Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete

Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete

by William C. Rhoden


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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “An explosive and absorbing discussion of race, politics, and the history of American sports.”—Ebony
From Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe, African American athletes have been at the center of modern culture, their on-the-field heroics admired and stratospheric earnings envied. But for all their money, fame, and achievement, says New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden, black athletes still find themselves on the periphery of true power in the multibillion-dollar industry their talent built.

Provocative and controversial, Rhoden’s $40 Million Slaves weaves a compelling narrative of black athletes in the United States, from the plantation to their beginnings in nineteenth-century boxing rings to the history-making accomplishments of notable figures such as Jesse Owens, Althea Gibson, and Willie Mays. Rhoden reveals that black athletes’ “evolution” has merely been a journey from literal plantationswhere sports were introduced as diversions to quell revolutionary stirringsto today’s figurative ones, in the form of collegiate and professional sports programs. He details the “conveyor belt” that brings kids from inner cities and small towns to big-time programs, where they’re cut off from their roots and exploited by team owners, sports agents, and the media. He also sets his sights on athletes like Michael Jordan, who he says have abdicated their responsibility to the community with an apathy that borders on treason.

The power black athletes have today is as limited as when masters forced their slaves to race and fight. The primary difference is, today’s shackles are invisible.

Praise for Forty Million Dollar Slaves
“A provocative, passionate, important, and disturbing book.”The New York Times Book Review
“Brilliant . . . a beautifully written, complex, and rich narrative.”Washington Post Book World
“A powerful call for more black athletes to give back to their communities.”Los Angeles Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307353146
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 07/24/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 67,854
Product dimensions: 5.13(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

WILLIAM C. RHODEN has been a sportswriter for the New York Times since 1983, and has written the “Sports of the Times” column for more than a decade. He also serves as a consultant for ESPN’s SportsCentury series, and occasionally appears as a guest on their show The Sports Reporters. In 1996, Rhoden won a Peabody Award for Broadcasting as writer of the HBO documentary Journey of the African-American Athlete. A graduate of Morgan State University in Baltimore, he lives in New York City’s Harlem with his wife and daughter.

Read an Excerpt

Forty Million Dollar Slaves

By William C. Rhoden

Random House

William C. Rhoden
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0609601202

Chapter One

Chapter 1

The Race Begins: The Dilemma of Illusion

Long before there was race and even before there was politics, there were Saturday mornings in the playground.

Every summer, on Saturday mornings my father and I would greet the dawn. We'd have our breakfast, put on shorts and sneakers, walk across the street to the Martha Ruggles Elementary School playground, and practice basketball. My father was my first coach. He was a mathematics teacher by training, and his penchant for teaching extended to sports. He taught me how to catch a football and run a sprint. I played Biddy Basketball at the Chatham branch of the YMCA; my dad was the coach. An astute judge of talent, he recognized that his oldest son needed tutoring. And that's how those joyous Saturday morning sessions evolved. I was eight years old, my shots barely reached the rim, but my dad constantly reminded me that there was a lot more to the game than shooting. He said that by the time I was able to hit the rim consistently, I'd have an idea of how to play the game. So we worked on fundamentals: dribbling, passing, catching. Now and then we'd play a game of one-on-one. He always won. For a change of pace, we'd run a foot race. He won that, too. But what I loved most about Saturday morning wasthe bonding. Those practice sessions gave me an opportunity to be with my father, and be with him on a relatively equal playing field. At every turn, I measured my physical prowess against my father's. At every picnic, on every long walk, I'd challenge him to a race, keeping mental notes all along, noting how long he had to run hard before easing up and letting me win. He was still father, I was son, but I knew that one day, if I became strong enough, quick enough, big enough, competent enough, the dynamics of our athletic relationship would change.

Those memories, carefully tucked away in my heart, are what make sports reverberate in my soul. Not covering the big games, interviewing celebrities and superstars, but childhood recollections of a boy trying to please his parents. The deepest, most ancient pull of sports for me has always been emotional. "Race" was something you did on the sidewalk or on a dusty road on the way home from school. In the beginning, speed and quickness didn't have a color.

