March 2011, Week 3


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Wed, 16 Mar 2011 15:27:42 -0400
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Slaves to the Game? Adrian Peterson and the "S" Word

By Dave Zirin
The Nation blog
March 16, 2011


Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings All-Pro running
back, "went there," and now there's no going back. In a
moment of supreme frustration with NFL owners and their
lust for the lockout, Peterson said, "It's modern-day
slavery, you know?"

For sportswriters inclined to cozy up to Commissioner
Roger Goodell, Peterson's words were manna from heaven.
He's been called "ungrateful", "out of touch",  "an
idiot", and in the darker recesses of the blogosphere,
far worse. Even those inclined to openly sympathize
with the players have stated their "great offense" that
Peterson could liken his situation to the horrors of
chattel slavery. As Jamil Smith, a very righteous
producer at the Rachel Maddow Show, tweeted to me, "I
want to hear  Adrian Peterson out. I just need him to
know that using `slavery' makes it harder for me to
hear him." Fellow players, Ryan Grant and Heath Evans,
also took exception, with Grant calling it "A very
misinformed statement."

It's not difficult to understand why some are crushing
Adrian Peterson for likening his glamorized career to
"modern day slavery." But all the criticism in the
world doesn't explain why the metaphor would cross his
mind in the first place. It doesn't explain why other
athletes - Curt Flood, Larry Johnson, and Warren Sapp
among them - have reached to this explosive analogy as
a way to articulate their frustrations.

At least two books have already been written that
explore this concept : 40 Million Dollar Slaves by NY
Times columnist William Rhoden and The Slave Side of
Sunday, by former NFL player Anthony Prior. Both are
stunning testaments to the fact that there is more here
than meets the eye. Even if we are repelled by
Peterson's choice of words, it's worth putting down the
torches and trying to understand why this is the
analogy that just won't die, especially in the world of
pro football.

To be an African American NFL player is to play in a
league where 70% of the players are black and 100% of
the owners are white. It's a league where only 3% of
head coaches were black until the famous, (or infamous)
lawyer Johnnie Cochran threatened a mass class action
lawsuit saying he would "litigate if they do not
integrate." It's a league where collegiate players
hoping to be drafted show up to the NFL combine to be
poked, prodded, and have various body parts judged and
measured. Teams basically do everything short of having
someone run their finger along the players' gums. If
you are lucky enough to make the league, you will be
blessed with a career that will on average, last 3.4
years, and cursed with a life expectancy 22 years
shorter than that of the typical American male. Your
contract isn't guaranteed, so if you do sustain some
horrific injury, you are officially yesterday's trash.

I interviewed former NFL player and Slave Side of
Sunday author Anthony Prior several years ago, and this
is what he said about the player as slave metaphor:
"Black players have created a billion-dollar market but
have no voice in the industry, no power. That sounds an
awful lot like slavery to me. On plantations slaves
were respected for their physical skills but were given
no respect as thinking beings. On the football field,
we are treated as what appears like gods, but in fact
this is just the 'show and tell' of the management for
their spectators. In reality, what is transpiring is
that black athletes are being treated with disrespect
and degradation. As soon as we take off that uniform,
behind the dressing room doors, we are less than human.
We are bought and sold. Traded and drafted, like our
ancestors, and the public views this as a sport,
ironically the same attitude as people had in the
slavery era."

Prior contended that coaches and other authority
figures in the game use racism to bully African-
American players in an effort to instill obedience.
"I've heard coaches call players 'boy,' 'porch
monkeys,' 'sambos,' " he said. "Players don't get
tested on their athleticism as much as they get tested
on their manhood.

"The intimidation is immense...I've seen players
benched because a coach saw them with a white woman, or
overheard a criticism of his incompetence, or because a
player didn't go to Bible study. I've been in film
sessions where coaches would try to get a rise out of
players by calling them 'boy' or 'Jemima,' and players
are so conditioned to not jeopardize their place, they
just take it."

What is so bracing about this moment in NFL history is
that players aren't "just taking it" anymore. Attacking
Adrian Peterson for using "the s word" is pure
distraction from what's taking place in front of our
eyes. Players are demanding to see the owners'
financial ledgers, to choose their own doctors, and,
for the first time in NFL history, to be treated like
fully-grown men. It's remarkable that these 21st
century gladiators are praised by the media when they
show so-called "manhood" on the field by playing
through pain, but derided when they refuse to be
treated like children.

Curt Flood, who by 1971 had sacrificed his all-star
career in the fight for free agency, once said, "A
well-paid slave is nonetheless, a slave." He was
excoriated for that statement and inexcusably run out
of his sport. Hopefully we can do a little better this
time around. Hopefully we can hear the frustration
beneath the words.

[Dave Zirin is the author of "Bad Sports: How Owners
are Ruining the Games we Love" (Scribner) and just made
the new documentary "Not Just a Game." Receive his
column every week by emailing [log in to unmask]
Contact him at [log in to unmask]]


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