More Than Just a Game: Examining the Exploitation of the Black Male Athlete



The exploitation of Black men has been a reality in America since the first slave ship docked from Africa.  Since then, black men have been used, not only for the economic gain of their oppressor, but as a cruel and degrading form of entertainment.  The lynching of Black people, the burning of Black bodies, and even fist fights became the early century’s “television” as the Black race was used to amuse blue eyes.

Of these different categories of entertainment, both lynching and burnings were eventually dispelled.  But fighting, as well as any other activity that pitted one enslaved person against another, managed to stay relevant to this day.  Whether boxing, football, basketball, or baseball, Black athletes are experiencing some of the same issues as the 1765 Negro on the plantations, exploited in a system poised to create revenue and entertainment for White America.  This paper will examine the history of the Black male athlete and connect his history to the present conditions.  This paper will also determine progressive strategies that Black male athletes can use to advance beyond these struggles.

This analysis will assist in explaining some of the issues that Black male athletes have in the 21st century through a historical examination of the problems that they faced in the past. Race relations, wealth, and, ultimately, power are some of the issues that feed the necessity for a discussion the Black male athlete.  These athletes are being watched, accepted, and imitated by hopeful youth everywhere.  They are responsible for the accumulation of billions of dollars each year but stay in the low percentages of overall wealth in this country (  Like Chris Rock said, “I’m not talkin’ ‘bout rich, I’m talkin’ bout wealth.  Shaq is rich; the White man that signs his check is wealthy!”(Never Scared).

This synopsis looks at the first documented example of a Black athlete, boxer Tom Molineaux. Historical athletes such as horse jockey Isaac Murphy provide insight into the creation of the Jockey Syndrome: The changing of the rules to fit the need to maintain control in the face of perceived challenge to white supremacy (Rhoden 68).  There will be an investigation of others who suffered from the Jockey Syndrome such as Jack Johnson, and Muhammad Ali, while connecting them to the NFL’s current “no celebration” rule and the NBA’s “dress code” as rule changes needed to maintain control.

Finally, this paper will conclude by examining the options that Black male athletes in America must consider in order to help advance Black culture.  There is a brief analysis of the neutrality that history’s most famous Black athletes have displayed.  This paper highlights how, unlike Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson and Michael Jordan did little for the most pertinent issues that Black America faced and still faces (economic, political, and social power).  In closing, the proper steps will be determined in order to accelerate the next generation of athletes, as well as the entire Black culture.


This topic covers many different names and events with a focus on a select number of Black athletes.  Between 1810 and 1910, two Tom Molineaux and Isaac Murphy will be analyzed. Between 1910 and 1990s, a select comparative sample will be drawn to between 1810 and 2010 (specifically the 20th century) that exemplify their struggles and offer an explanation to the current dilemma.

This paper focuses sole on the Black male athlete.  Understanding that the struggle of Black female athletes has been just as grotesque and disheartening as they Black male athlete, to include an in depth examination of their struggles is beyond the scope of a one semester project.  Also, assuming by media coverage, magazine covers, and annual income discrepancies, that the Black male athlete is being watched and scrutinized more than the Black female athlete makes the Black male athlete an important figure to probe.

This paper provides and overview of the Black male athlete in the United States rather than the Black male athlete in other areas of the world.  It will not discuss the serious and devastating racial issues that Black soccer players in Europe are faced with. Discussions of Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Tom Molineux are the only boxers used to explicate the issues that Black boxers faced, though others such as Major Taylor, Peter Jackson, are beyond the scope of this paper.

Only the “major” sports, sports which generate the most revenue and receive the most media coverage, will be looked at as a whole.  This paper examines basketball and football, with a brief discussion of tennis, baseball, and horse racing to pull examples such as Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson, and Isaac Murphy.  Other sports, such as soccer, golf, volleyball, etc. will not be examined.

When discussing revenue, the NCAA’s San Diego State Basketball team and University of Kentucky Basketball team will be discussed.  This paper will exclude the many examples of these same monetary issues dealing with the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, and other professional sports.  This paper will also leave out the topic of poor graduation rates among Black college athletes.

Though this paper scrutinizes the treatment of Black male athletes in the history and present time, the large amount of examples would make this research paper lengthy with illustrations.  Therefore, people such as Michael Vick, Latrell Sprewell, Ron Artest, Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, and many others will not be discussed.  This paper serves to bring forth the necessary examples of the issues Black male athletes must deal with, allowing the reader to connect these examples with other Black male athletes not mentioned.



Black Codes- in U.S. history, any of numerous laws enacted in the states of the former Confederacy after the American Civil War and intended to assure the continuance of white supremacy. Enacted in 1865 and 1866, the laws were designed to replace the social controls of slavery that had been removed by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (Britannica).

