GU Athletes, BSA Discuss ‘State of the Black Athlete’

By Courtesy of Georgetown Univ. By Brenna McGee
Updated: September 28, 2006

WASHINGTON, D.C.—“It’s a slave system. Make no mistake about it, slave master say you can’t do it, don’t do it. They’ll make an example out of you.”

That controversial 2003 quote from then-Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp about what it is like to be a player in the NFL was just one of the many touchy subjects discussed at last’s night panel on the state of the black athlete.

Hosted by the Black Student Alliance, the panel featured New York Times writer William C. Rhoden, Washington Wizards center Etan Thomas, Slam Magazine columnist and Nation Magazine contributor Dave Zirin and former NCAA and NFL Director of Player Programs Guy Troupe. Discussing issues as diverse as racism, economic disparity, gender inequality, the education system in the U.S. and the loss of a generation of black athletes, the panel raised questions and made points they said are too often overlooked in our society.

Beginning with the issue of athletes-as-slaves that was raised in Rhoden’s best-selling book, 40 Million Dollar Slaves, as well as by players like former New York Knick Larry Johnson and Sapp, the panel both defended and chastised players for making the comparison.

“It’s about your relationship to power,” Rhoden said, explaining that the slavery these athletes refer to has little to do with money and all about their feelings of powerlessness. They feel like slaves, he said, because no matter how much money they have they still have no power to control their own lives and decisions.

Demonstrating that the issue of slavery in the NFL is not just a racial one, Zirin pointed out the way Tampa Bay starting quarterback Chris Simms was sent back into play last Sunday with a ruptured spleen, against his best judgment, because players are just labor and not allowed to make their own decisions.

Troupe made another connection, citing the actual physical labor athletes do. Pointing out that the average NFL career is only four years, Troupe said the way players wear out physically can be compared to the way slaves would also break down.

Adding to that idea later in the discussion, Zirin pointed out that playing in the NFL is like “signing away your right to have a middle age.”

Rhoden came back to this issue later as well, mentioning the way that college athletics are structured. Pointing out that the two sports that make a profit — football and basketball — are both primarily played by black athletes, while the sports they fund are predominantly white, Rhoden called college “the ultimate plantation system.”

Thomas countered that the exploitation was not unidirectional.

“You can use sports to better yourself in life,” he said. “You can’t let them use you, you must use them,” giving the example of inner-city youth using colleges simply for athletics scholarships so that they can get a degree.

While Rhoden lamented the current generation of black athletes as a “lost generation” in his book, Thomas defended his classmates and teammates, saying they deserve more credit than they are given. He blamed the media for only ever “putting out the bad stuff,” and said, “the black athlete is not lost and has not turned his back on the black community,” citing numerous examples of black athletes’ responses to Hurricane Katrina.

Rhoden defended the position he took in his book, saying it is not a problem of individual contribution, but a lack of collective action that is holding this generation of athletes back.

“We need to get back to moving together,” he said.

While many panels simply list the problems they see, last night’s panel made an effort to be “solution-oriented.” Despite all the problems the panelists said they saw in the athletic community, there was no shortage of solutions tossed out.

Rhoden promoted the idea of a national sports curriculum, in the vein of a drama program, where the athletes could learn all the aspects of their sport, from contracts to picking an agent, so that they would be better prepared to make decisions if and when they made the jump to a professional career.

Troupe stressed the need for “transferable qualities” in case a professional athletic career did not materialize. He pointed out that qualities like leadership, teamwork, dedication, sacrifice, goal setting and overcoming challenges were all valuable in the workplace and said young men simply need role models to point them in the right direction.

“Coaches have a lot of control,” Troupe said. “We have to find other mentors.”

Zirin spoke of the need to integrate athletes into the general student body more. Explaining how he had observed how different athletes got treated as early as fourth grade, he said there needs to be a fight to keep people from just accepting one label to define themselves.

No solutions were reached last, but the panel discussion last night in Copley Formal Lounge was just the first of many similar panels to be held across the country in the coming months and the panelists said they hoped to continue the conversation and keep talking about the issues raised.

Former men’s basketball Head Coach John Thompson Jr., Athletic Director Bernard Muir, current men’s basketball Head Coach John Thompson III, women’s basketball Head Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy, men’s basketball juniors Roy Hibbert and Tyler Crawford, as well as a large group of football players were all on hand for the discussion.