New York Times sports columnist Rhoden explores the history of African-American athletes, decrying the unwillingness of modern players to take the courageous stands that characterized their predecessors.
In many American sports, black faces are by far the most prevalent. This omnipresence and a few outrageous salaries, the author argues, have blinded society to the fact that black athletes remain subservient to white masters on the metaphorical plantation of sports. Beginning with slave-turned-prize-fighter Tom Molineaux in the early 1800s, African-American athletes have struggled to put themselves on equal footing with their white counterparts. Despite the skill and accomplishments of trailblazers like Molineaux and Jack Johnson, a lack of unity led to their exclusion from the sports they once dominated, such as horseracing and cycling, and duped them into supplying “black muscle” to build the business empires of white owners. Black style and flair unquestionably contributed heavily to the growth of sports in America, and Rhoden’s arguments are compelling, as when, for example, he contends that the nonchalant brashness of Willie Mays and others like him was the foundation of the urban image that Madison Avenue once feared but has since co-opted in order to reap an economic windfall. His juxtaposition of stands taken by athletes like Curt Flood, whose sacrifices paved the way for free agency, with the meekness of corporate shills like Michael Jordan, is particularly effective. Rhoden’s argument falters somewhat when he implies that racism, not money, is the motivating factor behind such developments as the globalization of the NBA, and when he fails to acknowledge that blacks are not the only minorities who must contend with prejudice. While it’s understandable that he focuses on the selfish, apolitical attitudes of superstar athletes, the author virtually ignores the contributions of hundreds, if not thousands, of lesser-known black athletes who invest their time, money and effort in strengthening the often poor urban communities from which they came.
Provocative and distressing—just the right combination for beginning an important conversation.