My father tried to shield his three children from the brutality of the racial struggles that swirled about us in the 1950s. Every now and then he'd talk about some slight or indignity he'd suffered at the hands of a white person. Mostly he insulated us from the unfolding drama of the Civil Rights movement. Jackie Robinson desegregated Major League Baseball three years before I was born, but my father wasn't much of a baseball fan, so I wasn't shellacked in Jackie's legend of black Americans in the United States.

My mother was not an avid sports fan, but she was the lion in my soul. Her brother, my uncle Eddie, was a prizefighter in his younger days (my father called him the Canvas Kid). One day, when I complained about Billy Boy, our next-door neighbor, my mother didn't advise me to turn the other cheek, or to ignore him, or to tell his mother. She essentially told me to go back and kick his ass. I remember the two of us standing in our kitchen, my mother giving me an impromptu boxing clinic. I can still hear her voice as she showed me how to throw a combination: "Bop, bop--just like that," she said, showing me how to deck Billy Boy. I never did fight Billy Boy. I faced him in the yard soon after my mother's tutorial but couldn't bring myself to throw the first punch. This was my first lesson in combat: Power without heart and strategy is meaningless.

My mother laid out the racial facts of life for me. She burst my bubble in our kitchen one afternoon when she said casually that there were more white people than black people in the United States. I was stunned. In my segregated world on Chicago's South Side, black and brown were the dominant colors. In my world, white people were there, but they weren't there. Invisible. The stores, the Laundromat, the record shops, my schools. If whites were the majority, where were they? Why didn't I ever see any?

Of course, the answers to these questions flowed into the larger ocean of segregation and racism. That, in turn, flowed back to the ritual my dad and I enacted when we watched sports.

I learned about race and racism in front of the TV set. My father and I watched football games upstairs, in our bungalow on 78th and Calumet. We sat and cheered on the red leather seat my dad had pulled out of our '56 Mercury station wagon. Televised football didn't make a lot of sense to me back then. The images were too crowded, too small, too gray. The fun of it was cheering; and cheering interests were simple in our house. We rooted for the team with the most black players. We cheered for the hometown clubs, the Bears and White Sox, but aside from that, the general rule of thumb was that we cheered for the team with the most colorful presence.

In those days, when black faces were few and far between, we cheered for the color of the skin. We had some variations to the general rule: If the team was from the South and had just one Brother, his team was our team; he was our man. Didn't matter who the athlete was underneath his uniform or his skin--his true character was less significant than his presence. Out there on the field, he became the torchbearer for the race. Content of character mattered only to the extent that we prayed these pioneers wouldn't embarrass The Race.

The ritual my dad and I engaged in was one that took place among black sports fans and non-fans throughout the United States. The ritual went further back than Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, or Jesse Owens. It probably went all the way back to the heavyweight prizefighter Jack Johnson in 1910, when the telegram runners passed through black neighborhoods calling out round-by-round progress of Johnson's historic fight with Jim Jeffries, the first Great White Hope. When Johnson defeated Jeffries on July 4, 1910, black communities across the country exploded in celebration. Other parts of the nation exploded with violence. As news of Johnson's victory spread, mobs of angry whites beat up and, in some instances, murdered blacks. Many whites feared that the black community might be emboldened by Johnson's victory over a white man. And they were not mistaken. Those early symbolic victories were soul food.

Symbolic representation was the rule of the day, part of a timeless ritual throughout the United States' melting pot of ethnicity: Jews cheered for Jews, Irish for Irish, Italians for Italians. But the predicament of black Americans was more complex, precarious, and sometimes seemed even hopeless. African Americans were so disconnected from the American dream that sports often seemed the only venue where the battle for self-respect could be vigorously waged.

My parents and their parents sat around their radios listening to Joe Louis fights, living and dying with every punch. Louis was fighting for himself and his country, but he was also fighting for a black nation within a nation. Every time Jackie Robinson went to bat, he did so for that elusive, ever-evolving state of mind called "Black America."

In those days of suffocating, uncompromising segregation, we cheered black muscle with a vengeance. The fate of black civilization seemed to rest on every round, every at bat. "Knock his white ass out," or "Outrun his white ass," or "Block that white boy's shot."

Or, worst of all: "You let that white boy beat you?"

