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Rhoden, William C.

William C. Rhoden

1950—

Journalist

Sportswriter William C. Rhoden learned his first lessons about racism as a child watching sports on television with his father. As he cheered for the few black players in the televised games of the 1950s, he also learned to take pride in his African-American identity and to love the drama and dignity of athletic competition. Inspired by his father, who was his first coach, and his mother, who urged him to stand up for himself, Rhoden went on to play college football, earn a degree in journalism, and become a nationally known sports columnist. However, he never forgot the lessons of division and unfairness he had first seen played out on courts and fields during his youth, and he frequently used his column to speak out against racism and prejudice. In 2006 Rhoden stunned the world of sports when he published his first book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, an original and perceptive analysis of the deeply racist history and current reality of U.S. professional sports.

Rhoden was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1950, one of three children of William and Janet Rhoden. He grew up in a working class neighborhood on the city's largely African-American South Side. His father was a math teacher, but he also loved sports, and many of young William's happiest moments were spent on the basketball court or running races with his father, who taught him winning strategies and a love of the game.

Grew Up amid Civil Rights Movement

Growing up in a segregated neighborhood, Rhoden was sheltered by parents and neighbors from many of the grim realities of racism. He was surprised as a child when his mother mentioned the fact that white people were the majority in the United States. Living on the South Side of Chicago, Rhoden rarely saw a white person and could hardly believe that the black people who populated his world were, in fact, a minority.

As Rhoden grew up, the civil rights movement was gaining strength, and he began to take pride from the work of such activists as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. The militant spirit of the times was even reflected in new sports heroes, such as boxer Cassius Clay, who, like Malcolm X, changed his name to when he con- verted to the Nation of Islam. Muhammad Ali, as Clay came to be called, was both a skilled athlete and an outspoken radical, and Rhoden admired both his personal courage and his brash confidence in the ring. During Rhoden's high school years, several devastating events shook his world. In 1965 Malcolm X was murdered; in 1967 Ali's heavyweight title was revoked because he refused to be drafted into the army; and Martin Luther King was assassinated in Alabama in 1968.

Rhoden's pride in his African-American heritage and his growing political consciousness about racism and civil rights led him to believe in the importance of black institutions. As a football player, he was especially reluctant to play on a team at a largely white college where his coaches and administration would most likely be white. He decided to attend Morgan State University (MSU), a historically black college that had been founded in 1867 in Baltimore, Maryland. At MSU Rhoden felt steeped in black history and culture that both inspired and supported him.

Rhoden joined the MSU football team and was thrilled to play his first college game in New York's famous Yankee Stadium, against another top team from a historically black college, Louisiana's Grambling State University. As the team's bus drove through the African-American cultural center of Harlem, Rhoden began to feel that he was part of a revolution of black pride and solidarity. However, he soon realized that the power of racism would not be so easily defeated.

Became Sports Journalist

Rhoden graduated from Morgan State in the early 1970s. Realizing that he did not have the athletic power to take him to a career in professional football, he had focused his studies on history and journalism in the belief that members of the press had great influence in society. When he began to think about seeking a job, he took the advice of his English professor Francis Murphy and went to work for the Afro-American Times, a New York-based black newspaper. In 1974 he was hired as an associate editor for Ebony, which had been a major African-American journal since 1945.

After four years at Ebony, Rhoden took a position as columnist and jazz critic for the Baltimore Sun, where he worked until 1983. In 1981 he also began working as a copyeditor for the "Sunday Week in Review" section of the New York Times. By 1983 Rhoden had become a sportswriter for the New York Times, and he soon had a regular column, titled "Sports of the Times." He moved to New York, where he made his home in Harlem, the center of African-American life and history that had inspired him during his freshman year of college. During the early 1990s he married fellow journalist Sharon Lopez, and the two had a daughter. By the mid-1990s Rhoden also became a screenwriter, winning a prestigious Peabody Award in 1996 for his work writing the HBO special The Journey of the African-American Athlete.

Along with his incisive, in-depth sports commentary, Rhoden always made sure that his columns expressed his perspective as an African American, pointing out racism and stereotyping where he saw it. He was also always an advocate of the athlete, exposing, for example, the inconsistencies in college sports, where the athletic department, coaches, and souvenir sales administration receive payment, but the athletes do not. Rhoden proposed a revenue-sharing plan by which college athletes who graduate would receive a percentage of the income their play earned for the school. By the early 2000s, Rhoden's column had approximately one and a half million readers.

Working as a jazz critic and later as a sportswriter, Rhoden was struck by the racial inequality that seemed built into both the music industry and the world of sports. While black musicians were the major force in jazz, and black athletes made up the majority of most top football, basketball, and baseball teams, African Americans were noticeably missing from the ranks of music executives and team owners. It began to seem to him that, while the public made heroes of talented black individuals, black people as a group were not given any real power.

