When New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden’s provocative Forty Million Dollar Slaves arrived on bookshelves in 2006, it was met with the requisite controversy one might expect with using a slave analogy to explain the position of many today’s highly paid black athletes. Even those who found Rhoden’s argument compelling still found the analogy an ill fit.
Now that the analogy has been resurrected in the public sphere in light of the ongoing National Basketball Association (NBA) lockout, the same arguments (both for and against the analogy) have returned–though this time from seemingly unlikely sources. On an episode of HBO’s Real Sports, host Bryant Gumbel stated that NBA commissioner David Stern “has always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were his boys. It’s part of Stern’s M.O., like his past self-serving edicts on dress code and the questioning of officials. His moves were intended to do little more than show how he’s the one keeping the hired hands in their place.” Given Gumbel’s generally congenial media persona (one that has brought him ridicule for years), such a bold declaration obviously caught national attention and frequent denouncement. Perhaps the most pronounced denouncement of the athlete-as-slave assertion has come from a seemingly unlikely source, cultural critic and author of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness, Toure’. In his Time article “For the Love of God, Stop Calling Pro Athletes Slaves,” Toure’ argues that “the one thing that destroys the athlete-as-slave analogy is the heaping piles of money they get to play a game they love.” Furthermore, Toure’ convincingly writes, “They aren’t transported against their will across oceans or state lines and don’t work inhuman hours and sleep in shacks. Their families aren’t ripped apart. They aren’t beaten. They are lionized by society. In many cases they’re looked at as role models or even gods. In order to see them as slaves most of the story must be left out.”
In fairness to those who use the analogy, I believe that few would argue that NBA players are literally slaves; many–such as David J. Leonard–use the analogy to point to the dramatic disparities in power athletes have within the organization. Though he opposes the analogy, Toure’ himself concedes that it has a measure of validity, and articles such as Vishnu Parasuraman’s “The NBA Lockout: Why the Players Will Cave” confirms these disparities. Nonetheless, I’m inclined to agree with Toure’s overall point that the analogy is inappropriate–though not necessarily because of the reasons Toure’ provides.
A more fitting analogy perhaps is that today’s athletes–particularly those in the today’s NBA–are new freedmen. With the NBA at a total impasse and the likelihood of 2011-2012 season fading rapidly, today’s NBA player is theoretically free to ply his trade anywhere he likes. He is no longer bound to the organization, and many–notably All-Star point guard Deron Williams, who is currently playing in Turkey–have gone or are threatening to head overseas to play. Others, most notably New York Knicks power forward Amare Stoudemire, have floated the possibility of a league run by the players. However, both options leave players in the same precarious positions. Signing with an overseas league leaves players in virtually the same situation they have in the NBA–this time minus the relatively strong union. The latter option–improbable though not impossible–would require superstars to abandon their current NBA salaries (leaving hundreds of millions on the table) and would likely leave the vast majority of the 450-or so players having to seek employment outside of basketball–amongst other obstacles (establishing rules, finding venues, locating financing, etc.). Furthermore, considering that there are some indications that fans side with the owners and that there has been a great deal of opposition towards players fostered by the media (see David J. Leonard’s piece above), the players would be developing a new league in particularly hostile environment. Nonetheless, Toure’s assertion that these players have more agency than actual slaves certainly rings true.
That said, today’s NBA player’s situation is not wholly unlike that of the post-Civil War freedman. Free of literal shackles, the former slave is free to fend for himself now that he is no longer bound to the plantation. While he was free to go anywhere he chose, he faced the choice of living in a volatile South or a disdainful North that merited him no semblance of equality. Some fled North and carved something out of nothing; many stayed behind as sharecroppers.
To drive the analogy further, one must also consider the position in which league owners find themselves, which is not unlike that of the former slaveowner. With his hold on the slave relinquished, the slaveowner still held the same need for labor. With his primary source of labor now having a semblance of independence, the plantation owner had to negotiate labor costs. Theoretically, he could look elsewhere for labor, but of course the former slave was best suited for the work. This is not unlike today’s NBA, a league in which its primarily black talent is best suited for the job and without whom it is likely to fail or at least face a great deal of hardship in returning to prominence (as did the National Hockey League after its 2004 lockout).
Consider the following quote regarding sharecropping from Alan Conway’s controversial The Reconstruction of Georgia (1966): “[S]harecropping was to a degree the least of all evils, a yoke of compromise which chafed both parties but strangled neither. The owner was able to retain a fair amount of supervision of his land and the Negro cropper took his half loaf of independence as better than none at all” (116). Sadly, the same easily could be paraphrased and applied to today’s NBA lockout.
(Image taken from BlackPast.org.)