Recently a media feeding frenzy ensued when Washington Washington Football Team defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth uttered the statement, “Just because somebody pays you money don’t mean they’ll make you do whatever they want…I’m not for sale. Yeah, I signed the contract and got paid a lot of money [$21 million this year], but that don’t mean I’m for sale or a slave or whatever.”
Part of the shock, or better yet outrage, seemed to be focused on the very thought that a black man making so much money would compare playing in a defensive scheme he despises to the master-slave relationship at the heart of the American Black-white divide. According to Haynesworth his bone of contention was part of his contract negotiations with the Washington Football Team.
Of course he is not the first contemporary athlete to utter the slave comparison. Former NBA great Larry Johnson once referred to some of his New York Knicks teammates as “rebel slaves” which generated similar outrage. William Rhoden’s wonderful book Forty Million Dollar Slaves takes on the historic plantation mentality of American sport culture and contemporary athletes. And my own book, Ballers of The New School, examines the mentality of contemporary post-civil rights, hip-hop generation athletes, bold enough to make such utterances.
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To be fair to Haynesworth who is black, the history and legacy of the enslavement of African persons in the New World, and testifying against it or vestiges of it, will forever be part of the psyche of black Americans. Enslavement in America was harsh, bitter, and cruel as recounted in endless slave narratives. These narratives testified against captors and bore witness to the desire of every black person to be free. Haynesworth’s recent tirade or testimony (depending on your point of view) underscores the feelings that most contemporary athletes are either unwilling to or incapable of articulating.
While Haynesworth certainly does not endure the same type of cruel bondage, his rebellion is against those in power of a plantation or system (dominated primarily by white men) that controls black men—even if they pay them. It is a system capable of making them “do whatever they want” whenever they want. Haynesworth, like the slave narratives, which demonstrated the problematic value of plantation culture, is perhaps addressing the problematic white-black labor conditions in contemporary sports culture that is driven by a modicum of the past master-slave ideology.
Rhoden says in his book “sports might be a plantation of sorts.” Haynesworth seems to concur. And, no amount of money will hush black folk with knowledge of this legacy, because America’s foundation is buried in the fields of slave plantations.
Ironically, the foundation of contemporary high profile sports like football and basketball are the descendants of former slaves. Even the structure of contemporary sports teams traces the power dynamics of plantations. Nearly all the people who exercise power over players are white— the owners, head coaches, commissioners, etc.
The outrage directed at Haynesworth for making his “slave” comment confirms the unspoken notion that because he is Black, he is treated as a descendants of former slaves. Critics say Haynesworth should be grateful—more grateful than his white peers—for the money he makes.
But if Haynesworth is getting paid so much and the dynamics are so different, why make the comparison?
Haynesworth is bothered that despite his immense wealth he does not control the terms of his liberation—the problem slaves faced without the benefit of wealth. Further, in the contemporary sports world not only are white men (like his coach and team owner) in power, but they have defined the terms of the liberation for black men. Haynesworth’s analogy is perhaps his way of saying that while his services may be for sale, his pride and self-respect are not. Despite the money, prestige, and lifestyle, he is not blind to the master-slave power dynamic in contemporary sport culture.
What underscores the Haynesworth saga is how it compares to that of Minnesota Vikings’ Brett Favre who is white. Haynesworth dislikes the Washington Football Team 3-4 defensive scheme, preferring to play tackle instead of nose guard. He also skipped the Washington Football Team voluntary off-season conditioning program. The media maligned him for this, suggesting he was lazy. Brett Favre routinely skips training camp until the last two weeks of camp. He also chose to play for the Vikings because they use an offense he likes.
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Yet, the media response to his antics is the antithesis of the response to Haynesworth. Haynesworth is called “ridiculous,” “an idiot” and worse for making his comments. Meanwhile Favre is worshipped for holding teams hostage (deciding if he will play or retire) each year until two weeks before the season begins. In fact, he was given a raise this season. (He now makes $16 million!)
Race is an undeniable variable in the different treatment of these men. The black one is told he should be grateful, shut up and do what he is told. The other is afforded the latitude to waffle about playing, and is offered a raise for doing so.
My point here is not that Haynesworth is literally a slave, but that because he’s Black he’s treated like one. Nor is it that whites are literally masters. The point is that Haynesworth seems to be aware the racial dynamics at play and rejects them. Our national understanding of race could make leaps and bounds, if the public considered these dynamics alongside Haynesworth words, “I’m not for sale or a slave or whatever.”
Thabiti Lewis is the author of Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America (Third World Press, 2010). He teaches English and American Studies at Washington State University Vancouver.