New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden entertained and enlightened the symposium and Horizons of Knowledge attendees with tales of athletes over the past two centuries, putting the athletes into a historical and sociological context to be newly understood by contemporary admirers.
His book Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete is not about exploitation, he noted, but about power. If someone is paying an athlete $20 million, and paying another 15 athletes similarly, what are they making? To put it in perspective, he said, whatever they are paying an athlete is a bargain for them. Athletes may be paid well to be used, but the power remains with the owners. It was with that initial assessment that Rhoden merged the theme of his book with the healing theme of the symposium.
“Start the healing,” said Rhoden, gave him pause to consider that the problems and the solutions are enormous. “just for African Americans, forget the diaspora!” But in athletics, some solutions can be found. Early on, athletes were “just there” paper tigers who didn’t say much. Folks like Jesse Owens could be used by all as symbols. Jackie Robinson was used for integration, his photo showing that a black man could play on a white team, while few wanted to see him in a higher position. Yet the “paper tigers” acted on their principles and performed small acts of resistance.
It was only when Muhammad Ali refused to step forward for an award and then refused to go to the unjust war in Vietnam that the athlete found public voice for active protest and large acts of resistance. During the World War II era, segregation was the spirit and, often, the letter of the law in America, yet black men were sent to fight and die for democracy. Rhoden told of his own father-in-law serving with Joe Lewis during that war.
He also spoke of how the “N-word” was in common usage then and now. “The N-word,” Rhoden said, “was wretched in the 17th century, in the 18th, the 19th, and the 20th centuries, and it is wretched now.” He suggested that the audience try an experiment: “Go one month without saying it. After that, when you hear it, it’ll sound like somebody talking about your mother!”
Athletes used to be merely athletes, living fragile lives under the oversight of white owners and authorities. On plantations, “the enslaved lived moment to moment, week to week, and year to year.” Even in Jackie Robinson's time, life lived under Jim Crow took its toll, so that even athletes like Robinson were old at 50. That has been the African American experience, said Rhoden.
Athletes of principle and conscience began speaking out after Ali’s stand. In the summer Olympics of 1968, at a time when more black athletes than ever were competing in the Olympics, the world’s two top sprinters, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, took such a stand. To many at the time, they were “just kids,” but, said Rhoden, “principle knows no age.” As Ali once said, “Some decades are like a year; some years are like a decade. That’s what 1968 was.”
Start the healing, Rhoden advised, by not ignoring the situation. Do what you can to make life better by having principles and speaking up. Use your power in your industry or field, whatever it is.
There are other athletes who do not speak out and whose principles are not so righteous, Rhoden noted. For instance, at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Michael Jordan, a member of the U.S. basketball “dream team,” which wore Reeboks for the games, chose to put a U.S. flag over the Reebok label on his shoes to maintain his loyalty to Nike. That commercial loyalty has been Jordan's hallmark ever since. “For Jordan,” said Rhoden, ‘it's about the money, and so too for too many others.”
The powerbrokers, he said, fear the awakening of black athletes, who, once roused, “could do anything: have their own teams, build hospitals.” But greed and status keeps them enslaved.
In the 1880s, black horse jockeys enjoyed wealth and fame as athletes until races became more popular and white jockeys competed for the jobs. Black jockeys were phased out. That could happen in the NBA, said Rhoden. “You have to own something,” not just be owned.
The motif of white-run integration, said Rhoden, is to take the best for the already rich institutions and leave the rest. “Wealth and power are hard to fight, but principle and character must take a stand.”