The Black body is and has always been a source of profit. Four hundred years ago, it was used to pick cotton and make plantation owners rich. Today, it’s used to throw balls and make team owners, GMs and coaches rich. David J. Leonard, a professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, says that when we think about sports in today’s society, we have to think about it as a “playground” where “black bodies become the feature, and the most lucrative attraction that elicits the greatest level of animosity when it (he) does not deliver profit, pleasure, and affirmation, all with a smile.”
Essentially, the Black athlete has been commodified to the point of dehumanization. He does not exist once the game is over. In a world of “Shut up and dribble,” the Black athlete isn’t supposed to ask for any more than he’s already getting; he must literally take what he gets and not get upset. If he does ask for more, he’s ungrateful, spoiled, a selfish teammate.
Well, Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas is calling BS and sticking up the middle finger just in case he wasn’t loud enough.
In a game on Sunday night against the Arizona Cardinals, Thomas was carried off the field after suffering a fractured leg. As he rode off into the locker room, face grim and lined with well-earned frustration, he gave his own sideline the middle finger. That came after an offseason-long holdout and a month of sitting out of practices in pursuit of a long-term contract or a trade to a team that would offer him one.
In an essay for the Player’s Tribune, Thomas defends his decision by citing that he has been the best among safeties in the NFL his entire career and still has a lot of good playing years left in him. Most convincingly, he writes, “If you’re risking your body to deliver all of this value to an organization, then you deserve some sort of assurance that the organization will take care of you if you get hurt.” This is coming from a player who has seen, firsthand, friends and teammates discarded from teams without so much as a negotiation after getting season-ending injuries.
Though Thomas has received tremendous support from the sports community, his critics have called his behavior disrespectful, unprofessional and petty. Some fans have even burned Thomas’s jersey, calling him a “disgrace to football” while arguing that he should feel “privileged” to even play in the NFL.
This notion that athletes, especially Black athletes, should feel lucky and privileged to be playing professional sports in the United States discredits the fact that they did not get to their positions through luck or privilege. It also suggests that players should somehow be eternally grateful and subservient to the owners and coaches they play for.
But playing in the NFL is no privilege; it is not an opportunity that is given or handed out to just anybody. It is earned and maintained through hard work and countless sacrifices. Less than 2 percent of college football players make it to the NFL. Those who do make it are constantly pushing their bodies to limits that seem impossible to the average person. They risk their health–physical and mental–for the fans’ entertainment and for the benefit of the media and the people who essentially own them.
In the article “New Commodities, New Consumers: Selling Blackness in a Global Marketplace,” University of Maryland sociology professor Patricia Hill Collins states that the process of commodification is defined by a specific construction of blackness that has proved beneficial to White owners: “Athletes are profitable, not for the vast majority of African American men, but for people who own the teams, control the media, provide food, clothing and telephone services.”
Players in the NFL get only 48 percent of the NFL’s total revenue under the CBA. This is a fixed amount, so the only question is how it is divided among the athletes. This question is answered, of course, by upper management, which gets Whiter and Whiter the higher up it goes. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport shows that although 70 percent of NFL players are Black, just 9 percent of managers in the league office are. As for team CEOs or presidents, the percentage is 100 percent White. And I promise you, their money is always guaranteed, no matter how well a particular season goes.
To argue that Thomas’s quality of play is the true reason behind his cheap deal is simply invalid. He’s proved, consistently, to be the best among the best at his position. He’s been named an All-Pro five times and has made every Pro Bowl since 2011, minus the one season when he was injured. He is, without a doubt, a star player and deserves to be paid star player money, just as a top-performing lawyer or engineer should be paid like one.
Why is it that in other workspaces it’s acceptable for employees to negotiate for their livelihoods, to demand compensation based on their resumes and quality of work? Coaches do it all the time; why can’t players?
My guess? They’re playing within a capitalistic structure that values profit more than the individual and his needs. They are commodified, owned and, therefore, rendered to a status that is better characterized as commodity rather than human. When owners can no longer profit off them, they are discarded, traded for less than their worth and forgotten about–and left with torn muscles, broken bones and head trauma that will affect them for a lifetime.
It doesn’t matter that these athletes destroyed their bodies for the game, for the fans and the owners. A commodity doesn’t require basic human respect and can always be replaced for something better.
We need more players like Earl Thomas and Le’Veon Bell, ones who are prepared to hold out for as long as they can or until they receive the respect and paycheck they worked for; until they’re treated like people instead of goods to sell. They may be considered “bad guys” right now, but give it some time. A change is coming, and when it does, we’ll remember them as the guys who held out so all the other ones could play the game they love and get paid appropriately for it.