|Author argues that money does not necessarily translate to power
November 17, 2009
In his most recent book, “Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete,” long-time sportswriter for The New York Times, William Rhoden explores the notion that although many professional black athletes enjoy fame and fortune, they do not have legitimate power. While professional black athletes command exorbitant salaries and secure multi-million dollar endorsement deals, Rhoden argues that they have done little with their money and status to secure real power (translatable to the attainment of leadership positions whereby one can affect genuine social change and effectively shift the balance of power).
Rhoden takes his readers on a historical journey through the 1800’s when athletically talented black slaves served their white masters’ interests by competing against one another in sporting contests, through the integration of black athletes into professional sports leagues. It is at this juncture that Rhoden points out the importance of legendary athletes’ social accomplishments, mentioning athletic-greats such as Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Althea Gibson, Jesse Owens and Arthur Ashe. Finally, Rhoden brings his readers up to the present-day focusing on sports icons such as Michael Jordan and LeBron James (noting that these athletes, while making millions of dollars, have done little to shift the balance of power as it pertains to the notion of “white wealth-black labor”).
Rhoden poignantly argues that the evolution of the black athlete has consisted of a journey from literal plantations to figurative ones (professional leagues and collegiate sports programs). Consider the results of the 2009 NBA Racial & Gender Report Card (commissioned by The Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport, directed by Richard Lapchick). Results revealed that while 82% of the NBA is comprised of people of color, there is only one African-American team owner (Robert Johnson of the Charlotte Bobcats). What’s more, Robert Johnson is the only African-American majority owner in all of men’s professional sport.
Next, consider Michael Jordan (arguably the greatest basketball to ever play the game). Thus far, Jordan has tried unsuccessfully to buy the Milwaukee Bucks and was removed in his quest to retain the position of “team president” for the Washington Wizards. When Jordan joined the Wizards in 2000, the franchise had reportedly lost $40 million the year prior, but with Jordan on the team the Wizards sold out all their home games and profited $30 million.
In 2004, Forbes ranked Michael Jordan as the seventh most powerful celebrity in the U.S. At that time, Jordan was making about $35 million/year, while Nike’s Jordan brand was generating over $500 million in revenue. Rhoden points out that Jordan was a “marketing maven who never capitalized on his potential to mobilize African American athletes…instead he chose “public neutrality” on all political, social and/or racial issues (p. 196). Reflecting on Jordan’s career, Rhoden stated: “The essence of Jordan’s legacy is what he accomplished; the tragedy is what he could have done” (p. 196).
When asked how he came up with the title for his book, Rhoden replied that it came from a remark made by a white spectator attending a NBA game. The Lakers were playing the New York Knicks, when the L.A. fan shouted at former New York Knick player, Larry Johnson, “Hey Johnson, you’re nothing but a $40 million slave”. Indeed, Marx insightfully noted that in order to maintain their control, owners tend to pacify their workers. Forty million dollars has proven to be quite an effective pacifier. Has it not?
This is the opinion of Kadie Otto, Ph. D., associate professor and program director of sport management in the College of Business at Western Carolina University. Her research interests include the commercialization of, and unethical conduct in, college athletics as well as the issue of athletes and social power. For previously reviewed books, visit us at our website at www.wcu.edu/cob/.
Title: “Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete”
Author: William C. Rhoden
Reading time: 6-7 hours
Reading rating: 9 (1=very difficult; 10-very easy)
Overall rating: 4 (1-average; 4-outstanding)