Chattel Slavery– Chattel refers to an article of movable, personal property.  Slavery refers to the state of one bound in servitude.  In all, a person in chattel slavery is bound in servitude as the personal property of another person (Legal Dictionary).

Exploitation– the combined, often varied, use of public relations and advertising techniques to promote a product.  Can also be the use or utilization, esp. for profit (

Great White Hope- Any white person who is pit against a person of another race to help level the playing field and uphold white supremacy (Ridley).

Jockey Syndrome– the Jockey Syndrome is distinguished by a changing of the rules of the game when competition begins to gain ground.  It usually involves a series of maneuvers to facilitate outcomes, including the taking away of previously granted rights and the diluting of access through coercive power and force, a phenomenon that was common outside of sports as well.  Black Americans would see that clearly when the Civil Rights Act the celebrated in 1875 was almost completely overturned by the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896.  The Jockey Syndrome has been the primary mechanism in American sports for tilting the ostensibly level playing field of sport away from equal opportunity and toward white supremacy.  In short, the conspicuous success of black jockeys led to their demise. (Rhoden, 68)

Slave Codes- The codes that were implemented to keep Black people in place prior to the Black codes of 1865.  A set of laws put into action in order to keep control over the perceived superiority of the White race (Britannica).

Literature Review

William Rhoden writes a compelling book with exemplary research and accuracy about the issues that the Black athlete.  In $40 million Slaves: the Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, Rhoden’s examination handles both the current and historical issues, with a primary focus of historical content.  Throughout this book, he compares the relationship of black athletes and team owners to that of white plantation owners and enslaved Africans during the antebellum period.  His ability to examine the plight of the Black male athlete is founded in extensive research of other scholarly work and historical data.

Rhoden is able to capture the true essence of the Black athlete in his examination of boxer’s Tom Molineaux and Jack Johnson.  His analysis shows the fear that White America had with the success of Black athletes.  Though he drew an accurate depiction of what these men represented, he failed to draw the same conclusions about the monumental influence that Muhammad Ali had on the country, only referring to him briefly.  Rhoden assumes that the reader knows the history of Muhammad Ali and never goes in-depth about his courage, wisdom, and defiance, as he does with talks of Johnson and Molineaux.

Rhoden also manages to triumph the victories of superstars like Jackie Robinson and Michael Jordan while still condemning them for their inability to take a stand for political and civil rights.  Rhoden poetically touches on issues of wealth without control and inclusion without power, finally offering a list of possible solutions to the issues that these Black athletes face.

Rhoden’s book is a must read when examining the exploitation of the Black athlete because it incorporates the different aspects of enslavement, self-respect, and white supremacy.  These are a few key issues necessary to understand when defining the journey of the Black athlete in America.

David Wiggins, professor and Director of the School of Recreation at the University of Maryland, writes an informative book about the Black athletes struggle with the color line.  Glory Bound: Black Athletes in a White America is the first of five publications in which Wiggins examines historical icons in the athletic field as they relate to race relations.

Wiggins offers objective information about the life of horse Jockey Isaac Murphy and Boxer Muhammad Ali.  His chapter on Isaac Murphy is one of the most informative readings that could be found on the historical icon. It portrays Murphy’s career from start to finish in a manner that neither suggests nor negates the issues that Black athletes faced, only including the facts that make his story necessary.  Wiggins offers the same informative context for the life and historical events that made Muhammad Ali’s name important in the Black athletic field.

His informative text allows the reader to form his or her own opinion without subjecting the reader to his own personal feelings or agenda.  Being a white male author, some readers may find it difficult to take Wiggins’ work seriously.  But with the use of primary texts and other scholars, Wiggins’ work is not only accurate, but also offers details that other scholars fail to encompass.

Shaun Powell, an award-winning sports columnist for Newsday, writes Souled Out?: How Black Athletes Are Winning and Losing in Sports.  Powell uses his experiences in the field of journalism to study the use of Black athletes on and off the field.  He first explains the cultural and generational differences that he has observed over his years between athletes and owners.  He tackles the notable difference in the proportion of Black players in sports to Black coaches and managers. Unfortunately, Powell refuses to analyze the information he gives and alludes to certain conclusions.  In one chapter, he explains how many Black athletes jersey’s go up in sales after they have been charged with a crime, but he never explores the reasons and issues that this implicates.

His approach to examining the Black athlete delves into the lack of militancy in today’s Black athletes.  Like Rhoden, Powell observes Michael Jordan as an athlete who missed his opportunity to use his fame to make positive changes for the Black community (33).  Like Jordan, Powell also puts Jackie Robinson in the same category of Jordan, being a non-militant Black male whose celebrity was not used to its full potential.  He explains that money made from big deal endorsements have silenced many of the would-be activists.  By contrast, he takes an extensive look into Muhammad Ali’s role in American history and, specifically, Black history.  He also discusses Arthur Ashe and how he used his athletic ability and fame to attract attention to social issues like education and apartheid.

