to, as Dave Zirin puts it, ?Be like most athletes and just toe the line, drink Coke, wear Nike and tap-dance on cue? . Each has taken up unpopular causes, using their popularity to bring vital media attention to important issues. Etan Thomas has also vehemently c...

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