Each group has had its cross to bear, but although Jews and Italians and Irish and all the other mingling European races could look forward to assimilating, assimilation was practically impossible for African Americans. The indelible marking of skin color made it so.

Early in the formation of the United States, blacks became the designated drivers of the Scapegoat Express. We were the "outside others." The nation needed a permanent workforce and a permanent pariah. African Americans, by virtue of some seventeenth-century decree, got the job. No amount of education, no amount of wealth, could remove the stigma of race. The paradox and dilemma of virulent racism is that our exclusion became the basis of our unity. The next two hundred years of our existence were defined by reacting to racism.

So our cheering assumed a deeper meaning: we were cheering for our very survival. Black athletes became our psychological armor, markers of our progress, tangible proof of our worth, evidence of our collective Soul. Our athletes threw punches we couldn't throw, won races we couldn't run. Any competition or public showing involving an African American was seen as a test for us all; the job of the athlete was to represent The Race. This was a heavy burden on one hand, but at the same time it represented a noble, time-worn responsibility. You always represented.

Paul Robeson--All-American football player, activist, orator, singer, actor--never forgot his first day as a freshman football player at Rutgers when white teammates tried to kill him--and nearly succeeded. Robeson never forgot his father's angry reaction when informed that his son was thinking about quitting the team--and Rutgers. His father told him that quitting was not an option, regardless of how trying conditions became. "When I was out on the football field or in the classroom or anywhere else, I was not there just on my own. I was the representative of a lot of Negro boys who wanted to play football and wanted to go to college, and as their representative, I had to show that I could take whatever was handed out."

The attitude exemplified by Robeson's father was widely embraced by African Americans--the idea that we were each connected to a national black community by a common experience, a common condition, and a common cause was commonplace.

Floyd Patterson was the first African American athlete I can personally remember who carried the burden of The Race into the ring. Patterson became heavyweight champion in 1956--the youngest ever at the time. Soft-spoken and self-effacing, Patterson was the perfect media story: a young, wayward black boy, transformed by a caring white patron--Cus D'Amato--into a champion. In June of 1959 he defended his title against Ingemar Johansson and was pummeled without mercy. Johansson knocked Patterson down seven times in three rounds, and to many of us it felt as if black folks had been knocked out. But Patterson came back and won the rematch in June 1960, becoming the first fighter ever to regain the heavyweight championship. This was one of those psychic victories for black America, all the sweeter because Patterson proved all his doubters wrong. But then things got complicated. Patterson's next opponent was Charles "Sonny" Liston, an illiterate former convict with mob connections, whom the New York State Athletic Commission described thus: "A child of circumstances, without schooling and without direction or leadership, he has become the victim of those with whom he has surrounded himself."

The scholar Maurice Berube called Liston the "stereotypical nightmare of the bad nigger, the juvenile delinquent grown up."

That was the first time I was confronted with the new complexities of race brought on by the nascent Civil Rights movement. Liston was no Floyd Patterson. That is, he was not the model Civil Rights Negro, beloved by all, especially by whites. So here were two black men fighting for the championship. Liston was regarded as a pariah; Patterson was cast as the Good Black. Even John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States, weighed in, telling Patterson that he had to "beat that guy" because a Liston victory would not be in the best interests of the Negro image. The fight definitely was not in Patterson's best interest. Liston pulverized Patterson in their first fight in September 1962, knocking him out in two minutes of the first round.

Even Malcolm X, like Liston a threat to both white and the Civil Rights model, weighed in on the 1963 Liston-Patterson rematch, expressing the hope that Liston would "shake Patterson up."

That he did. Liston beat Patterson even worse in their 1963 rematch.

Then along came Cassius Marcellus Clay.

Clay triggered an odd transformation in the country, in my household, and within the African American community. Liston's mob connections were one thing, but Clay's connection to the Black Muslims frightened a lot of blacks and whites a whole lot more. He had been recruited into the Nation of Islam by none other than Malcolm X, the radical minister who spoke of whites as blue-eyed devils.

