The most insightful scene about sports and race in an American film is found in something that’s not technically a sports movie.
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained is a film about slavery disguised as a spaghetti western. When we come across the scene in question, Django is a former slave in the Antebellum South looking for his wife. It’s a little over half way through the film. Jamie Foxx’s Django is playing the role of an expert in Mandingo fighting to gain the trust of the man who has his wife — Calvin Candy played by Leonardo DiCaprio. When we meet Candy, he is leisurely enjoying a fight while smoking a cigar. At the end of the fight, the loser is killed, and the winner is sent off with a beer in his hands. He shuffles away with a smile on his face because he pleased his master and has been, in his eyes, properly compensated for risking his life.
This is without question the most insightful scene in an American film about the role of black men in sports. Indeed exploitation is not exclusive to black athletes (white and brown athletes are often financially exploited — especially when coming from an impoverished background), but Django Unchained brilliantly comments upon the marginalization black male athletes have suffered in America.
Still don’t see it? Let me break it down.
Owners and Slaves
Many historians think that Mandingo fights most likely did not happen. While there are examples of black athletes engaging in humiliating activities, Mandingo fighting wasn’t one of them. Yet, in the world of DU, these fights take place on plantations between the strongest, most athletic black male slaves. This is done for the amusement of the spectators, and these celebrations of evil end with the death of the losing fighter.
In the world of DU, the Mandingo fighters are rewarded for their performance, but they are, nevertheless, slaves. They have no power. They are at the behest of those who own them, but in comparison to other slaves, they are superstars. If they perform well, they will sleep in comfort and eat delicious food, but they remained trapped in a system that devalues their humanity. They are property, and the same is true of professional athletes.
Those who have ascended to the heights of professional sports are doing well financially. Relative to the average American, they are extremely wealthy. They sleep in nice homes and enjoy the benefits of fame. Yet, most are still at the behest of their coaches, general managers, and owners. The vast majority of players do not have guaranteed salaries, and if they stop performing at the level expected of them, they are cast aside. They are treated like property, but it is normalized because some accumulate an incredible amount wealth. Our white supremacist and capitalistic frame of reference allows for men to be treated like slaves on an auction block as long as they are well compensated for their humiliation.
The popularity of fantasy football further cements this owner/slave conceptual frame. Each week, players of fantasy football embody the role of an owner/general manager. They don’t view professional athletes as people, but as bodies that create stats and help those who play fantasy football win in their league. It is no surprise many fans don’t mind the NFL treating players like property to be bought and sold, players of fantasy football do it weekly as they trade players like baseball cards when their stats get low.
An Ice-Cold Beer
It is a luxury. It is unnecessary. And in the world of DU, it is a showy sign of privilege for a slave to have a beer. No other enslaved African is shown such kindness. When the slave is triumphant, he is not given access to the money his master won off the fight. He is just given “an ice-cold beer.” How apropos.
Fans have historically ridiculed black athletes for their flamboyance. Who will ever forget the spinning rims popularized by the now insolvent Latrell Sprewell? Yet, despite million dollar contracts, many professional athletes end up broke. The reasons for this are complex, but it usually centers on both budgetary irresponsibility and financial exploitation.
There is usually a focus upon the spending habits of professional athletes when they encounter financial difficulties. Pundits pontificate about how, if given millions of dollars, they would never end up in bankruptcy court. The athletes’ financial ruin is almost always viewed exclusively through the lens of personal responsibility. To be sure, players with million dollar contracts should be wise with their investments; however, many fail to see how little money these athletes make when compared to how much they generate.
The average salary of an NBA player is $5.15 million. In the NFL, the average salary is $1.9 million. When you juxtapose the average salary against the billions of dollars in revenue they generate for their leagues, you begin to realize that what they receive is the equivalent to what an ice-cold beer would be to a slave owner. They need better compensation for the services they provide. Too often overzealous fans disregard the grievances of professional athletes when they go on strike. Their concerns are viewed as unnecessary complaining.
If teams will unceremoniously cut them if they get hurt, they need to ensure they are properly compensated before they take the field or step foot on a court. Yet insidiously, these numbers do not take into account the number of student athletes that are playing for free in the NCAA. If injured, many student-athletes have to fight just to get proper medical treatment. The life of an athlete is marred by exploitation. They will never be properly compensated for the revenue they generate or the physical risks they take.
In DU, enslaved Africans in Mandingo fights put their bodies in harms way to please and entertain their owners. Whereas other slaves are generating revenue and being exploited by working the field or serving in the house, the Mandingo’s job is sports entertainment. There are benefits to being involved in the competition, but it comes at a severe cost. Bodies are beaten, noses are broken, teeth are missing, and when a fighter loses, he is callously killed. We don’t kill our athletes that underperform, we just treat them like commodities when the wear and tear on their bodies become too much for them to withstand.
The average career in the NFL is just over three years. On average, an NBA career lasts around 4.8 years. A significant reason why these careers are so brief is the bodily wear and tear that happens in professional sports. When an athlete is no longer useful to a team due to being ‘injury prone,’ they are almost always swiftly cut from the roster, destined for a life of chronic pain and, sometimes, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) due to multiple concussions. The callousness and desensitization of fans and owners to the pain of black athletes is a postmodern example of a pre-modern assumption that people of color feel less pain. This assumption was found in research as recently as 2012. The devaluation of black pain is as alive today as it was during slavery.
While black athletes do not have the market cornered as it relates to exploitation, Django Unchained comments upon the vicious legacy of racism in professional athletics. As we enter a new football season, if we stand idly by and uncritically support our teams, we are morally complicit in a system that feeds poor, mostly black kids a pipe dream, and then takes advantage of the few that are talented enough to play professionally. If you love sports, see the humanity in the players that make it possible.
*A special thanks to T. Elon Dancy for bringing this connection to light and sparking the idea.
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Lawrence Ware is a philosopher of race at his day job and a curator of dopeness when time allows. Words in The New York Times, Slate Magazine, The Root and others. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the kind of Steelers fan that enjoys watching the Cowboys lose.