Though he does analyze Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, and Arthur Ashe, he primarily stays current with the Black athletes of the last ten years and the media’s negative depiction of them.  He also lends some blame to the Black athletes themselves for abusing the media’s coverage for their own personal gain.  He forces Black athletes to show more respect for themselves and determines that leadership positions will help bridge the gap between the racial divide that America is faced with.

In a highly reviewed study, John Hoberman writes Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of race.  This book was reviewed by other scholars, not only for its content, but because the author is a white male professor of Germanic Studies at University of Texas at Austin.  Hoberman, though, does not shy away from stating his opinions about the divisive issue of the Black male athlete’s struggle, and does manage to create points that are insightful.

Hoberman’s primary focus is that “the emphasis of the black body as the theme of black male identity de-emphasizes the intellectual capabilities and development of black people” (35).  Like Rhoden, this author alludes to the idea of inclusion without power and the Black male athlete’s inability to progress past his current status as an athlete.  He determines that this imbalance of power has made integrated sport “a mutually profitable racial truce, rather than a partnership in a more meaningful sense” (33).  Moreover, Hoberman determines the National Basketball Association has a grip on its player’s actions, much like Powell’s notion that Black athletes have thrown in the proverbial “towel of activism” in acceptance of their paycheck.

Hoberman makes several good points, but does manage to stray away from his targeted thesis.  Later in his book, he begins to question the genetic superiority of the Black male athlete.  He examines the fear of racial biological superiority and offers both sides of the argument.  He never actually takes a stand to dispel any myth, nor does he relate the topic of biology back to the de-emphasizing of black intellectual capabilities and the development of Black people.

Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Todd Boyd begins his second book on Black culture, Am I Black Enough For You?: Popular Culture from the ‘Hood and Beyond, with a synopsis of different influences on aspects of Black culture.  In chapter five, “True to the Game: Basketball as the embodiment of Blackness in Contemporary Popular Culture”, Boyd explores the idea of the “Great White Hope” in the instance of Larry Bird.  He compares this figure to white opponent of Jack Johnson and the Martin Ritt film based on this hope, noting that Larry Bird’s crucial difference between himself and others is that Bird was actually just as good as the others.

Boyd speaks on the commercialization of Black athletes and the use of their connections to “the street” as a marketing tool, providing a bad boy image for Black athletes.  This imagery adds to the “need” for coaches and managers who can tame these unruly men into diligent work horses.  He uses a line from comedian Paul Mooney to drive the point home by quoting, “White men can’t jump?  They don’t have to. They own the team” (105).

More importantly, Boyd studies the construction of what it means to truly “win” as a Black male in sports.  Unlike Rhoden, Boyd fails to give possible answers to the issue.  Instead, he goes off on a tangent about the Detroit Pistons team and basketball as a contemporary version of Jazz, never bringing his point around to connect with “winning”.

He also, like Powell, addresses the generational differences that allow our Black athletes to wander aimlessly, attaching themselves to material items rather than real power.  In closing, Boyd makes a connection with Grant Hill and the NBA.  He notes the contrast that the media made between Grant Hill and the rest of the NBA, saying that Hill was “breaking the mold” by being educated and well-dressed.  This inevitably implies the stigma that a vast majority of Black men are “hoodlums” with no education and no necessary abilities other than sport.

Landing in the Americas, Black men have been used as sources of revenue since the Atlantic Slave Trade.  Specifically, in North America Black men have been enslaved in the “institution of slavery” that involved the unpaid labor of harvesting sugar cane, tobacco, and coffee.  These enslaved men were forced to pick cotton, build railroads, and build houses (Miller 238).  While the wealth produced by these duties rarely touched the hands of the ones doing this work, the enslavers who exploited the enslaved and commanded the work to be done reaped the benefits.

Today, a different type of institution of exploitation is evident as Black men are poised to create revenue for a White capitalist society in the form of athletics.  Enslaved Africans were formerly placed in the cotton fields and in the houses of white slaveholders, paid with food and shelter.  In return, these “slaves” expected to work morning until dark in an effort to create wealth for their enslavers. This food and shelter was not really a payment method, but more of a tool to keep their enslaved men alive, healthy, and able to continue generating revenue.

This can be seriously correlated to the black male athlete in college sports.  Unlike the exploitation of Africans in the past, these Black male athletes have a choice.  But their choices to engage in such an institution are prompted by the deceptive arm-pulling of the big business sports corporations.  Black males are often cornered into a life with few options: crime, music, or sports. Those who choose the latter are elated to receive scholarships to big, predominately white universities to play sports.  This university, which will make millions of dollars off the labor of Black men, repays them with a “scholarship” (Yost 179).  The coaches and recruiters pose this scholarship as a free education that athletes should be lucky to receive; however, it is not payment at all.  Like the food and shelter afforded to enslaved Black men, these athletes are only receiving the bare minimum that is needed for them to stay eligible and willing to make money for their athletic programs.  Some of these programs exploit athletes in many different ways which will be explained later in this examination.

