- Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete
William C. Rhoden’s account of African Americans’ historical plight in Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete examines black athletes’ struggle for power in the twenty-first century. Focusing on the history of cultural and social oppression, he chronicles past injustices and myopic practices to educate African-American athletes about their heritage and to spur them on to future engagement with their communities. Rhoden reconsiders the notion of sports as a clear path to social equality for the black community through “history lessons that . . . illuminate the still-darkened path to real power for the black athlete” (p. 9). Rhoden argues that black athletes lost sight of sport’s purpose, seemingly rising to the highest ranks of the multi-billion dollar sports industry without obtaining significant opportunities for leadership and roles in decision making.
Rhoden analyzes individual athletes, such as Jack Johnson, as symbols of historical pride within the black community. More than a prizefight, Johnson’s defeat of Jim Jefferies in 1910 symbolically undermined myths of black inferiority. Still, Rhoden presents instances in the development of African-American athletes as iconic figures that have been lost. He juxtaposes the passivity of the Jockey Syndrome with the strong, proactive leadership of Negro Leagues founder Arthur “Rube” Foster. Foster’s tireless work on the part of African-American players, owners, and fans made the Negro Leagues a self-contained success. Rhoden emphasizes the Negro Leagues as a model of effective black entrepreneurship and source of community pride. In comparison, he condemns basketball great Michael Jordan’s politico-racial neutrality as failure to inspire the black community. Rhoden argues that this apolitical sports culture failed to inspire and transform the African-American community, limiting the black athlete’s access to true power.
As professional sports were desegregated in the mid twentieth century, spectators, commentators, and other athletes often criticized the play of African-American athletes. This “black style” of play, such as Willis May’s basket catch, was an ostentatious break with the “dignified” and reserved white status quo. Rhoden cites past experiences of oppression, frustration, fear, and anger as the source of blacks’ desire for self-expression: “The essence [End Page 316] of style is connected to something infinitely more powerful than trying to colorfully celebrate a touchdown or slam-dunk a basketball. Painfully and profoundly so” (p. 144).
Rhoden laments the failure of African-American athletes to obtain real power in an industry that profits from their images and creativity. He argues that R.C. Owens’ style in the 1950s and Muhammad Ali’s brash and confident presence altered fans’ experiences. Rhoden asserts that success in the twenty-first century sports industry is predicated upon commercial appeal. When leagues, such as the National Basketball Association, became dominated by a black labor force, the wide-spread adoption of black culture and style became inevitable. Rhoden suggests that the modern African-American athlete capitalized on this exposure by presenting a commercially viable image of edginess and urbanity. He demonstrates that many athletes became myopic after achieving success as image-makers, forgoing true decision making power within the sports industry. Black athletes no longer considered community-focused power and self-determination as appealing as achieving personal wealth and fame. Where Rhoden’s argument fails is he does not offer a viable solution. His arguments are grounded in reality, but he offers no direct course of action to follow. Rhoden might have promoted action to reverse the current trends by appealing to the pride for community and the shift away from the individualistic persona he argues permeates modern African-American male athletes. He misses an opportunity to mobilize the collective voice of African-American athletes that can obtain true power within the sports hierarchy.
Forty Million Dollar Slaves documents the struggle of black athletes to obtain decision making power within the sports industry. According to Rhoden, “As deep and rich as their history has been, black athletes have...