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Revisiting 40 Million Dollar Slaves as Athletes Stand Up for Trayvon Martin

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Now that they occupy a position where they can be more than symbols of achievement, where they can actually serve their communities in vital and tangible ways, while also addressing the power imbalance within their own from a position of greater strength, they seem most at a loss, lacking purpose and drive....The Black Athlete has abdicated their responsibility to the community with treasonous vigor. -- William C. Rhoden, 40 Million Dollar Slaves


Let me first say that I enjoyed Mr. Rhoden's book and found it to be a very informative history of the black athlete in America. It touched on the unfortunate paths and states of mind that have overtaken the realities of some black athletes of today. I agree with his position that "making the evolution to be a completely free man is realizing that racism is more virulent and determined than ever before." In fact, I think the book is a must-read for all athletes -- if only to serve as an example of what not to become. That being said, I respectfully disagree with the overall notion that the black athlete today is simply "lost," as Mr. Rhoden labels us in his book.

In his words:

Isolated and alienated from their native networks and increasingly cloistered into new networks as they become corporatized entities, they are excised from their communities as they fulfill their professional responsibilities and disconnected from the networks of people, in many cases predominately African-American, who once comprised their 'community' (177). This leads to a general ignorance of the issues impacting a vast majority of African-Americans across the country.

This couldn't be further from the truth. And painting the entire, illustrious roster of current black athletes with this broad brush of ridicule, one that leaves no room for exceptions, is just wrong. If he would have said "some" black athletes of today, I wouldn't have had an objection. But to say "the contemporary tribe," as he calls us, "with access to unprecedented wealth is lost," is completely inaccurate.

The book's subtitle, The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, indicates that Rhoden is fully convinced that the modern-day black athlete's willingness to advocate for social and economic justice for all black people has diminished since the times of the sixties -- and perhaps disappeared, and that there currently exists a "vacuum of leadership" that has led to black athletes becoming a "lost tribe."

Enter Trayvon Martin shooting...

When a national tragedy occurs such as the case of Trayvon Martin -- the young black unarmed teen who was shot and killed by Neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman -- it effects everyone who has kids. This is a parents worst nightmare. It is an unfortunate reality that the stereotypes that exist in society can have deadly consequences. Martin was nothing more than a young man wearing athletic shoes, jeans and a hoodie. He posed no immediate threat, yet was viewed as a threat. He committed no crime, yet was viewed as a criminal, and the only thing that went through George Zimmerman's mind as heard from the released police reports was that something had to be done to eliminate this threat. This prompted Zimmerman to follow Martin in his car, get out, chase him, confront Martin and eventually shoot him fatally.

My first thoughts on this made me think of my 6-year-old son Malcolm, as many parents began to think of their own kids. You always want to be able to protect your children from the world in any way you possibly can.

Even President Barack Obama said on Friday that the killing of Trayvon Martin requires a national "soul-searching." And added that, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."

You can't put into words what that feels like as a parent unless you have children of your own. I believe that is the only way you can really relate. It doesn't matter your economic status, level of education, place in society or how much money you have in your bank account, that could have been anyone's son.

This tragedy did not fail to hit home for many athletes as well. For some reason, people seem to think that the problems and issues of society don't have the same effect on athletes. People seem to think that there is an imaginary bubble that we all live in that protects us from any harm, but that simply is not the case. Just by the fact that as expressed by countless athletes, entertainers, professionals, activists, authors, journalists -- Trayvon could have been anybody's son.

This has prompted athletes from all over to join in this protest.

Dwayne Wade and Lebron James, arguably two of the top players in the NBA, but more importantly also fathers, decided it was time for them to speak out, as many others did around the NBA.

In a show of solidarity, Lebron James posted a picture of all the Miami Heat wearing the team hoodies with their heads bowed and their hands stuffed in their pockets. Among the hashtags James linked to the team photo: "WeWantJustice."

James told the media "It was very emotional, an emotional day for all of us, taking that picture, we're happy that we're able to shed light on the situation that we feel is unjust."

Dwyane Wade also posted a picture of himself in a hoodie on his Facebook page and linked to it from Twitter tagged with "#hoodies #stereotypes #trayvonmartin"

"I'm a father," Wade told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "It's support of the tragic thing that has taken place. No matter what color, race, we're all fathers." Wade has 10- and 4-year-old sons.

In another interview with the Associated Press hours before the Heat were to play the Detroit Pistons, with this tragedy continuously weighing heavily on his heart and in his mind, Wade explained,

This situation hit home for me because last Christmas, all my oldest son wanted as a gift was hoodies, so when I heard about this a week ago, I thought of my sons. I'm speaking up because I feel it's necessary that we get past the stereotype of young, black men and especially with our youth.


Udonis Haslem also weighed in saying,

I couldn't imagine if my son went to a store just to get some Skittles and a pop or iced tea and they didn't come home. We've been following the story individually very closely. It's just unfortunate. We just feel like something needed to be done about it. It's only right. It's only fair. ... I think it's at least a start in the right direction.


In a further demonstration of support several Heat players, including Wade and James, took the floor Friday night with messages such as "RIP Trayvon Martin" and "We want justice" scrawled on their sneakers.

Other players around the NBA were also effected by this tragedy and aimed to show support. Carmelo Anthony tweeted a photo of himself in a gray hoodie, with the words "I am Trayvon Martin!!!!!" over the picture.

Amare Stoudemire -- a central Florida native -- arrived for his team's game in Toronto wearing a hooded sweater. Stoudemire also wore a gray hoodie while working out long before tip-off.

"That's not too far from where I grew up in Orlando," Stoudemire said of Sanford, where Martin was shot. "So it's really a touchy situation because you want to have positive community leaders."

Earlier Friday, Fox News Channel commentator Geraldo Rivera said on Fox & Friends the hoodie Martin wore when he was killed was as much responsible for his death as the man who shot him.

But more important than Rivera or Glenn Beck's opinion is that fact that to date, shooter George Zimmerman has not been arrested and faces no criminal charges for the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The National Basketball Players Association issued the following:

The National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) offers its condolences to the family and loved ones of Trayvon Martin in their time of need. The NBPA is saddened and horrified by the tragic murder of Mr. Martin and joins in the chorus of calls from across the nation for the prompt arrest of George Zimmerman. The reported facts surrounding Mr. Zimmerman's actions indicate a callous disregard for Mr. Martin's young life and necessitate that he stand trial.



The NBPA also calls for the permanent resignation of Sanford Chief of Police Bill Lee and a full review of the Sanford Police Department, for dereliction of duty and racial bias in this matter and others. Their silence in the face of this injustice is reprehensible and they cannot be trusted to safe guard the citizens of the Sanford community equally. The NBPA seeks to insure that Trayvon Martin's murder not go unpunished and the elimination of the injustices suffered by the innocent.


A tragedy such as this doesn't escape any parent.

As this stance by the Miami Heat proves, contemporary black athletes are capable of carrying on the tradition of their brave brothers and sisters before them who led their teams to victory on the field and led the way in challenging racial disunity and injustice in the world outside the athletic arena (all while potentially facing the petty and insipid criticism of reactionary media).

Now back to 40 Million Dollar Slaves.

There is a common myth that is typically expressed when speaking in terms of the current black athlete's condition relative to engaging in social activism. It is that our disconnection from the black community and the retaliation black athletes face from reactionary sports media has fractured the "common cause" that once united all black athletes when they stood for causes for social justice. Countless analysis of the existence of forces in American professional sport that disconnect black athletes from the black community or as William C. Rhoden described as (the "Conveyor Belt," p. 177-78), detailing the process by which we are conditioned.

Many contemporary sports writers, analysts, commentators etc. agree with Mr Rhoden's assertion that after centuries of black athletes who faced the most dire consequences -- loss of livelihood and death threats -- we have now entered a period where an unspoken code encourages contemporary black athletes to avoid 'rocking the boat' lest they risk losing their lucrative sponsorships and opportunity to compete professionally.

Furthermore, for black professional athletes who do remain connected to the black community in significant ways, Rhoden focuses on the harsh reprisal that they are likely to face at the hands of a largely white, reactionary sports media (209). Also at the root of the problem for contemporary athletes, Rhoden outlines, is the threat that engaging in causes and issues that management might consider politically unsavory would consequently lead to the loss of earnings potential.

However, as seen with Dwayne Wade, Lebron James and the Miami Heat, this prediction did not prove true. They didn't receive any ridicule from the team for injecting themselves into a national tragedy and using the company logo to do so. Instead, they received praise and support.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called it "a powerful statement." And even added, "It really is a tragic story, and the more you learn about it, the more confused you get."

Their actions prompted the Miami Heat to make a public statement that said:

Our hearts go out to the family and loved ones of Trayvon Martin for their loss and for everyone involved in this terrible tragedy. We support our players and join them in hoping that their images and our logo can be part of the national dialogue and can help in our nation's healing.


Just to reiterate, I have tremendous respect for Bill Rhoden and I feel that Forty Million Dollar Slaves should be required reading for every athlete beginning in high school. It gives us a history in knowing the tremendous sacrifices that were made for us. It gives us an account of the athletes that have come before us to lay the foundation so that we can have the opportunities we have today.



The decision made by Dwayne Wade, Lebron James, the entire Miami Heat, and other athletes to take a stand after the tragedy of Travon Martin should not be dismissed as singular and nominal. These are not the actions of a group that is, "Isolated and alienated from their native networks" or someone possessing an "ignorance of the issues impacting a vast majority of African-Americans across the country."



Bill Rhoden and those of his ilk should apply the same vigor and thorough analysis to uncovering the positive efforts of contemporary black athletes who improve their communities and stand up for what they believe in that they do in criticizing.



For more on Etan Thomas visit EtanThomas.com

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