Locally, the San Diego State University Men’s Basketball team has a roster of thirteen players, eleven of which are Black males.  On this nationally ranked team, these highly visible players brought in $4,460,716 to the university in one year (Isidore).  Steve Fisher, the SDSU men’s basketball coach was reported at $550,000 a year salary (McGrane).  Meanwhile, the players on Coach Fisher’s team don’t have time for jobs that pay anywhere near Fisher’s salary (Hicks). Their time is spent on the court and in the gym, training to create entertainment for the revenue of their university.

In an effort to understand the statistics on a national level, it is necessary to investigate one of the most talked about and most successful NCAA basketball teams of the past year. The University of Kentucky men’s basketball team had had an estimated value of $25.4 million a year, up from $16 million in 2008 (Associated Press).  This basketball program hosted ten Black players on a roster of thirteen players (CBS Interactive).  Of these ten Black players, five were drafted into the NBA after their first year of school.  John Wall signed with the Washington Wizards for $4.2 million.  Patrick Patterson signed with the Houston Rockets for $3.1 million (Leiterberg).  Eric Bledsoe signed with the Okalahoma Thunder, then traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for $1.2 million (LA Times).  Finally, Daniel Orton signed a two year deal for $2 million for his first two seasons with the Orlando Magic.  Of the five Black athletes that went to the NBA, their rookie year professional salary is estimated at $9.5 million a year, collectively.  Throw in John wall’s Reebok shoe deal at $25 million over five years (Helin), and the total salary for these five athletes is $14.5 million in the first year.

In all, the collective yearly revenue for five Black male professional athletes from the University of Kentucky is $10.9 million short of what the University of Kentucky made from their labor. This illustrates how these black male athletes, even with scholarships, are not receiving benefits proportionate to what they are “worth”.  In other words, these schools are not reaping the benefits of their athlete’s hard work.  Unfortunately, this school is an exception to the norm because it was the only school in history to have this many players enter the NBA after a season (WYMT).  In fact, the NCAA men’s basketball league averages less than one percent of their players making it to the NBA (Yost 9).  This means that, for the many other colleges and universities whose players do not make it to the NBA, they will never reap the true benefits of their hard work.

The University of Kentucky coach, John Calipari, signed a $4 million a year contract to coach for the Kentucky basketball team over the next 8 years (ESPN).  To break this down in order to compare to the working class citizens with a 9-5 job, if Calipari worked an 8-hour day, five days a week, his hourly wage would be $1,923 an hour.  But when the fans come to the games, they don’t watch the man making nearly $2000 an hour, they come to watch the kids that are making nothing at all.  Add in the “payment” of their scholarship, which is roughly $20,000 (Kentucky Registrar), and these students are making $9.61 an hour. And the biggest difference is that this money never touches the player’s hands.

In truth, the advertisement revenue for the NCAA March Madness Basketball events exceed the advertisement revenue for the Super Bowl and the World Series combined (Watkins).  This means that more revenue is being produced by the labor of unpaid basketball players in one month than is being made by professional athletes during their championship games.  When asked how to fix this problem, Dr. Boyce Watkins, a Finance professor and Scholar from Syracuse University, suggested that our athletes deserved to be given some type of compensation for all of the advertisement deals made because of their hard work (Watkins).  Some students are told they must wear name brand paraphernalia at every game, but don’t receive a check from the company they are mandated to wear after the season.

The University of Alabama recently extended their contract with Nike for a $30 million deal (McGuire).  This eight year contract, which averages $3.75 million a year, allows for Nike to make the shoes and jersey of the student-athletes in return for the advertisement of the Nike symbol.  The Black male student-athletes at the University of Alabama, like all other universities with major name brand deals, are told they are not allowed to wear any other brand of clothing when representing the university, as it would be a breach of the contract with Nike (Hicks).  When big companies pay for a magazine advertisement, the company will pay the magazine company for showing their product, not the paper company that makes the magazine pages.  But in College sports, the payment for the advertisement skips the hands of the advertiser and lands in the hands of the University.  This unjustified advertisement, sometimes literally on the backs of these Black male athletes, creates a moral question as to where the money should be going.

Black Athletes battle with each other in sports on a day to day basis.  This can often be seen as an innocent act of exercise.  However, when understanding how Black athletes were created, a different point of view may be produced.  Before there was ever a Black athlete in America, there were Black men who entertained their oppressors with athletic battles.  In fact, slave narratives help tell the story of these epic battles in which two Black slaves are pitted against each other for the entertainment of Blue Eyes.  A former enslaved man from Alabama, John Finnely writes about these battles.

Finnely explains in his narrative, “De nigger fights am more for the white folks’ joyment but de slaves am allowed to see it.  De masses of plantation match deir niggers ’cording to size’ and bet on dem” (Yetmam 40).  It was actually common to pit individual slaves against each other in wrestling and boxing matches.  Rhoden writes, “Slaveholders liked nothing better than placing a wager or two on their favorite combatant” (Rhoden 52).  Though Black males were seen mainly as a source of mass revenue, they were beginning to be seen as a source for entertainment. With bets placed on these battles between enslaved men, they became both.  And for that reason, it is necessary to understand the correlation between the enslaved African for revenue and entertainment, and today’s Black athlete used for the same purposes.

The first Black man officially recognized as a Black athlete in America is none other than Tom Molineaux, a boxer.  Tom Molineaux represents the beginning of the African American athlete’s national participation.  Born into slavery on a Virginia plantation, Molineaux won his freedom with his fists (Rhoden, 34).   As an enslaved man, Molineaux (named after his “master”) began fighting enslaved Africans from other plantations for the owner of his plantation, Alegernon Molineaux.  In one slave fight, Tom Molineaux beat his opponent and, as a reward, was set free and given $500 (Wiggins 9).  With his earnings, Molineaux traveled to New York to live, where he fought and won more battles, this time for himself.

Molineaux is important in the category of the Black Athlete because he is the prime example of the White man’s use of the “Negro Slave” as entertainment.  He is also the founding example of a Black man finding sport as a means of overcoming negative circumstances when no other options seemed feasible.

In the 21st century, Black male athletes are still being exploited for their physical greatness rather than their intellect.  President of the NBA, David Stern, was quoted saying, “They have theme parks, we have theme parks. Only we call them arenas.  They have characters: Mickey and Goofy. Our characters are Magic and Michael.  Disney sells apparel; we sell apparel” (Hoberman 34).  When the owner of an establishment refers to his employees as characters for revenue and entertainment, the becomes an eerie resemblance of the plantation owners like Alegernon Molineaux, who never saw his Black counterpart as a person, but rather as an item to be used at his disposal.

To understand the system of exploitation in which Black athletes are under, it is necessary to look at past examples of enslavement, the 20th century psychological enslavement, and rules that were made intentionally to keep Black males from progressing.  From Slavery to the early Black athletes, there is evidence of strategies used to keep Black athletes oppressed.

Several different results occurred when slaves stepped “out-of-line”.  When enslaved Africans were caught reading or writing, they were whipped.  When enslaved Africans spoke to their “masters” wrong or disobeyed order, they were whipped, branded, castrated, or salted (Clarke 89).  When Enslaved Africans began to find ways around the racist system in which they lived, Slave Codes were put into act (Wilson 61). Over time, these rules became more stringent and racially guarded in nature to keep Black reproduction, Black wealth, and Black freedom from being accomplished. When Enslaved Africans were freed under the law, these Slave Codes were ratified and turned into the Black Codes (Wilson 79).

America eventually found new ways to keep Black people “in check“.  After Blacks received civil rights in 1866 (three years after the inauthentic Emancipation Proclamation), the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 sought to immediately overturn the newly appointed civil rights act (Marable 40).  The separate but equal clause was never implemented to keep options for Blacks equal with those offered to whites, but rather to keep the white race separate and superior.  These government sanctions which kept Blacks from progressing, learning, becoming independent, wealthy, and all together equal, are racially charged issues that can be seen in athletics today.

Black athlete Isaac Murphy’s life struggles was the first example of what would later be coined the Jockey Syndrome.  He was a Black Jockey whose success surpassed that of the white’s expectation. Whites were willing to allow his success until they deemed it to be a threat to their supremacy. Once he was on top and it seemed no one could compete with him, White America desired a “Great White Hope” in Ed Garrison to defeat the Black male (Rhoden 64).

Tom Molineaux was not only America’s first documented Black Athlete, but he also experienced the Jockey Syndrome.  His most renowned fight set the initial box in which Black Athletes were to be kept throughout time.  It was his world championship battle against White-English Champion Tom Cribb.  It was in this battle that, during the 19th round and Cribb’s likely defeat, that White observers stormed the ring and pummeled the Black fighter (Rhoden 42).  After being beaten and receiving a broken finger from the fans, the bout was not called and was allowed to continue.  Cribb eventually won the fight through multiple rights violations and the White European claimed victory over the Black athlete. The action showed by these spectators exemplifies the need for some whites with power feeling the need to keep this power at all costs.

Molineaux represents the first struggle of a “free” Black male athlete and the obstacles that occur with self-management. Prior to being considered a free man, spectators wouldn’t have thought to disrupt the fight of a slave owner’s property.  But because Molineaux was a “free” man, his rights were no longer of importance to those surrounding him.

