For most sports fans, heaven would be to play in the National Football League. We see money, fame and no expectations of social responsibility beyond showing up on Sunday ready to play. In the mind of the fantasy sports fan, it means a big house, a garage full of cars and the promise of sexual gratification. The last thing any fan would believe–or want to believe–is that racism is endemic to the culture of the NFL.
That’s the contention of NFL veteran Anthony Prior, whose new book, The Slave Side of Sunday, invokes an explosive metaphor to describe life in the NFL. Prior played six NFL seasons with the New York Jets, the Oakland Raiders and the Minnesota Vikings, and developed a reputation as a cornerback with blinding speed, if not blinding stats.
Prior contends that the NFL is rife with a racism that is both deeply institutionalized and largely unchallenged. “I was frustrated by not seeing the truth in print,” Prior told me in a recent interview. “And I believe that if you want to see it, you should write it.”
Prior is a self-published author. In addition to The Slave Side of Sunday, his publishing house, Stone Hold Books, produced Faith on 40 Yards: Behind the Silver & Gold of the NFL in 2003. The starting point for his new book is the much-derided 2003 statement by Tampa Bay all-pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp that the NFL acts as a “slavemaster” to its players. Sapp was pilloried for his comments, but Prior argues that there is a lot more truth to Sapp’s statements than meets the eye.
Prior knows that, like Sapp, he will receive criticism for his statements. And on the face of it, his argument does seem ridiculous, if not offensive: How can people who make mega-salaries and play before adoring crowds be likened to slaves? Prior’s response is that the answer lies in the lack of control NFL players are allowed to have in their daily lives and in the mega-industry they have helped create. He sees this lack of control being intimately tied with a dynamic where 65 percent of the players are African-American, yet only 18 percent of coaches, 6 percent of general managers and no owners are anything other than white.
“Black players have created a billion-dollar market but have no voice in the industry, no power. That sounds an awful lot like slavery to me,” he says. “On plantations slaves were respected for their physical skills but were given no respect as thinking beings. On the football field, we are treated as what appears like gods, but in fact this is just the ‘show and tell’ of the management for their spectators. In reality, what is transpiring is that black athletes are being treated with disrespect and degradation. As soon as we take off that uniform, behind the dressing room doors, we are less than human. We are bought and sold. Traded and drafted, like our ancestors, and the public views this as a sport, ironically the same attitude as people had in the slavery era.”
Prior names no names, but he contends that coaches and other authority figures in the game use racism to bully African-American players in an effort to instill obedience. “I’ve heard coaches call players ‘boy,’ ‘porch monkeys,’ ‘sambos,’ ” he says. “Players don’t get tested on their athleticism as much as they get tested on their manhood. Many players rail against this. They say, ‘I’m being treated like a goddamn slave.’ However, as soon as the coach is present, their life becomes doing whatever possible to please this man.