"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Slaves … TO the Game or FOR the Game?

Mr. Greene, my 8th Grade Social Studies teacher, posted a message on the blackboard on the first day of classes:

If you don’t know the answer to a question, bluff by speaking the word, “economics.” More often than not, you’ll be right.

Heady stuff to tell a bunch of 12-14-year-old kids who had little idea how the world works. I mention Mr. Greene’s message because it was written in the context of the first unit that year: The Civil War, and the major causes of it. Slavery, the major cause of the War that began 150 years ago this year, is certainly a cultural issue. At its core, however, it is — and was — an economic issue.

The slavery analogy has been made to describe the economic, racial and cultural divide in professional sports since the late 19th Century and the immediate aftermath of Jim Crow and Plessy v. Ferguson. Adrian Peterson’s use of the word, uttered in an interview to Yahoo! Sports, is news because, as Dave Zirin wrote, “he went there.” A black athlete making a slavery analogy, in a sport with white owners, is drawing heavy criticism from mostly white media media members. We’re still having this discussion? The cast is different but the colors are the same? The NFLPA, led by a dynamic black man in DeMaurice Smith, has hinted at exactly what Peterson said. He just didn’t use the word.

The three lead plaintiffs in the class-action suit against the NFL — Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning — may agree with the slavery analogy, but by virtue of their pigmentation, couldn’t dare use it. What level of criticism would they receive?

In my Sport Sociology studies in college, racism, along with gender equity, were the two most frequent issues discussed. The seminar my senior year was devoted to the topic, specifically in the sport of boxing.

I’m not of the mindset that someone making millions of dollars has no right to use the term “slave.” I am of the mindset that the rampant criticism for his word choice is undeserved. Peterson, like Brady, Brees and Manning is one of the most visible players in the NFL. Maybe not necessarily in that order, Peterson, Brady, Brees and Manning are the top four picks in most Fantasy drafts. Why shouldn’t he present his viewpoint?

Zirin’s full article can be found here. If you’re interested in sport history and culture, it’s a good read. His mentions of Curt Flood, whose struggles against the Reserve Clause were profiled by Alex Belth profiled in a 2006 biography, Stepping Up, are poignant and insightful.

As for the discussion of slavery, it still exists in this country; just not in the form that it once did. Context rules. Do you believe Peterson’s comment was taken out of context? Is the comment more socioeconomic or sociocultural?

One thing is certain: the debate is not going to end any time soon.

[Photo Credit: Zimbio.com]


1 Shaun P.   ~  Mar 16, 2011 4:51 pm

Context is indeed important. Any good lawyer will tell you that.

Here's my favorite example, and one I often use to turn around a trite comment about my chosen profession.

Unsuspecting Person trying to make lawyer joke: "You know, Shakespeare had it right. The first thing we should do is kill all the lawyers."

Me: "Yes, Shakespeare wrote that. But do you know the context in which those lines were written?"

Unsuspecting Person: "No . . ."

Me: "They were spoken by rabble-rousers in Henry VI, who were discussing how much better society would be if the government, and law and order, were gone. And if one wanted to get rid of those things, and establish chaos and disorder in society, where rabble-rousers could do as they wished with no one to stop them, then the first thing one would have to do is to kill all the lawyers."


I don't think the invocation of slavery is crazy here. I wouldn't have done it, but I can see the parallels. At a high level, slavery was about control, wage restriction, and threats. "Do what I say, or else. And I'll pay you what I damn well please." That's basically what the NFL's owners are telling the players right now.

2 RIYank   ~  Mar 16, 2011 5:31 pm

Hm, I think that's a somewhat simplistic analysis of the Shakespeare, Shaun. (The scene is here.) The scene is comedy, the characters are comic, it's supposed to be knee-slapping funny. I think there's definitely at least a hint of the feel that it would have today if a comic character suggested killing all lawyers.

Anyway, I think the 'slave' remark is way off base. It's tone deaf, like something A-Rod would say. Before free agency, I could see the point of the analogy, and if Peterson said that rookies are treated like slaves I guess I could see his point.

3 Bronx Boy in NC   ~  Mar 16, 2011 7:13 pm

Not in reference to the main body of the post, but to the preamble:

The NYT is doing a wonderful service with its ongoing Opinionator blog titled "Disunion." It has been following the day-by-day dissolution of the Union in 1860-61, with an emphasis on things that happened exactly 150 years ago on each day.

Reading it, and the many original documents to which it offers links or references, puts the lie to all the gauzy argle-bargle we (I, anyway) heard in school about tariffs, economic hegemony, cultural differences, etc. The Civil War took place amid complex political and economic circumstances, but it was about s-l-a-v-e-r-y. No one said so more clearly than the southern separatists themselves.

There's no easy way to read from the beginning other than to hit the "older entries" button again and again, but it's worth it:


4 Will Weiss   ~  Mar 16, 2011 11:45 pm

To see some of the comments in the blogosphere just killing Peterson is a shame. People who were previously fans of his saying they're not now, and that someone making $10.72 million this year can't cry "slavery." ... It's out of whack.

[1] Shaun, I agree with you. The invocation isn't crazy, if you look at what the owners are projecting to the players. I'm struck by the number of people, even some black players like Ryan Grant, calling the comment "misinformed." How can a perception be misinformed?

[2] A-Rod would not say something like this because he's too self-conscious, even now. He wouldn't dare say something like this, for fear of what it would do to his reputation. He doesn't strike me as someone who would speak publicly with a social conscience, this despite the charitable works he's done in Miami, specifically for the Boys and Girls Clubs.

5 Chyll Will   ~  Mar 17, 2011 9:41 am

[4] Hopefully you're filtering the critical comments from the majority and multitude of racist and ignorant anonymous or nicknamed comments that usually inhabit the blogosphere (since Yahoo! Sports is mentioned, I will point out they they suffer big time from that malaise). The internet is racism's "best" refuge and it blazes brightly, though some sites have recently started to stem that by requiring full registration to post comments (so they can be traced if they do post ignorant or threatening messages). Most of the comments I fall upon from well-known media outposts are so far across the line that it might be easy for a person uninformed about the matter to understand Peterson's point.

And I agree, Will and everyone else; taken into context it is a reasoned comment. The problem is that most Americans appear to be too lazy now to take much of anything in real context, instead reacting to keywords or buzzwords. Is that a learned condition or is that a product of the culture America has embraced today? Who knows...

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver