With this week’s ESPY awards looming and Lebron’s decision to leave The Miami Heat, Sigh. It hurts; I’m just taking it one day at a time I’ve been struck by the tenor of the conversations I’ve heard about his exit.
‘Burn his jersey in the street!’
‘Who is he to leave, after everything the Heat gave him!’
‘How dare he go back?!’
The thing is, LeBron is not property; he’s a person. He’s a man. And he made a decision (albeit a painful one that kept me up on Friday night) about his life and future. But the more I heard people’s commentary becoming increasingly angry and entitled, it made me feel less like they were talking about a wildly skilled athlete making a choice to play elsewhere, and more like…well, a group of slave owners upset that their best nigger escaped last night. And that led me to think more about a whispered conversation that fans and academics alike have had about how the team owner/athlete relationship bears a striking resemblance to the slave master/slave one. I don’t think players are slaves, but I do think fans can act like property owners; they don’t actually care about the person, just the athlete in the jersey and the name on its back.
Bench press : 32x
40-yard dash: 4.9
3 come drill: 5.2
In 2011, these were the numbers I tested at during a combine for the Harrisburg Stampede revolution of the SIFL. These stats made me a high-performance athlete or (if you’re into the whole ‘team owner as slave master/athlete as slave’ paradigm) the best new buck on the slave auction block. Based on my stats, I got signed instantly and earned an amazing opportunity to change my life. I get that technically, my team (and I suppose, my person) was ‘owned’ and liable to be used as the coach and owners saw fit. Except, as much as I loved playing football, I distinctly remember the bloodlust in the fans’ eyes. They’d yell your name until their vocal cords gave out under the pressure if you made the touchdown but heckle and hate if you didn’t—and all within a 10-minute span. They could turn their unconditional love for you into unbridled rage, on a dime.
So, as I reflect on my time on the field, I can’t say I ever felt like a slave, but I can say that I got the sense that fans felt they had the deed to players’ bodies, and could brazenly comment on their successes and failures as they saw fit.
And maybe this comes from the idea that successful athletes are the ultimate Cinderella story; where else can a kid’s game generate enough money to secure their family’s future for generations to come? Where else can your actions impact the lives of people who have never met you, but look up to you as an exemplar for drive and dedication? Only in the wide world of sports. On the field/court/green, regular men and women can literally and figuratively become the very superheroes they use to watch as wide-eyed children. Owners and team scouts look at who is ” bigger, stronger, and faster” but on paper, they define it as searching for the “better athlete.” Does that mean that we, who simply love the thrill of developing our bodies in the gyms are only buffing up for the slave auction, in a sense? If I let you tell it, probably.
Nevertheless, we can’t negate the fact that America has a deep-seated fascination with the “strong Black man.” For centuries, the Black man has been labeled ” aggressive and hyper-masculine.” Really, any show of black male bodies engaged in any display of labor, sex/lust, aggression and/or sport exploited the stereotypes of America’s institutionalized racism. To be clear, I’m (obviously) not saying that black men shouldn’t push and challenge their bodies to be finely tuned machines (Frankly, if you tried that you wouldn’t be employed anywhere because somewhere, some kid is working harder than you…plus, read my blog; clearly, I dig working out) but I will say this sort of thing could make a person question what motivates owners to market, screen and show appreciation for the human form and choose players that allow them to have the best “team” possible.
Nothing irritates me more than when sportscasts display team owners luxuriating in their owner’s suites during the game while their players leave blood, sweat and tears on the grass. Mainly because at that moment, the game seems to be less about the love of the game and more about money. Now I know you’re saying “Well, the majority of these players are Black or Hispanic and the owners are typically White … Look at the neo-slavery!” Right you are, my righteous brother *grabs bean pie and straightens bow tie* but just before we try to televise the revolution, consider this*; It’s true, more Blacks than Whites play basketball, football, track, and baseball. However:
More Whites than Blacks play ice hockey, tennis, golf, swimming, polo, archery, wrestling, boxing, body building, volleyball, gymnastics, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, rock climbing, triathalons, marathons, and horse racing.
More Latino/as than Blacks play soccer (the most popular sport in the world).
More Asians than Blacks compete in tai kwon do, karate, sumo wrestling, and other martial arts.
The difference in race ratios lies in neighborhood athletic opportunities, cost of equipment/club membership, and parental/peer encouragement. Have you noticed that the vast majority of American Black athletes originate from poor neighbourhoods? Have you noticed that the sports at which American Blacks excel are usually the ones with the lowest entry costs? In most cases, all you need in the way of gear is a pair of sneakers and a ball.
So, back to my original question; who is really cracking the whip? Who is really building auction blocks that hold ball players, shackled and against their will? I think it’s the fans. I have been saying for years that fans are a façade; they not real and extremely fickle. We burn players’ jerseys when they leave and send death threats to their houses when they lose a big game. In some ways, fantasy sporting games are a microcosm of the slave trade. Think about it; we put a price tag on a players’ physical ability, raffle him off to the highest bidder and value the player as long as he can obtain points to help acquire weekly wins amongst our peers. Honestly, we don’t care about the players’ personal lives, mental problems, or their post-career quality of life because we need them to run fast and far and get these points. To make important plays and give it all they’ve got because they are built like oxen anyway and that means…more points. But god forbid all that running takes a toll on a player’s body. Then, as quickly as we loved you, we turn and set our sights on another, stronger, younger, beast…because that’s where the points are now. NEXT!
Fans have somehow begun to think that players owe us but they don’t. Charles Barkley once opined, ” I am not a role model,” and, as I look at how players that ‘dare’ to get injured, to make decisions for themselves or worst of all—leave their team are treated.
Players are people. Not property. Not slaves. Not jerseys. But rather, humans with exceptional skill, talent and drive. Now grab some popcorn, and enjoy the show.