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.
“The intimidation is immense…I’ve seen players benched because a coach saw them with a white woman, or overheard a criticism of his incompetence, or because a player didn’t go to Bible study. I’ve been in film sessions where coaches would try to get a rise out of players by calling them ‘boy’ or ‘Jemima,’ and players are so conditioned to not jeopardize their place, they just take it. It’s my understanding that management by intimidation is illegal, so why do we allow this to occur? I believe that due to the nature of the race of players who are being intimidated, people tend to overlook this. That is why I wrote this book. People must understand that this is not just intimidation, this is pure racism.”
Prior says Southern-born athletes are particularly vulnerable. “Southern Black players call the coach ‘boss’ or even ‘master.’ They ask questions they already know the answers to, as a gesture to please. They let themselves be abused in all manner to keep their jobs. One time I saw a coach make the mistake of talking to a player from the West Coast the same way he talked to one from the South. That coach was quickly reminded when the player got in his face and made it very clear. ‘I am a man and you will respect me as a man.’ Words to live by.”
Another institution that raises Prior’s ire is Athletes in Action, an evangelical Christian group that is a presence in high school, college athletics and even the professional sports. Before the big game on Super Bowl Sunday, Athletes in Action is sponsoring an NFL-sanctioned prayer breakfast in Detroit.
“I call [them] Hypocrites in Action. Almost every time, the minister is white, and the subject matter is right off the plantation,” Prior says. “One time I went over to the Bible study and asked, ‘What’s the subject matter?’ I was told, ‘Living in Obedience.’ I just said, ‘No thank you, I don’t want to be brainwashed today.’ On some teams, prayer becomes obligation, and God and Jesus become little more than a lucky rabbit’s foot. Unfortunately, religion is used as a crutch to prey upon players who intend to be true to their faith but end up being slaves to it. This is a wrongfully instilled practice. I wouldn’t have issue with this if the tools given were truly in good nature for the progression of mankind, not the regression of players.”
Neither the NFL nor Athletes in Action returned calls for comment on Prior’s allegations.
Prior says he has written the book as a way to advance the idea that African-American players can organize themselves to fight racism beyond the playing field. “As individuals we must create a collective. NFL’s black players have a tremendous strength. This is a power we are scared to exercise yet dream to live.” He believes that a workplace action on the eve of the Super Bowl could bring real change. Certainly, the thought of football players holding the multibillion-dollar spectacle hostage and making demands on the NFL ownership to give more back to the impoverished communities that produce their all-pros is a daring notion. The question is whether Prior and those who agree with him would risk the fruits of Super Bowl glory for the greater good of those who will never see an NFL contract.