Stop. Before you object to my use of the word “slave,” let us be clear: I do not mean “slave” in the way you are thinking.
I am not trying to invoke the pain and trauma of our ancestors in a hyperbolic comparison. When I write “slave,” I am not using it in the narrow sense of the mid-Atlantic holocaust perpetrated against African people. I’m using it in the correct sense. I’m using it according to the definition of the word. I’m using it according to every definition of the word.
The Oxford Dictionary defines a slave as:
A person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.
1.1 A person who works very hard without proper remuneration or appreciation.
1.2 A person who is excessively dependent upon or controlled by something.
1.3 A device, or part of one, directly controlled by another.
According to ESPN, which is keeping a week-by-week tally of which professional football players protest this season during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” this past Sunday only 10 NFL players participated in protesting racial inequality by kneeling or refusing to stand during the national anthem—the fewest this season. Other players protested by raising fists during the song, staying in the tunnel or demonstrating before the anthem.
Today at 6 p.m., ESPN will air another version of Sportscenter, the network’s most popular version of its flagship program, without anchor Jemele Hill. Hill is serving a two-week suspension for tweets that the company said violates its social media policy.
When Sportscenter hits the air, one of the lead stories will probably be about the University of Louisville’s decision on whether it will fire head coach Rick Pitino. Pitino has been implicated in a FBI investigation that alleges that he and a number of officials at other NCAA colleges paid third parties hundreds of thousands of dollars to secure recruits to their individual university athletics programs.
There are some who will counter that the decrees of these organizations are no different from the rules and contractual obligations of any other employer for any other company. They are correct. But here is the difference between the NFL, ESPN and NCAA and other organizations:
The NFL’s black players are not being disciplined because of infractions. The NCAA is not cherry-picking which coaches to target for violating NCAA rules. Hill is not being censured for breaking ESPN’s policy. Each of these entities knows that it cannot profit without the absolute control of the livestock whose talent and toiling line the pockets of the overseers. The suspensions, fines and proposed benchings are not a play for order and fairness. They are meant to assert control. They are proclamations of ownership.
Slavery has absolutely nothing to do with pay. It is about ownership. It is about control.
On Tuesday, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said: “The policy and my actions are going to be if you don’t honor and stand for the flag in a way that a lot of our fans feel that you should, if that’s not the case, then you won’t play.” Jones is within his rights to do so because of a quiet change in NFL policy that allows the league and individual owners to discipline players for not standing for the anthem.
Roughly 80 percent of the NFL’s players are black. One hundred percent of the NFL’s majority owners are white. But this issue is not about color; nor does it have anything to do with the flag or the anthem. It is about a group of billionaires knowing that they cannot allow the bodies they ostensibly “own” to coalesce into a united, vocal force. It is about stamping out rebellion and resistance.
It is about forcing their legal property to obey.
This is the same with ESPN and Jemele Hill. ESPN claims that Hill violated its social media policy by tweeting her opinions from her personal social media account. ESPN’s policy states:
Writers, reporters, producers and editors directly involved in “hard” news reporting, investigative or enterprise assignments and related coverage should refrain in any public-facing forum from taking positions on political or social issues, candidates or office holders.
While it is debatable whether Hill is considered a “reporter,” ESPN’s rules also say:
Outside of “hard” news reporting, commentary related to political or social issues, candidates or office holders is appropriate on ESPN platforms consistent with these guidelines.”
The topic should be related to a current issue impacting sports.
ESPN pays Hill, in part, because she is black and outspoken. The network monetized her unapologetic blackness in the same way the NFL capitalizes on its mostly black workforce. According to AdAge, since ESPN moved Hill and co-host Michael Smith to their flagship program, the show’s audience is 12 years younger and has increased its Hispanic and African-American audience by 39 percent, attracting better and higher-paying advertisers. Never forget how the network chose to promote the new, hip SC6 when it named Hill and Smith as anchors:
ESPN wants the unapologetic blackness without the unapologetic part. Or the black part. To ensure that, the network twisted its rules and contorted itself into a bullwhip to make sure Hill knows what not to say. How not to act. If she is to be the network’s legal property, it wants to make sure she knows that she should obey.
College athletes are no different. The FBI investigation that claimed Pitino’s inviolability arbitrarily focused on a group of schools where boosters were funneling money between coaches, sports agents and shoe companies to get top recruits to commit to certain colleges. You know who wasn’t making any money?
Almost every analyst and expert who covers college sports says that these kinds of deals take place at almost every high-profile university athletic program. The NCAA, like the NFL and ESPN, selectively enforces its rules to ensure the steady flow of free labor that enriches the institution without compensating the players—or, as the definition of slavery says, “without proper remuneration or appreciation.”
When an investigation exposed the University of North Carolina’s sham African-American-studies program that gave athletes fake grades for 18 years, absolutely nothing happened. When poor black students complete four years of eligibility without a degree after making millions for their colleges, absolutely nothing happens. College athletes can’t obtain outside employment without permission. They can’t leave the
plantation schools if their current college won’t allow it. They are “excessively dependent” on their universities.
When Donald Trump suggested that ESPN should terminate Jemele Hill or that NFL owners should fire “that son of a bitch” who “disrespects our flag,” he knew what he was doing. It wasn’t simply a call to white supremacists who wrap themselves in patriotism because it is the “last refuge of the scoundrel.” It wasn’t a dog whistle to his base.
It was a plea to make America great again. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that no matter how rich, successful, talented or accomplished a black person in America may be ...
... that black person can still be a slave.