It's nearly impossible for something I hear on television to wake me out of my sleep. Some exceptions might be the start of a nuclear war or the voice of Beyonce Knowles. But this morning, I heard a voice that yanked me out of La-La land faster than you could say, "Whatchu talkin about, Willis?"
Sports commentator Dick Vitale was on the ESPN show "Mike & Mike in the Morning" talking about the trading possibilities of NBA superstar Carmelo Anthony. The hosts were discussing the rumor that Anthony may copy LeBron James and join forces with two other stars headed to the same team.
In reference to his frustration about the idea of men like Anthony choosing their own fate, Vitale said that such moves were like "inmates controlling the asylum."
What in the f&%* did he just say?
I then heard Mike & Mike (two white male hosts who have been accused of making racist comments, such as "Martin Luther Coon," in the past) go on to state how "Dicky V" was right in his comments and that if you are NBA commissioner David Stern, you'd be frustrated about the fact that guys like Carmelo are engaging in such outrageous behavior (Greenberg, the one who referred to MLK as a "coon," was most adamant in his agreement with Vitale).
It was interesting to hear a group of white males agree that black men choosing their own professional fate reminded them of a pack of out-of-control inmates.
During Black History Month, one can't help but see the irony of their remarks when put in the context of our nation's past, where white male–dominated systems have managed the personal and professional decisions of African-American men.
I wonder if Dick Vitale, as a 72-year-old white male who's earned millions from the unpaid labor of predominantly black NCAA athletes, realizes the massive implications of comparing a group of athletes to "inmates."
His comments take you back to those of Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who expressed serious outrage over LeBron James' decision to (gasp) decide where he wanted to work the following year.
For some reason, men like Vitale and Gilbert somehow believe that athletes are commodities that they own who've been put on this earth for the sole purpose of providing them with entertainment.
Let's be straight about the issues here:
NCAA athletes, who butter the economic bread of Dick Vitale and keep his bank account full, are among the most-exploited group of Americans in existence. The league earns billions of dollars from the labor of athletes, and most of the individuals who provide the dominant source of the entertainment are black men who come from poverty. All the while, the beneficiaries of this form of "athletic apartheid," are old white guys like Vitale who see no problem with stripping the labor rights of other Americans in order to fatten their pockets.
The NBA is another shop where athletes are significantly underpaid relative to what they would earn in a free and fair market.
Due to highly restricted collective-bargaining agreements, NBA salaries have not risen very much relative to what they were in the mid-1990s. If men like Kobe Bryant were allowed to operate in a free market, they would earn over $50 million per year in NBA salary alone. Notice that only NBA owners, not players, make the Forbes Magazine list of billionaires.
For the first three years of his career, LeBron James only earned roughly one-tenth of the massive value he brought to the Cleveland Cavaliers, in large part because of salary caps that would be illegal in almost any other industry in America.
Part of the reason that legislators allow the NBA and NCAA to get away with gross violations of anti-trust law is because the individuals being affected are African American. In no sports other than basketball and football do you see ridiculous age limits telling athletes when they can and can't go pro (these age limits force athletes to work for free in college, supporting the NCAA revenue stream).
So individuals like Vitale and Greenberg, who are accustomed to seeing black men controlled and managed like animals at the zoo, become outraged when these men utilize what few labor rights they have to make decisions that are best for themselves and their families.
There is only one place beyond the NCAA where black men are more readily used as commodities, and that's the prison system itself.
Given that prison inmates are also controlled like cattle, have nearly all of their labor rights stolen from them and are utilitized for the economic gain of predominantly white institutions, it's almost subconsciously magical that Vitale would refer to a group of predominantly black male athletes as "inmates."
But the truth is that there is a pattern of paternalistic white privilege that underscores this disturbing link in terminology and Vitale needs to realize that athletes are not inmates and that they desire to be free men just like him.
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Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here. To follow Dr. Boyce on Facebook, please click here.