Suddenly, big, bad Sonny Liston was redefined. He became reassuring to an older generation of blacks who liked the old heavyweight model Liston represented and were intimidated by Clay's brashness and connection to the Nation of Islam. A conservative segment of the community was screaming, "Enough of this militant business. Enough of this talk of separation, of blue-eyed devils." They hoped that Clay would be crushed, silenced, dashed to bits by the Bear. It didn't happen. Ali, the radical, defeated Liston, the thug, to become heavyweight champion. Later he fought Patterson and humiliated him in defeat because the former champion refused to call Clay by his new name, Muhammad Ali. Those of us who were younger and beginning to develop a more militant racial consciousness were thrilled by Ali. We called any black person who refused to call him by his name Old Negroes, Uncle Toms, or the white man's niggers.

Ali became the first universal, seemingly omnipresent black man. He said things we only imagined saying, did things many of us had never conceived of doing. He shunned his slave name, Clay, for Ali; he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army and risked everything, including the heavyweight championship, for principle. When Ali was stripped of his title, it was as if he were being whipped by the overseer, like those "bad nigga" slaves of old. Publicly.


Excerpted from Forty Million Dollar Slaves by William C. Rhoden Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After reading this book, there is no doubt that Rhoden knows what he is talking about and he seems very passionate about this topic. He was able to incorporate many sports and athletes themselves to prove his overall point . It has always been controversial from very early on in history to try to incorporate black athletes, most people would think it is all better now, but in reality it is just as bad. Rhoden makes it clear that there are still many black athletes have to face.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
i enjoyed reading this book i liked how there was many different stories of different types of athletes. I learned a lot of new black athletes that i never heard of before and a guy that likes sports its nice to learn more about black athletes
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Overall this was an interesting book. Being an athlete I saw how important it was to know the history of sports.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was very inspirational because me being an athlete i can relate to most of the short stories that come up in the book. Not at the level of being a pro but just connecting to their life. My favorite part about the book is when they talk about M.J. and what he could have done in terms of having a movement in ANYTHING.  
Guest More than 1 year ago
To get a background and an understanding the complexities of the black athlete this is your book. Easy Read! As a former student-athlete and now as a coach, this is a must read. Understanding who paved the way and how. Names never mentioned, achievements never acknowledge today that would change the view of blacks in the sports industry. I think that he does a good job in laying the foundation from the slave ship to the new phenomenon of Lebron James. Fantastic Book and Easy Read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
He writes eloquently about how the sports Demo Gods reel players in and chew them up and spit them out afterward. This book explores some very deep pressure points on responsibility, dignity and integrity. The sad reality is that the most players dont realize they are being played until it is over. MUST READ!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
From a professional athlete's perspective I can directly relate to William Rhoden's work and feel educated, enlightened, and ashamed. The historical background of the book is vast, with enormous once-hidden information. The author truely makes past forgotten black athletes visible from boxing to horse-back riding, to cycling to baseball. The 'conveyor-belt' theory really made me open my eyes to my life and other 'spoiled athletes' in general. Rhoden's defintion of the athlete's problem is very well articulated: a lack of responsibility to the larger black community. The only, but major downfall of the book is the author fails to offer an in-depth solution to the problem of the '40 Million Dollar Slave.' The only other problem I had was Rhoden's constant negative tone toward integration.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I actually went to a book signing for this book and Bill Rhoden spoke. The brother is deep. It took him, I think, 8 years to complete this book. Now that I'm reading it, I understand why. There is so much history in this book, the research alone must have taken several years. He is very frank about White America's feelings toward Black athletes and the constraints they have tried to put on them over the centuries. Whether you're Black or White, if you like sports and you have an open mind, read this!
Guest More than 1 year ago
There is no statistical evidence that supports Mr. Rhoden's claim that Black athletes are disconnected and unconcerned about the problems in the Black community. In fact, if he would do his research, he would learn that most of them have foundations to help the needy. There is also no statistical evidence that the NFL and the NBA has exploited African American players. The NBA has created more African American millionaires than any other industry in the world, and this is the thanks that they get? Also, it should be known that most Blacks work for White on corporations. Would Mr. Rhoden consider himself a slave because he works for a white own business? As a matter of fact many of our popular black magazines are owned by whites. Would he consider most of the black journalist slaves? Because of their wealth, Black athletes have been the target of undue criticism and jealousy within the Black community.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is likely no author in American history has ever written such an insightful and skillful exploration of the meaning and the reality of American sports for African Americans,for us all, from the days of Slavery until today. If you want to understand and appreciate sports in these United States you MUST read this groundbreaking book.
