Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings All-Pro running back, “went there,” and now there’s no going back. In a moment of supreme frustration with NFL owners and their lust for the lockout, Peterson said, “It’s modern-day slavery, you know?”
For sportswriters inclined to cozy up to Commissioner Roger Goodell, Peterson’s words were manna from heaven. He’s been called “ungrateful,” “out of touch,” “an idiot” and, in the darker recesses of the blogosphere, far worse. Even those inclined to openly sympathize with the players have stated their “great offense” that Peterson could liken his situation to the horrors of chattel slavery. As Jamil Smith, a very righteous producer at the Rachel Maddow Show, tweeted to me, “I want to hear Adrian Peterson out. I just need him to know that using ‘slavery’ makes it harder for me to hear him.” Fellow players, Ryan Grant and Heath Evans, also took exception, with Grant calling it “a very misinformed statement.”
It’s not difficult to understand why some are crushing Adrian Peterson for likening his glamorized career to “modern-day slavery.” But all the criticism in the world doesn’t explain why the metaphor would cross his mind in the first place. It doesn’t explain why other athletes—Curt Flood, Larry Johnson and Warren Sapp among them—have reached to this explosive analogy as a way to articulate their frustrations.
At least two books have already been written that explore this concept: 40 Million Dollar Slaves, by NY Times columnist William Rhoden, and The Slave Side of Sunday, by former NFL player Anthony Prior. Both are stunning testaments to the fact that there is more here than meets the eye. Even if we are repelled by Peterson’s choice of words, it’s worth putting down the torches and trying to understand why this is the analogy that just won’t die, especially in the world of pro football.
To be an African American NFL player is to play in a league where 70% of the players are black and 100% of the owners are white. It’s a league where only 3 percent of head coaches were black until the famous (or infamous) lawyer Johnnie Cochran threatened a mass class-action lawsuit, saying he would “litigate if they do not integrate.” It’s a league where collegiate players hoping to be drafted show up to the NFL combine to be poked, prodded and have various body parts judged and measured. Teams basically do everything short of having someone run their finger along the players’ gums. If you are lucky enough to make the league, you will be blessed with a career that will, on average, last 3.4 years, and cursed with a life expectancy twenty-two years shorter than that of the typical American male. Your contract isn’t guaranteed, so if you do sustain some horrific injury, you are officially yesterday’s trash.