Bill Rhoden Drops The Mic, Walks Off On His Own Terms

Today, we learned that the nation’s best sports columnist, William C. Rhoden, was penning his final Sports of the Times column. The news that he was stepping away saddened me because I routinely devoured those columns for over 25 years. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the paper to read what he had to say.

Rhoden was one of the first writers who helped me understand that the true power in sports was the narrative taking place beyond the bright lights and white lines. His work was laced with the lessons he’d learned about racism and unfairness that first seeped into his consciousness while watching sports on television with his father in the 1950’s, cheering for the select few Black faces that he saw. 

Those initial impressions powered his view of the larger sports landscape, powerfully culminating ten years ago in his phenomenal first book, 40 Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. From the day that I got my hands on it, it has never left my side. My dog-eared copy is sitting atop the stack of books on my desk as I write these very words right now. 

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Many in sports media were unprepared for his muscular candor and the cogent potency in which he examined the black athlete’s expedition from slavery and segregation to an exploited commodity in the business of sports, and how, as he says, “The elevated compensation of some players obscures the reality of exploitation and contemporary colonization.”

Near the close of the book’s prologue, he touches on today’s athletes, along with the budding millionaires in the prep ranks who are on their way toward the pro pipeline that masquerades as collegiate amateurism.

“History suggests that African American athletes should be ever on the lookout…Today’s generation of pro athletes may be wealthy, but they are simultaneously cheered and resented – a tension that cannot last forever,” he writes. He goes on to point out that they are less prepared to deal with America’s racial toxicity than any previous generation of athletes.

If you haven’t read it, you need to. It’s required reading for anyone interested in the the sociology of American sport.

And just as New York Knicks forward Larry Johnson was excoriated in the summer of 1999 when he referred to some of his teammates as rebellious slaves by a populace who was offended at his seeming lack of gratitude for the material wealth he’d accumulated and the audacity of his referring to millionaire superstars as slaves, there was a large faction who rebuked Rhoden’s book.

But the truth always hurts. And Rhoden, boiled down to the simplest terms, has always been an unabashed truth teller. 

At the time of Larry Johnson’s “Rebellious Slaves” firestorm, Rhoden wrote in his Sports of the Times column – “Major intercollegiate sports function like a plantation. The athletes perform in an economic atmosphere where everyone except them makes money off their labor…In the revenue producing sports of football and basketball, athletes are the gold, the oil, the natural resource that makes the NCAA run and its cash registers ring.”

Reading the New York Times without Rhoden’s columns will never be as fun as it used to be for me. His viewpoint was sharpened within a crucible of growing up during segregation, of seeing Martin Luther King and Malcolm X assassinated, of watching Muhammad Ali refuse induction into the armed services, witnessing John Carlos and Tommy Smith on the victory stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, of watching Curt Flood and Oscar Robertson stand up for their rights as men.

He didn’t mature while watching some idiots arguing about sports on television. He grew up around a time of activism, consciousness, civil rights and profound cultural change, both within the athletic arena and beyond. 

Sports was simply the entry point for him to dissect a distorted and accepted societal perspective. He used his talents and platforms, whether it was at the Afro-American Times, Ebony, and the Baltimore Sun, where he worked before coming to the New York Times in 1981, to confront, to advocate, to edify, to reaffirm.

The greatest gift he gave us in his work was continually forcing a national dialogue on the disease of racism as seen through the lens of sports. 

“Sports for us has been much, much more than just running and jumping, it has been a means of expressing what couldn’t be expressed. In fact the element that links Black athletes through time is the legacy of hope. This has been the Black athlete’s primary contribution to the journey of African Americans, providing a source of hope, a beacon of light,” he once said in an interview for Morgan State University’s alumni magazine.

I once had a meeting with the sports editor at the New York Times offices, talking about some freelance ideas that I was working on for them. I felt like a kid in a candy store as he walked me around the office introducing me to folks. When our meeting was over, he asked if I had any questions.

“Is Bill Rhoden here?” I asked, trying to contain my excitement. To my dismay, he wasn’t. But I eventually got the opportunity to speak with him on a few occasions over the years while co-hosting a sports radio show in Baltimore.

College students and young, aspiring journalists contact me often, eagerly expressing their desire to work in sports media. Sadly, plenty of them don’t study or work on the craft, they simply watch folks screaming on ESPN. They think that is sports journalism.

If they ask me for advice, I tell them to practice, practice and practice some more, that writing is not easy, and that great writing is rare.

I also part ways with the following words, “Real sports journalism is not about being a fan, who won the game, or arguing about who the best player is. It’s going underneath the facade, having something to say that resonates, something that inspires people on a higher level. If you want to learn to do that, the journey starts by studying Bill Rhoden’s work. In order to master the craft, you have to study the craft’s master.”

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