Others suffered from this syndrome as well. Boxer Jack Johnson experienced his own defeat for “stepping out-of-line”.  Johnson’s true crime was his love for speaking his mind and not bowing down to his white counterparts (Rhoden, 93).  Johnson would taunt his white opponents after defeating them, which pierced the hearts of White Supremacists and created hatred for such a figure.  Johnson was attacked by the government as they sought to press charges for his philandering around with a white woman (Rhoden, 95).  This was seen as the highest form of disrespect and this apparent arrogance against the White race had to be put back in line.

After Johnson, the Jockey Syndrome sought to strangle the influential prominence of Muhammad Ali.  Ali, being an outspoken Black male athlete who followed his own set of rules, was a threat to White America.  The government chose to imprison Ali at the pinnacle of his career for “dodging the draft” of an unjust war due to his religious beliefs (Streissguth 57).  His affiliation with the Nation of Islam, his willingness to speak his mind, and his superiority in the ring made him a dangerous antidote to white supremacy.

In 2004, patterns of the Jockey Syndrome continued to reveal itself.  The National Football League decided to come down harshly on the athlete’s celebration after making touchdowns.  This rule, called the “excessive Celebration Rule”, banned excessive celebration of a player who accomplishes a goal during a game (Clayton).  This is problematic because the “excessiveness” of which the rule intended to stifle specifically targeted dancing of any sort. The main culprits of this rule were the Black male athletes who celebrated their achievements on the field with dancing.

Former professional football player Plaxico Buress explained, “It’s an urban thing. Most of us have a lot of rhythm, and we want to show it off… I know I’m going to do something that even I didn’t think I could do, and after I do it, I’m going to celebrate it” (Hoberman 204).  In the eyes of many Black male athletes, dancing is a simple form of celebration for achieving personal goals.  But in the eyes of many white owners, this dancing is mistaken for taunting and deemed disrespectful or demeaning.

Without context this rule can possibly be seen as understandable.  But with the knowledge of how White Americans hated the way in which Jack Johnson taunted his opponents after beating them and sought to stifle his progression, White owners voted 29-3 to stifle the celebration of professional football players who beat their opponents with a touchdown (  Like Johnson, these Black male athletes dancing on the screen makes the White owners of opposing teams feel like their worth is somehow lessened because of the Black dominance that they witness.  Many white sports analysts would often urge these athletes, almost always Black, to simply hand the ball to the referee and head to the sideline.  This is the 21st century equivalent of the condemnation of a Jack Johnson to create a less visible and more obedient Joe Louis.

In the National Basketball Association professional basketball players often wore wardrobe that they felt comfortable in.  Some wore business and business-casual attire, while others wore jerseys and expensive jewelry.  In 2005, the owners of the league decided that it was necessary to create a dress code.  This dress code was controversial because it seemed to be tailored specifically to the dress of the Black male athlete.  Sporting urban clothing and flashy jewelry, the NBA decided on a dress code in which many of their clauses tailored specifically to clothing worn pre-game by the Black athletes (  This code specified that players must wear a shirt with a collar or turtleneck, slacks, and appropriate shoes.  This code excludes attire including chains, pendants, medallions, doo-rags, jerseys, baggy jeans, and sunglasses while indoors.  Of the hundreds of photographs taken of athletes before games, only Black athletes can be seen wearing these items before games (Hutchinson).

This changing of the rules could possibly be determined as just making an improvement in the league’s appearance.  NBA President David Stern stated, “There are different uniforms for different occasions. We are changing the definition of uniform you wear when you are on NBA business” (  But other NBA employees are not restricted to a dress code.  NBA team owners like Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks and Larry Miller of the Utah Jazz have been pictured after the NBA’s dress code was implemented in blue jeans and a t-shirt (AP online). These owners, who show up on business to every game, aren’t shackled to the code of dress that Mr. Stern deems necessary for the definition of the league.  David Stern’s hypocritical actions implicate his personal anxieties about Black culture.

In both the NFL and NBA, the case of rule changes is evidently geared toward the Black male athletes who wish to express themselves in ways that White male athletes do not.  Like past events showing the jockey syndrome, the rules only seem to change when regulate the reins holding Black athletes back.

Through all the issues that Black male athletes have faced over time, and are still facing today, an answer must be found.  It must not be viewed acceptable for Black men to be coerced into a system of exploitation by rich white capitalists.  Because this system has been set in place creating revenue and entertainment by exploiting Black male athletes, a finger must be pointed at the exploiter. But, what also becomes necessary in this system is to find the Nat Turner’s, David Walker’s, and Frederick Douglass’.  There must be a production of strong and intelligent Black athletes, who are willing to stand tall against their oppressors in an effort for social, political, and psychological reform.  And with respect for those who fought before their time and revolutionized the status of Black America, Black athletes must not look to their oppressors for answers, but rather at themselves.  CEOs, players, and parents must find or create a community that better develops the world that they wish to see.