ToniB24 More than 1 year ago
So far I really enjoyed this book, it made me picture the aspect of black athletes more differently . The way William C. Rhoden wrote everything and used different athletes as examples to get his point across made it also better and understanding. I learned about a lot of new black athletes that I never heard of before and it was great just by reading their stories and picturing where they came from and how they over came their obstacles.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved the way the author metaphorically compared the plight of the modern black athlete to slavery. The anecdotes and historical notes were stellar.
VirtuousV More than 1 year ago
Everyone at some point and time is enamored when they see an athlete perform. We begin to look not only at their skills but their lifestyles as well. On the outside looking in it looks like everything in the world of an athlete is the best and the greatest but as the years progress, we begin to see their world crumbling from drugs, suicide and family dysfunction to the loss of wealth; that is if they have not been prepared for these life challenges. You can view Forty Million Dollar Slave from various perspectives but what I have honed on is that with this continual cycle of athletes not being prepared for the real world after sports that they are set up to fail. Forty Million Dollar Slaves is that type of book it exposes the truth. If you take it at its strength instead of the possible negative aspect of it then the goal of coaches, parents and the athletes themselves should be getting prepared for the post-athletic life. Just like athletes go through the rigorous training from mental to physical for peak performance; they should exercise the same type of training post-performance, meaning that there should be a paradigm shift of thought once they either get injured or age out. While at their peak performance just like LeBron James and Magic Johnson athletes should begin to ask themselves what happens when I am unable to perform again? Forty Million Dollar Slave give us an in your face view of the world behind the sport. I read this book almost every three years because when I look at the Superbowl or the basketball playoffs this book comes to my mind. If you have a child with an interest in sports read this book and prepare your child(rent) along the way.
TulaneGirl More than 1 year ago
So I loved the history of black Americans in sports that this provided. Had no idea about how Black Americans were ousted from horse racing and cycling by the establishment. The second thing I loved about this book was the perspective that the black community as a whole didn't actually benefit from integration in sports. What stopped me from giving it 5 stars was the authors naivete in not recognizing that green will beat out any other color or race every time. The idea that he advocated for Black ownership and position of power and then criticized those who achieved that status for not doing enough to empower the community seemed very short sighted to me. It seemed to me that the logical conclusion to full integration is that greed would trump all, but perhaps that is my pessimism showing. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Rhoden's argument is passionate, clear, and informed by both personal experience and historical research. While at times his argument may be slightly overstated, his general claims are very powerful and relevant in our society.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think the quotes in this book will tell you a lot about it rather than the title. When I chose this book for a book report it was because I thought maybe there was a famous slave back in the day that was sold for forty million dollars but this book ties in todays athletes and the labor they give our world and how they're in a way, our upgraded slaves.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was very interesting. I loved how Rhoden used examples from the plantations to present day athletes as well. He also uses great examples of how athletes like Ali and Jackie Robinson were a major influence in the developmental periods of African american athletes. He also talks about how athletes like Jordan being neutral in these racial affairs doesn't benefit any of the African american athletes at all. overall a great book to read and very informational for athletes and non athletes as well. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This Book is a very good book with alot of historical examples which was why i really liked the book. Even though i did not agree with everything the author was trying to explain to us readers, it made ne look at sports now in a whole differnt way.
BrandonGaray More than 1 year ago
Rhoden argues that today's athletes are so focused on the now and the future, and that it is important for them to look at their history.   Rhoden says that they need to see how their ancestors paved the way for them to be in the position that they’re in now.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is an interesting book to read, if you enjoy reading books about sports and their history you will love this book
blessingLA More than 1 year ago
Eye opening.....we should never forget the past...and make a better future
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was an interesting book. Being an athlete I saw how important it is to know the history of sports. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a great book, I don't read books often and this book changed my mind. It taught me a lot and gave me a better sense on todays black athletes.
mzlortg More than 1 year ago
It me me look at sports in a different light!