by Jorden Hales
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the savior of a Milwaukee Bucks franchise that hasn’t recovered from losing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 45 years ago. He’s also the pride of a nation that shunned his family for decades. The two-time defending MVP’s story echoes Jackie Robinson’s in the worst ways.
A tweet from a teenage basketball player and self-proclaimed “kid from Africa” went viral last month. High school freshman Stephen Akase asked his followers to help coaches in America discover and develop his talent.
“If there’s someone out there who can help me please do,” Akase pleaded, attaching a short video of himself training on an outdoor court. “But, if you can’t, please help me retweet this till an NBA player or high school coach sees it.”
The tweet—sent from Lagos, Nigeria—had been shared more than 70 thousand times and liked by more than 100 thousand accounts at the time of this writing.
Akase, through no fault of his own, is working to become the best player he can be in an environment without infrastructure. Should he succeed, he and his family will benefit greatly, but not nearly as much as the coaches and programs that would poach his talent from the place where it’s needed most—his home.
“Integration of intercollegiate sports in the mid 1970s created an insatiable appetite for Black athletes, which triggered the stripmining of Black commnities accross the United States,” author William C. Rhoden wrote in his 2006 New York Times best seller, Forty Million Dollar Slaves.
Though hardly the beginning of primarily white institutions exploiting Black labor, the business of sports has developed an informal system Rhoden calls “the Conveyor Belt,” using it to deliver talented Black athletes to markets where others can profit from them while alienating them from the communities that desperately need them.
One such athlete, two-time defending NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, signed a five-year, $228 million contract extension with the Milwaukee Buck this week.
Like Akase, Antetokounmpo can trace his roots to Lagos, Nigeria.
Antetokounmpo’s parents migrated from their home country to Greece, where he was born in 1994. Antetokounmpo is touted as a success story and has spent several of his offseasons playing for the Greek Men’s basketball team.
Antetokounmpo was a star in Greek professional basketball leagues for years, but he and his family were denied Greek citizenship until it was time for him to come to America for the 2013 NBA Draft.
“Their stateless status denied them national health care, Civil Service jobs and access to sports leagues,” a 2019 New York Times profile reads.
With Antetokounmpo as a cultural ambassador for a country and system that belittled and shunned him and his family for decades, the NBA plans to replicate his success by extracting more Black muscle from Africa.
NBA Africa, a 12-team project meant to grow the popularity of basketball and the NBA on the continent, planned to begin its inaugural season in 2020, but postponed at the recommendation of the Senegealese government due to COVID-19. The program includes facilities and programs to identify young talent, like the young Akase, and set it along Rhoden’s “Conveyer Belt” at a young age.
This model isn’t new.
“At (youth) level, teams are recreational outlets for the hundreds of thousands of youngsters who participate…for more talented players, however, these programs function as tributaries that carry them to progressively more refined pools of talent… The Conveyor Belt transports young athletes from innocent fun and games to clubs and specialized leagues… The well-trained athletes and paying fans represent the finished product.
The trick for the masters of the Belt—coaches, athletic departments, owners at the professional level, promoters and managers… get control of the young athletes early, take them away from any competitive interests—especially their own communities—and reward them with flashy goodies in order to keep them quiescent.”– William C. Rhoden, Forty Million Dollar Slaves (2006)
For these institutions, it’s easy to buy a tall, fast kid some sneakers, pay for a meal, or introduce them to a pro player they admire. It’s not much more difficult to give a more talented kid room and board, or in Antetokounmpo’s case, citizenship and plane ticket to New York City. These investments are peanuts compared to the billions (trillions internationally) of dollars made by the “masters of the Belt.”
Even Antetokounmpo’s $228 million contract pales in comparison to the deal the NBA signed with ESPN and Turner Broadcasting in 2014, or the $1.58 billion valuation of the Milwaukee Bucks organization Forbes published earlier this year. That valuation is up nearly $500 million from the 2018 Forbes evaluation, meaning Antetokounmpo’s talent has paid for itself more than twice in the two years it took to win his MVP awards.
“Race and the poverty that often goes hand-in-hand with Black skin in this country adds a complicating factor to the Belt. And of all the major team sports, basketball offers the most poignant insights to the mechanics of the feeder,” Rhoden writes. “Growth of basketball in the past 15 years, it has been a vehicle for both hustlers and positive forces to exert their influence.”
So, what’s the solution? How do Black athletes pursue prosperity and their passions without feeding a centuries-old system of exploitation?
Equity is the answer. One of the primary atrocities of the Conveyor Belt is its intentional undermining of Black institutions.
When Jackie Robinson made his debut in integrated pro baseball leagues, the Negro Leagues—owned by Black entrepreneurs and filled with Black talent shunned by white leagues and fans—was among the largest Black-owned businesses in the United States. The MLB official website states Negro League Baseball’s annual revenue surpassed two-million dollars in the 1940s. Adjusted for inflation, this would equal roughly $37 million in 2020. According to Black Enterprise, this would make Negro League Baseball the 45th largest Black-owned business in America if it were to reappear in its top form today.
Founded and overseen by Arthur “Rube” Foster, the National Negro League did more than provide an alternative league during segregation. It created an infrastructure other Black entrepreneurs could use to partner with the league and its teams, and Black fans could patronize businesses that tangibly improved their communities.
In 2020, only eight of the NBA’s 30 teams are managed by Black executives and just six teams have Black head coaches. Only one team is owned by a Black person. In baseball, the MLB had just one Black manager and zero Black owners as of January 2020.
These figures, for a league in which about 80 percent of players are Black, demonstrate the exploitative practices of the Conveyor Belt which does not put the players removed from Black communities in positions of power, but exploits them for labor. The NBA’s investment in Africa is nothing more than an expansion of this system that will undermine Africa the way pro baseball did Black America.
“Segregation forced African Americans into the spirit of cooperation,” Rhoden writes. “Yet Rube Foster is a mere footnote in the epic story of sports integration in which Jackie Robinson is a central character.”
According to Def Pen Sports, an American family would need to spend about six grand for their child to participate in a summer of youth basketball. These costs are often covered by coaches, sneaker companies and other Conveyor Belt power brokers.
Using this figure as a model, a full roster and coach would likely cost about $80,000, a sum Antetokounmpo, Nike or any of his other business partners could comfortably cover. For less than a million dollars (a small fraction of what the NBA is investing in African hoop programs), all of the NBA’s African stars, their endorsement partners and any others who wish to contribute, could establish a humble amateur program.
This program would do something for young players like Akase other than take him, his earning potential and everything else he has to offer away from African communities; which are still suffering as a result of millions of capable Black bodies and countless other resources being taken from them through slavery and colonial extortion.
A humble, but meaningful investment in Nigeria could lay groundwork for something that enables people like Antetokounmpo and Akase to thrive at home instead of waiting to be reluctantly accepted by agents of oppression and exploitation who see an opportunity to make money with their labor.
$228 million dollars takes care of Antetokounmpo and his family for generations.
Antetokounmpo and his family have already donated food and other COVID-19 relief in America and Europe. The man known as the “Greek Freak” could, with similar effort, make investments in Nigeria, the Giant of Africa, that would keep talent like Akase’s there.
The NBA sees value in Africa and is willing to make that investment. I hope someday, Africans will too.
This article was published in partnership with Plugged.
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