American sports journalist and author William C. Rhoden, Assistant Professor of History Carl Suddler and ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant engaged in conversation about race relations in sports on Feb. 4. (The Emory Wheel)

“How much power do you really have if you lose everything by opening your mouth?”

ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant’s reflection on the fragility of Black power in sports encapsulated the 2021 Pellom McDaniels Sports History Lecture Series on Feb. 4. 

Assistant Professor of History Carl Suddler hosted a dialogue between Bryant, who wrote “Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field,” and writer-at-large for The Undefeated William C. Rhoden, who wrote “Forty Million Dollar Slaves.” 

The conversation explored the complexity of race relations in professional athletics, a realm long heralded as an equalizer that struggles to adequately address its racial disparities. 

“White America has always allowed Black people to entertain them,” Bryant said. “These integrated spaces are supposed to create some sort of enlightenment and you realize they don’t.”

Bryant explained that power in sports is divided along racial lines, as teams depend on Black athletes to grind out wins, while white owners, coaches and media personnel move the pieces and control the narrative. Fans and season ticket holders are mostly white as well, and the pressure to keep that audience satisfied has been a confusing process for the entire industry.

“Tom Brady is a Trump supporter, so here you got this guy who arguably is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time whose career has been made by a lot of Black guys he’s thrown to,” Rhoden said. “You’ve got this white quarterback who’s clearly in support of this racist president, but yet his career has been made by these Black guys.”

Bryant and Rhoden suggested that some white people only feel comfortable celebrating Black excellence in a sports setting and are taken aback when Black athletes carry their influence into other arenas. From Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests which sparked a national conversation to NBA players’ refusal to take the floor for games after the shooting of Jacob Blake, attempts by Black athletes to use their platform for activism receive harsh backlash.

“To the public, having that money is sufficient reason for you to say nothing,” Bryant said. “Everybody in this country, the more money they get the more they talk. Black athletes are the only people in this country that the more money they make, the less we want to hear from you.”

Conflicts between athletes and franchise owners are nothing new, but the recent racial justice protests in professional sports indicate that players hold sway over the game itself. As Bryant explained, without players, there is no game; without a game, there is no income. 

White franchise owners depend on their athletes to fuel the industry, yet some try to suppress Black voices and reduce them to nothing more than entertainers, Rhoden explained.

“At the Capitol building there was the one scene where the white guy had the Confederate flag standing outside the Senate chambers,” Rhoden said. “It occurred to me at that moment, that there are a lot of these team owners and executives who’ve got their own Confederate flag—their invisible Confederate flag—that they put on the organization.”

Bryant and Rhoden drew parallels between slavery and the hierarchy of professional sports, noting Black players give far more to their respective organizations than they receive. Bryant explained that while some may dismiss the notion by citing the immense wealth Black athletes have, the structural inequality of the system speaks volumes. 

“You still have to view it through a labor lens, not your lens of what I make and what they make, but against what they make against what they bring into the industry,” Bryant said. “[Athletes] are the most successful, the most visible, they’re the most influential Black people in this country.”

Rhoden agreed, indicating that as Black presence in sports has grown, so has audiences’ apathy toward the principles Black athletes support.

“The more Black folks are playing, the less you can care,” Rhoden said. “That goes all the way back to the eighteenth century where we’ve defined Black folks, Africans, as people who are not really human.”

Bryant and Rhoden argued that Black athletes must reclaim their narrative and work collectively to level the playing field. They cited recent events like high-profile college athletes committing to HBCUs, quarterback Deshaun Watson’s vocal disapproval of the Houston Texans organization and the diverse coaching staff behind the Superbowl-bound Buccaneers as encouraging signs, and commended the young activists championing the Black cause.

“My parents never, ever emphasized equality to me. They emphasized opportunity,” Bryant said. “I love the fact that this generation, they don’t just want opportunity. They want equality too.”