The Connection Between Professional Sports And Slavery

Painting of two men fighting
Abeni Jones
December 2, 2019

“It looks a lot like slavery,” said Kyra Lambert, a basketball player, at a recent forum for Black student-athletes. 

But the connection between Black athletes and slavery is even more direct than many think.

A favorite form of amusement for slave owners was forcing slaves into bare-knuckle fighting.

Gladiator-style, enslaved Africans had to box each other, and slave owners bet on the fights. And while slave owners made huge sums from betting, fighters usually got nothing out of it - but not always.

Tom Molineaux was the first famous Black fighter, who won freedom from slavery via boxing - but that was extremely rare, and it didn’t last. He died broke at age 34. Making a long-term living playing sports like boxing or football is actually nearly as difficult today.

“78 percent of NFL players are either bankrupt or under financial stress within two years of retirement, and 60 percent of [NBA] players are broke within five years of leaving the sport,” reports The Undefeated.

Meanwhile, owners - mostly white - make steady millions.

LeBron James recently made waves by discussing NFL owners’ “slave mentality,” and the blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick is evidence that he’s right.

Just like back then, Black people are running, jumping, and fighting for white amusement and profit. And just the same, we’re left with broken bodies and not much money to show for all of our efforts - while the owners stay rich.

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