Thursday, March 1, 2012

Black History Month: From Basketball Slave to 40 Million Dollar Slaves

From Basketball Slave to Forty Million Dollar Slaves, black players allowed white team owners to exploit their superior production for 60 years.

When the NBA integrated, black players were more productive than their white counterparts at every position except power forward.

This article uses the Win Score statistic created by sports economist David Berri to measure player productivity. Win Score is calculated using the following formula: PTS+REB+AST/2+STL+BLK/2-SHOT ATTEMPTS-FTA/2-TO-PF/2. See the HEAT Produced Page for more information.

This article uses stats estimated by, a sports simulation site, because all the stats necessary to calculate Win Score were not tracked until the 1978 season.

The first black players joined the NBA for the 1951 season. The spreadsheet below lists the average Win Score per 48 minutes (WS48) for all NBA players at each position from 1952-1961 and the average WS48 for every black player in the NBA at each position during the same period. Most black NBA players from 1952-61 were identified using "Appendix B: African Americans in the NBA" from the book Basketball Slave by Mark Johnson.

It was routine for NBA arenas to to lure fans to NBA games by sandwiching the games between double-headers featuring the Harlem Globetrotters, so it was no surprise that black players like Bill Russell, Ray Felix and Wilt Chamberlain (a former Globetrotter) dominated the center position while black players like Elgin Baylor, Willie Naulls and Oscar Robertson dominated the small forward and point guard positions in the first 10 years of NBA integration. 

Players from the 1950s suffered from the same problem as players today - the lack of entrepreneurial vision and spirit that William Rhoden described in his book 40 Million Dollar Slaves. Black players in the 1950s let white club owners like Abe Saperstein (owner of the Globetrotters) exploit their talents during segregation and white NBA franchise owners exploit their talents during integration. Since black players had the more productive talent, and were used to attract fans to see the less productive white players, they should have started their own league.

Mark Johnson, son of the Globetrotter Andy Johnson, explained this exploitation in the video below.

The NBA's refusal to adequately compensate the players that integrated the NBA is baffling since the owners are such big fans of competitive balance. Berri illustrated in academic research and his book that integration improves competitive balance in professional sports.

Hopefully the modern NBA players break down the Black Wall of Silence and address this issue in the next collective bargaining agreement since they failed to address it in the one they recently negotiated during the NBA Lockout.

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