Last Monday, ESPN decided to air a live NFL fantasy auction draft segment. Presumably because fantasy football is a huge part of the network’s NFL coverage and this is content millions of fans tune in for. The segment made the rounds on the internet and ESPN caught severe backlash for airing a segment that too closely resembled a slave auction. The segment was complete with an auctioneer, auction chant, and bidding attendees whom were all white. Auction drafts are a commonly employed method for distributing players to individuals’ teams, and both black and white players were part of the segment. However, it was completely tone deaf and highlights the longstanding societal acceptance of the buying and selling of black bodies for white consumption.
Odell Beckham Jr Auction
An auction is a process of buying and selling goods or services by offering them up for bid, taking bids, and then selling the item to the highest bidder. Language is so important, and words often get thrown around without true meaning and context. The “buying and selling of goods or services” is an interesting phrase. Are players in a fantasy auction draft goods or services? Or both? They are neither. NFL players, contrary to what many fans may think, are human beings with rights and dignity. But many fans don’t see them as such. Instead they are objects that trade on their own body and physical prowess for fans’ personal enjoyment and potentially financial gain.
Because these human beings trade on their bodies for salaries in the multimillions, many scoff and dismiss the analogy or likeness to slavery. But, that’s only because many people are incapable of seeing systems in their totality. The NFL stages an annual combine where hundreds of players, hopeful of getting a shot at being drafted into the league are put through a battery of tests. It’s quite frankly a meat market, where players are often in only their underwear being measured, poked, prodded, and weighed. Team representatives are physically examining, by and large, young black studs with detailed reports given to majority white owners. The optics on this is terrible, yet it goes on year after year. Sure, some of these players may end up making millions, many won’t. But all the owners get to make their profits regardless. Why can’t fans see the immense socioeconomic disparity and gap in this depiction, which drives the NFL system?
For too long the link between chattel slavery and professional sports has been apparent and not nearly enough has been done about it. As a society we have all been complicit in accepting it for what it is. When the most powerful sports network can air a segment like this, it means we’ve gone way too far down the rabbit hole. You can argue, we’ve long been down this rabbit hole and we’re only getting deeper with seemingly no way to escape. When the decision was made to air this segment, nobody thought this would look bad because it’s what we have collectively allowed to exist in this country. The reduction and dehumanization of people is a problem. Yes, we’re talking about fantasy football and this is sport and we have worse instances of this type of behavior that exists. But sports are a microcosm of society, the same things that exist outside of sports exists within it. It might be presented differently and give the appearance of something else, but it’s two sides of the same coin. When you can yell out a price for a human being at an auction, whether it’s for entertainment or not, suggests something inhuman.
All of this is to say, while you may think comparing the NFL or professional sports to slavery is ridiculous and has no merit, largely based off of the salaries involved, I would encourage you to think again. I’ll leave you with a quote from philosopher and psychologist William James, “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”