Look, I know you’re saying to yourself, shoot, give me 40 mil or some such and I’ll do exactly as I’m told! There’s even a famous movie on this theme — what compromises, moral or otherwise, would you make for a million dollars — Indecent Proposal.

Yet William C. Rhoden questions whether black athletes are paying too high a price and whether or not there is a cost to society when the voices of choices of black athletes are controlled by a largely white power structure.

I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve been following the reviews on radio, in the blogs (like here and here) and in the papers. I sense that this is the kind of book that probes a sensitive and controversial place in American society — a conversation we may be hearing more about. After all, sport figures are heroes to so many of every color, age and income and leading sports figures have increasingly come in a certain shade of brown that’s hard not to notice.

Athletes appear to lead privileged, envied lives. They are imitated and worshiped. To become a pro athlete is the dream of many young men and to a lesser extent women.

Thus the title of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves” sounds extreme and hyperbolic at first blush. Anyone who has read any given slave narrative and its description of constant back-breaking labor, inadequate clothing and shelter, the injustice of unfair laws and no choices and just generally being hungry all the time has to say to Rhoden — brother, please. Yet doesn’t it seem strange that almost no African-American pro athletes took strong, significant public positions after Katrina? Where are the athletes who have raised questions about the Iraq War?

The case of Katrina seems particularly bizarre given that this was an enormous humanitarian disaster that continues to have political implications. Few African-Americans watching the coverage were unaffected emotionally, even viscerally. So many black people knew someone personally who was affected in some way –either directly or indirectly supporting family members. In my case, a co-worker raised money and collected goods to send to a cousin who had taken in 40 of her kin who had been displaced.

Yet, not a peep from some of our most visible potential leaders, at least some of whom had to have been impacted???

One blogger suggests that it is because so many young black man are raised by single mothers and thus think like women. I don’t understand his point exactly — the civil rights movement was always highly dependent on women working hard in the background and sometimes getting the acknowledgement out front like Rosa Parks or Dorothy. It’s an assertion that is insulting to both black men and black women.

I tend to agree with Rhoden and point to the experience of John Carlos and Tommie Smith who raised their black-gloved fists during the playing of the U.S. national anthem on accepting gold and silver medals at the 1968 Olympics. Their gesture was in protest to the institutionalized discrimination faced by fellow African-Americans. It is little known that their white Australian counterpart Peter Norman helped to plan and even joined them in protest on the stand. Carlos and Smith were punished by the IOC while Norman was not. Smith and Carlos received death threats. Norman did not. Fear of this backlash, of discipline from sports officials, losing lucrative endorsements and fan popularity has to be part of the reluctance. While Carlos and Smith are seen as heroes today, many remember that they struggled in the first few years post-1968 against negative public opinion for their actions.

I’m looking forward to reading Forty Million Dollar Slaves so that I can better understand what appears otherwise as cowardice and apathy among stars…Let me know what you think if you read it.

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