It is immediately necessary for Black athletes to organize and mobilize. Reflecting on the history of Black people, change does not occur until resistance to the current status is organized.  From the abolitionists and the 19th century rebels, to the 20th century Black Panthers and the NAACP, the Black race have understood that organizing as a community of people can create positive change.  And it is because of this potential for change that Black athletes must organize and create their own community.  An association or national organization would provide links, set agendas, define parameters, coordinate initiatives, and help to redefine the black athlete (Rhoden 267).

Black athletes have failed to compete for anything other than their subscribed sport.  The eyes of these athletes are either being blinded by their paychecks or intentionally turning away from deep and troubling social issues.  Rhoden states, “As deep and rich as their history has been, today’s black athletes have failed to produce leaders who understand the potential of this Black athletic nation to join in the larger push for freedom” (Rhoden 265).  Arthur Ashe predicted that African American athletes would play a pivotal role in shaping society in which they’d command an increasingly visible presence on the global landscape.  Ashe constantly preached that African American athletes had to stop hiding from their responsibility to address hard social issues (Rhoden 267).  Once these men come from behind the veil of neutrality, their voices will be heard.

It is then vital to redefine what it means for our Black male athletes to “win” in the present system of exploitation.  Winning can no longer mean getting a “full-ride scholarship” to a predominately white institute, nor can it mean being drafted into a league intended to lure, leash, and then dispose Black athletes.  Winning means ownership: owning teams, owning networks, owning means of communication, and owning our collective image (Rhoden 267).  And the sooner Black athletes understand these goals and deter from settling as chattel, accomplishing props becomes a sight within reach.

The challenge is to transform all of the wealth and presence into political, social, and economic power.  In the 21st century, winning for African Americans in sports means extending the reach of power beyond the courts and fields.  Sadly, highly visible athletes such as Jackie Robinson and Michael Jordan neglected their opportunity to stand and vocalize their opinions for pertinent issues outside of sports.  These Black male athletes failed to find some other purpose, or Nia, for their presence other than sport and revenue.

However, the most important influences on a community are the people raising it.  The parents and teachers of our communities must make it their primary goal to inspire their children to, not only be anything they want to be, but challenge them to understand everything that they are capable of being.  If a child is given a choice to be whatever he wants to be and only sees athletes in his neighborhood, the chances that he will be the next biochemist may decrease. As the 44th President of these United States of America, Barack Obama stated that the Black community must, “Push our children to set their sights a little higher.  They might think they got a good jump shot, but all out kids can’t aspire to be Lebron” (Langhorne).  The statement understands the necessity of guiding our children into a world of options, not just dreams.

Together, owners, coaches, players, and parents can unify to recreate the sport world into a propeller of the African American Community.  If players hope to make an impact, the principle they apply to basketball must also be applied to the arduous process of rebuilding communities: teamwork.  NBA star Eric Dampier of the Dallas Mavericks exclaimed, “Much can be done when you pull together as a group rather than trying to do it as individual” (Rhoden 265).   This epitomizes the collective work and responsibility, or Ujima, that a group of people must have in order to progress toward success.  With this collectivity, accompanied by the creativity to develop a significant purpose, the self-determination and unity of Black male athletes will allow the Black community to regain its faith in Black male athletes as future leaders.


AP Online. “Stern, James Support New NBA Dress Code – AP Online | HighBeam           Research – FREE Trial.” Research – Articles – Journals | Find Research Fast at           HighBeam Research. 18 Oct. 2005. Web.


Brooks, Scott, and Charles Kenyatta Ross. Race and Sport: the Struggle for Equality on and off the Field. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2004. Print.

“Chattel Slavery Legal Definition of Chattel Slavery. Chattel Slavery Synonyms by the Free Online Law Dictionary.” Legal Dictionary. Web. < slavery>.

Clarke, John Henrik. Critical Lessons in Slavery and the Slavetrade: Essential Studies and Commentaries on Slavery, in General, and the African Slavetrade, in Particular. Richmond: Native Sun, 1996. Print.

Clayton, John. “Taking the Fun out of N-F-L – ESPN.” Exclusive Videos, Chats, Fantasy Tools and More ESPN Insider – ESPN. 27 Mar. 2006. Web. <;.

“Conversation with Semi-Professional Football Player Andre Hicks.” Personal interview.   2009.

Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. “Black Code (United States History) – Britannica Online      Encyclopedia.” Encyclopedia – Britannica Online Encyclopedia. 2010. Web.             <;.

Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. “Slave Code (United States History) – Britannica Online       Encyclopedia.” Encyclopedia – Britannica Online Encyclopedia. 2010. Web.            <;.

Helin, Kurt. “John Wall Signs Shoe Deal with Reebok.” ProBasketballTalk. 9 June 2010. Web.<>.

Henderson, Edwin Bancroft. The Negro in Sports. Washington: Associated, 1949. Print.

Hoberman, John M. Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Print.

Hutchinson, Earl. “ – The NBA Dress Code: It’s Not The Dress, It’s The   Stereotypes.” – Black News | African American News | Black        History. Web. <;.

Isidore, Chris. “How Profitable Is Your Favorite College Basketball Team? – Mar. 18, 2010.” Business, Financial, Personal Finance News – 18 Mar. 2010. Web. <>.

“John Calipari Deal Includes Cars, Country Club, Tickets – ESPN.” ESPN: The Worldwide Leader In Sports. Ed. Associated Press. 1 Apr. 2009. Web. <>.

The Journey of the African American Athlete. Dir. Leslie D. Farrell. Home Box Office, 1996. Videocassette.

“The Richest People in America –” – Business News, Financial     News, Stock Market Analysis, Technology & Global Headline News. Forbes.Com,           16 Sept. 2010. Web.


“KENTUCKY OFFICIAL ATHLETIC SITE – Men’s Basketball.” University of Kentucky Official Athletic Site – Ed. CBS Interactive. 2009. Web. <>.

Langhorne, Cyrus. “Barack Obama Gives B-Day Talk To NAACP, “Our Kids Can’t All Aspire To Be LeBron Or Lil Wayne” [Video] | SOHH.COM.” 17 July 2009. Web.


Leiterberg, Neal. “Houston Rockets Sign First round Pick Patrick Patterson – National NBA Draft |” Norfolk News, Norfolk Information, Norfolk Events – | 14 July 2010. Web. <>.

Los Angeles TImes. “Former Cat Eric Bledsoe Signs Contract with Clippers.” 11 July 2010. Web. <>.

McGrane, Mick. “New Pact Means Fisher Staying Put | The San Diego Union-Tribune.” San Diego News, Local, California and National News – 29 Sept. 2006. Web. <>.

McGuire, Kevin. “Alabama Has Most Profitable Nike Contract in College Sports – National College Football |” Los Angeles News, Los Angeles Information, Los Angeles Events – | 17 May 2010. Web. <>.

Miller, Randall M., and John David Smith. Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery. New York: Greenwood, 1988. Print.

“ – NBA Player Dress Code.” Where Amazing Happens. | NBA.COM. Media Ventures, 20 Oct. 2005. Web. <>.

Never Scared. Dir. Joel Gallen. Perf. Chris Rock. Home Box Office, 2004. DVD.

Pierson, Don. “Expert: Simple Celebration Rule — Stay on Your Feet – NFL- NBC Sports.” Sports News Headlines – NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, PGA, NASCAR – Scores, Game Highlights, Schedules & Team Rosters – NBC Sports. 4 Apr. 2006. Web.


Powell, Shaun. Souled Out?: How Blacks Are Winning and Losing in Sports. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008. Print.

Rhoden, William C. $40 Million Slaves: the Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. New York: Crown, 2006. Print.

Ridley, John. “A True Champion Vs. The ‘Great White Hope’ : NPR.” NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. 2 July 2010. Web. <;.

“Sports Statistics.” Market Research, Competitive Intelligence, Industry Data, Statistics, Forecasts, US and Global Trends, Corporate Profiles, Business Information; Reference Books, Executive Mailing Lists from Plunkett. Plunkey Research, Ltd., 2010. Web. <>.

Streissguth, Thomas. Clay v. United States and How Muhammad Ali Fought the Draft: Debating Supreme Court Decisions. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2005. Print.

“University of Kentucky | Office of the Registrar.” University of Kentucky – Welcome to the University of Kentucky. Site Lab. Web. <>.

Watkins, Boyce. “Paying College Athletes: Pay for Play Is the Only Way.” Welcome to! 10 Apr. 2009. Web. <>.

Wiggins, David Kenneth. Glory Bound: Black Athletes in a White America. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1997. Print.

Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. London: Andre Deutsch, 1981. Print.

Wilson, Theodore Brantner. The Black Codes of the South. University: University of Alabama, 1965. Print.

WYMT News. “5 UK Players Will Enter the NBA Draft.” WKYT Home Page. 7 Apr. 2010. Web.


Yetman, Norman R. When I Was a Slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collection. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002. Print.

Yost, Mark. Varsity Green: Millionaire Coaches, Ruthless Sneaker Wars, and the Battle     for the Soul of College Sports. New York: Harpercollins, 2008. Print.

2 thoughts on “More Than Just a Game: Examining the Exploitation of the Black Male Athlete

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s