Saturday, October 14, 2017

unfair play..., (REDUX - Originally Posted 3/30/14)


NYTimes | IN his provocative, passionate, important and disturbing book — part memoir, part history, part journalism — William C. Rhoden, a sports columnist for The New York Times, builds a historical framework that both accounts for the varieties of African-American athletic experience in the past and continues to explain them today.

First, he wants to recast black sports history, transforming it from “the inspirational reel” featuring Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe and the later Muhammad Ali into “a more complicated tale of continuous struggle, a narrative of victory and defeat.” His alternative narrative focuses on the stories of successful African-American athletes who so wanted to be accepted by white society that they failed “to anticipate, plan and organize,” maintained their “wholesale dependence on a racist white power structure,” and showed “surprise and consternation when the money and support” were withdrawn. Even black athletic institutions like Negro league baseball in the 1940’s and historically black colleges in the 1960’s complacently, and fatally, assumed that segregation would assure them a steady supply of athletes.

Second, Rhoden argues convincingly that integration posed relatively few problems for the white sports world, which quickly gained access to a huge pool of cheap talent, but that it precipitated a disaster for a “black industry, practically eliminating every black person involved in sports — coaches, owners, trainers, accountants, lawyers, secretaries and so on — except the precious on-the-field talent.”

Consequently, most black athletes lost their connection to a “sense of mission . . . of being part of a larger cause.” Young athletes, in particular, “dropped the thread that joins them to that struggle” and became, instead, a “lost tribe,” adrift in the world of white coaches, boosters, agents, club officials, network executives — those profiting from black muscle and skill. 

Finally, Rhoden insists on the importance of black athletes and entrepreneurs gaining organizational and business power in college and professional sports: the path toward the “redemption” of his subtitle. His vision here is a little murky, but he knows too much history to feel sanguine about the one black-owned franchise in the N.B.A., Robert Johnson’s (and now also Michael Jordan’s) Charlotte Bobcats.