Beyond the Game: Insights on Race and Sports with Journalist William C. Rhoden

“If you don’t watch the game film, you’re doomed to repeat the same stuff.”  – Bill Rhoden

Legendary sports journalist William C. “Bill” Rhoden was talking to middle schoolers about the history of discrimination in sports when he was stunned by a question from a girl in the audience. She wanted to know who was the first white athlete to integrate the NBA.

Her naivete made him realize that history is being lost. People are forgetting the long, hard fight for athletes of color to have the same opportunities – and the same pay – as their white counterparts. It’s a history he chronicled in his 2007 bestselling book, “Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete.”

“For a whole generation of young Black kids, young people in general, there [is] no idea of the sense of struggle,” he said. “You have no idea that you have something to fight for if you have no sense of the battle.”

Rhoden shared this revelation during his recent visit to Wharton, where he was invited to give an hourlong talk on “Race and Sports.” The conversation was hosted by the Wharton Coalition for Equity and Opportunity (CEO), the Center for Africana Studies and Wharton Sports Analytics Business Initiative (WSABI).

“I can think of no one more uniquely qualified to give his perspective on race and sports than Bill. He hasn’t just written about this history, he has lived it,” said Kenneth Shropshire, adviser to the dean for Wharton CEO. He and Rhoden are longtime friends and podcast partners.

Well-known in the world of sports, Rhoden’s journalism career spans nearly five decades at The New York Times, ESPN, Ebony magazine, and The Baltimore Sun. He’s written two critically acclaimed books, earned a Peabody award for his work on the HBO documentary “Journey of the African American Athlete,” and was elected to the National Sports Media Hall of Fame. He holds an English degree from Morgan State University, where he played football and wrote for the student newspaper.

Rhoden’s conversation touched on a number of topics, including the NFL’s anti-racism campaign, media bias toward white players such as Caitlin Clark, and why some famous Black athletes stay out of the political fray. Watch the video or keep reading for highlights.

When Money Becomes the Mission

Rhoden likened his book to a respite, a chance to take a break and reassess. He said it’s like when a coach makes players watch their previous game footage to analyze their mistakes.

“If you don’t watch the game film, you’re doomed to repeat the same stuff,” he said.

Rhoden said people have forgotten the turmoil that cost Colin Kaepernick his NFL career in 2017, when he was pushed out of the league for kneeling in support of social justice. The NFL began an anti-racism campaign in 2020, and “it’s like it never happened. Everybody’s happy. Because when money is the highest value in your society, all bets are off,” he said.

He said the NFL was so threatened by players kneeling in protest that they donated millions to related charities to make them stop. “I think that was the death of athlete activism.”

The ‘Great White Hope’ Syndrome

Caitlin Clark, who was the No. 1 draft pick to the WNBA, is being celebrated as one of the greatest female college athletes of all time. Rhoden said she deserves her accolades, but so do other WNBA players who are Black. He pointed out that the league is more than 60% Black, yet currently, the only women with shoe deals are white, including Clark.

“That’s the great white hope syndrome,” Rhoden said, blaming his own profession for the hype. “It’s us. It’s the media. She just wants to play basketball.”

He noted a similar media frenzy over Nikola Jokic, a Serbian national who plays center for the Denver Nuggets.

“Whenever you have a white athlete dominate a black sport, that’s when that shit kicks in,” Rhoden said. “Jokic doesn’t care. It’s the predominantly white media surrounding him that feeds into this whole Tarzan syndrome where we’ve got to make it more than what it is.”

O.J. and Michael

Rhoden drew a sharp distinction between Black athletes who use their celebrity to advance civil rights and social justice, and those who stay quiet. Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, and Wilma Rudolph stand in contrast to megastars Michael Jordan and O.J. Simpson, who were widely criticized for staying on the sidelines of debates around race. Simpson reportedly said, “I’m not Black, I’m O.J.”

“What he stood for was celebrity,” Rhoden said. “Then Michael Jordan took it to another level.”

He cautioned the audience not to forget the struggle because history can repeat itself. Black jockeys once dominated horse racing, he said, until white jockeys and owners pushed them out of the sport.

“Don’t get it twisted. If they can replace you, they will. The whole numeric dominance is not a long period of time,” he said. “For every person in this classroom who’s either an African American or a person of color, you’ve seen some element of moving the goal post.”

— Angie Basiouny