At a Glance …

Born in 1950; son of William and Janet Rhoden; married Sharon Lopez (a journalist, television producer, and administrator); children: Raisa. Education: Morgan State University, BA, 1973.

Career: Worked for Afro-American Times, early 1970s; Ebony magazine, associate editor, 1974-78; Baltimore Sun, columnist and jazz critic, 1978-83; New York Times, copyeditor, 1981-83, sportswriter, 1983—.

Awards: George Foster Peabody Award, Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia, 1996, for The Journey of the African-American Athlete; Bruce M. Wright Literacy Award, St. Aloysius Education Clinic, 2006.

Addresses: Office—New York Times, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036. Web—wirhodnytimes.com.

Published Controversial Book

During the late 1990s Rhoden began to write a book outlining his theory about institutionalized racism in sports. After years of research and study of sports history, he published Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete in 2006. In the book Rhoden traced the history of African Americans in U.S. athletics, beginning with the story of Tom Molineaux, a black prizefighter who earned his freedom from slavery by winning a boxing match. Rhoden described how blacks had excelled at a number of sports but had been kept from gaining control of their careers by the actions of powerful white men. Even in sports not commonly associated with black athletes, such as professional cycling and horseracing, skilled African Americans had achieved winning records, only to be prevented from ultimate success by the formation of exclusive white organizations, such as the Jockey Club.

Rhoden continued his analysis into modern athletics, where the high salaries paid to many African-American professional athletes create the impression of power and control. However, Rhoden points to two facts that ensure that a white-controlled racist system remains in charge of professional sports. One is that, just as in the early days of U.S. athletic competition, almost all team owners and sports commissioners are white. The other is that too often wealthy black athletes become spokespeople for sporting goods products, but they do not use their power and influence to work for positive change for African Americans. Rhoden suggested that African Americans needed to take a more unified approach when confronting segregation. For example, when professional baseball first became integrated during the late 1940s, Rhoden believed that, instead of struggling for the acceptance of a handful of black players into major league baseball, supporters of black athletes should have worked to introduce a black-owned team into the league.

Rhoden's book dropped a bombshell of controversy into the world of sports. Though some white readers disagreed loudly with his criticisms, many others found his ideas meaningful and convincing. Rhoden had succeeded in bringing the topic of racism in sports into the arena of public discussion.

Rhoden followed Forty Million Dollar Slaves with Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback, a collection of oral histories about the obstacles and successes of blacks who played the position of football quarterback. Because quarterbacks are the chief offensive strategists of a football team, calling plays and planning the team's tactics, many racist whites assumed that black players did not have what it takes to play the position. Rhoden's book highlights the stories of the pioneering players who fought discrimination and overcame many barriers to lead their teams.

In an interview with Ferdinand Mehlinger in MSU's Morgan Magazine, Rhoden described the connection he sees between blacks and athletic achievement that has inspired much of his writing: "Sports for us has been much, much more than just running and jumping, it has been a means of expressing what couldn't be expressed…. In fact the element that links Black athletes through time is the legacy of hope. This has been the Black athlete's primary contribution to the journey of African Americans, providing a source of hope, a beacon of light."

Selected works

Books

Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, Crown Publishing, 2006.

Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback, ESPN Books, 2007.

Television

(With Leslie D. Farrell) The Journey of the African-American Athlete, HBO, 1996.

Sources

Books

Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, Crown Publishing, 2006.

Periodicals

Broadway Mall Association News, Winter 2004, p. 2.

Jet, September 25, 2006, pp. 50-3.

Michigan Chronicle (Detroit, MI), February 14-20, 2007, p. C1.

New Pittsburgh Courier, April 11-17, 2007, p. A6.

Sporting News, January 17, 1994, p. 8.

Online

"Columnist Biography: William C. Rhoden," The New York Times,http://www.nytimes.com/ref/sports/bio-rhoden.html (accessed March 10, 2008).

Mehlinger, Ferdinand, "Make Your Own Shot," Morgan Magazine, Vol. 1, 2007, http://www.msunaa.morgan.edu/UniversityNews/Morgan_Mag/07_Vol1.pdf (accessed March 10, 2008).

Platt, Natalie, "Rhoden: Journalists Must Have Passion," Indiana University, Bloomington, School of Journalism, April 2, 2007, http://journalism.indiana.edu/news/20070402rhoden/ (accessed March 10, 2008).

"William C. Rhoden: Author Spotlight," Random House Inc., http://www.randomhouse.com/author/results.pperl?authorid=73532 (accessed March 10, 2008).

—Tina Gianoulis

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