We need an absolute moratorium on referring to professional athletes as slaves and to owners as massas. They are not slaves or massas. When Bryant Gumbel recently called NBA commissioner David Stern “a modern plantation overseer,” it was needlessly inflammatory bombastic hyperbole. Making that analogy is like throwing a verbal grenade but the explosion is based not on the honesty of the allusion but lingering shame about slavery. It’s linguistic fool’s gold because while it may feel empowering or subversive to say, it makes no sense. There are little wisps of images and symbols that can make the analogy feel valid but it’s flimsy, unearned and false because in order for it to live you must ignore so much of the truth.
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Yes, pro sports gives us an almost all-white ownership class that lords over players who, in football, basketball and baseball are predominantly black and Latino. (In the NBA the ownership class is diversifying, albeit at a glacial pace: the NBA now has the second black majority-share owner in its history: Michael Jordan bought Bob Johnson’s piece of the Bobcats. Magic Johnson divested from the Lakers because he’s looking for a chance to become the third. And there’s a growing number of black minority-share owners: Jay-Z has a bit of the Nets, Usher has a percentage of the Cavaliers and Will Smith just bought a piece of the 76ers.) The dynamic of wealthy whites being in charge of physically imposing blacks makes the slave analogy tantalizing for some. Yes, some of the more boorish wealthy owners can evince an obnoxious imperiousness that makes you wonder if they understand the difference between owning players and owning the rights to players. Yes, the imperialist, screaming angry white coach can make you wonder if they realize these are intelligent people and not chattel. (Mercifully, that sort of coach seems to have become a thing of the past.)
But the one thing that destroys the athlete-as-slave analogy is the heaping piles of money they get to play a game they love and choose to play. The term “million-dollar slave” is an oxymoron. Athletes willingly, enthusiastically, enter into the transaction and are remunerated in a manner that puts them in the upper class. Once you’re paid six or seven or eight figures to do something you want to do and you gain the financial power to shape your life and improve the lives of those around you, well, then we are as far away from slave territory as we can get. You can’t remove the financial aspect from the equation: it’s essential. As Method Man says, cash rules everything around us. And from the owner’s side, paying someone a truckload of money, so much that it radically elevates the class that person is in, is the ultimate sign of respect. It’s silly to think these players have no power at a moment when NBA owners and players are negotiating over the future financial state of the game, months after NFL owners and players did the same. Massas and slaves don’t negotiate.
In theory, players lack the workplace autonomy that average American workers have. Most players have little choice in where they work: they get drafted, traded, cut, waived and thus maneuvered like human chess pieces. Only elites get to shape the process and dictate where they’ll go via free agency or by outright demand (see Carmelo Anthony and Eli Manning). Below the elite level, most players get little to no say in where they’ll work but this is not really unlike the experience of the average worker. Sure we don’t get drafted or traded and we have the right to apply to work wherever we like, but in reality the job market is constrictive. In practice most of us don’t have the ability to work wherever we want. We work wherever we can find work and stay there as long as we can, whether or not we like it. Especially now at a time when too many of us can’t find work at all.
Yes, the NFL combine in particular is, for some, evocative of the auction block with its half-naked black bodies being examined and prodded by grim-faced prospective white employers. But that and all the other dynamics and symbols still leave us quite a long way from earning an analogy between the peculiar institution and professional athletics. Ballplayers are treated very well for doing what they do. They travel in private planes, stay in luxury hotels and have unions fighting for their rights. They aren’t transported against their will across oceans or state lines and don’t work inhuman hours and sleep in shacks. Their families aren’t ripped apart. They aren’t beaten. They are lionized by society. In many cases they’re looked at as role models or even gods. In order to see them as slaves most of the story must be left out.
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Sure athletes through history have likened themselves to slaves to make a point, but throughout history lots of athletes have said dumb things. Athletes also occasionally refer to themselves as soldiers and to their games as war. We need a moratorium on this, too. At a time when we are engaged in global warfare and Americans are dying in conflicts on foreign soil, those who play in games and those who cover them should not refer to games where losing has no real consequence to war, where even the victorious army will see some of its people die.