This entry is cross-posted from the official Race Scholars at Rice Blog
Last week, Race Scholars at Rice held our bi-annual “Dialogue Partners” event, where we discussed William C. Rhoden’s 2006 book 40 Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. This session of Dialogue Partners was unique, as we for the first time had an outside expert join in our discussion. Bomani Jones, a writer and media personality who frequently addresses issues of race and culture in the sporting world, was kind enough to video chat with the group as we addressed Rhoden’s argument and discussed the issues raised in the book.
In the book, Rhoden argues that from the time sports were introduced to plantations in the antebellum South through the present, black athletes have been exploited and denied a place within the power structure of American athletics. Whenever black athletes are perceived to have gained too much power or to pose a threat to white cultural values, the rules are changed to detriment of blacks. In essence, the rules of modern athletics are rigged against black athletes to ensure that they are barred from positions of power.
Much of our discussion focused on the collegiate athletics system, and how it functions to the detriment of black athletes. One participant asked Bomani if he could discuss how college athletics reflects the “plantation” model that Rhoden describes. Bomani argued that in addition to not being paid for their efforts, the playing field remains the only aspect of college athletics that have been integrated. Coaches, administrators, the press, and the fans, all remain largely dominated by whites.
One of the most interesting aspects of the conversation for me, was the idea that perhaps Rhoden adhered to strictly to a black-white binary. Major League Baseball, for instance, utilizes a “conveyor belt” system to cheaply cultivate Latin American talent in a manner largely similar to the way the NFL and NBA lure black players from the inner city, with a similar disregard for the well being of athletes (see, for example, <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/03/baseball-dominican-system-yewri-guillen?page=1"the death of Washington Nationals’ prospect Yewri Guillén)
An aspect of Rhoden’s book that I thought didn’t really get enough attention during our discussion (not that the discussion of athlete exploitation couldn’t have lasted far longer by itself) is the unwillingness of prominent black athletes to speak out about racism and other social issues. While Rhoden may be kinder to historical actors than he is to present-day athletes, I agree with Rhoden that it seems to be a problem that black athletes don’t use their prominent public roles to take stronger stances on issues of social justice.
Nevertheless, the conversation was extremely enlightening for both sports fans and non-sports fans, and was, at least to me, one of the most interesting and successful Dialogue Partners to date. You can find the full video of our discussion on YouTube here: