In 2007, William C. Rhoden—known among journalists as the dean of Black sportswriters—published Forty Million Dollar Slaves, a book that stands as his most important work for exploring the parallels between today’s pro sports leagues and other models of racial-economic exploitation from the plantation and beyond.
Fifteen years later, the book is still read and referenced in discussions of how Black athletes fare under a system that both gives them the ability to out-earn all but the wealthiest Americans yet still subjects them to the ‘ownership’ of wealthy white men who view them as disposable. To anyone’s knowledge, the book has never been brought in an owners meeting of the mostly white, male billionaires who control the four pro sports leagues in the U.S.—until yesterday, when Troy Vincent, a former NFL player and current league executive, reportedly told NFL owners that the league’s draft combine needs an overhaul because it too closely resembles a slave auction.
That’s hyperbolic—Vincent didn’t actually quote Rhoden—but reporting on his comments suggest he’s either read the book or at least been thinking about the same parallels Rhoden articulated back in ‘07. The NFL is a league where labor—the players—are majority white while 31 of the 32 teams they play for have white principal owners. And to get into the league, most of those players go through the combine, an annual event during which they have their minds and bodies surveyed by scouts: intellect, height, weight, strength, speed and body mass are calculated. Athletes are stripped down to only base layers of clothing to allow the scouts to make, uh, close observations.
Weeks later, about 200 of those players will hear their names called after having been selected by NFL teams, partly on the basis of the combine’s evaluations. NFL owners, according to reports, bristled , at the characterization—which I’d be derelict if I didn’t mention was brazen of Vincent, whose paycheck is signed by the men he criticized.
Some of those men include Arthur Blank, the Atlanta Falcons owner who CBS said “took umbrage with the idea that he was…helping to prop up an event that could be considered racist”; Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, most recently seen explaining his appearance in a 60-year-old photo watching segregationists trying to keep Black students out of an all-white high school, reportedly spoke up about either the ‘privilege’ or the ‘opportunity’ to play in the NFL.
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