Bucks at Wizards 1/15/18

Savior or Slave: How the Greek Freak can become the Giant of Africa

Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2018

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the savior of a Milwaukee Bucks franchise that hasn’t recovered from losing Kareem Adblul-Jabbar 45 years ago and 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 this 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 spends 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)

William C. Rhoden discusses his book, “Forty Million Dollar Slaves” on ESPN’s “Quite Frankly,” hosted by Stephen A. Smith.

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 Robisnon made his debut in integrated pro baseball leagues–the Negro Leagues–owned by Black entreprenuers and filled with Black talent shuned 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 reveune 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).

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. 

A group of young African children participates in youth basketball.

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.

$228 million dollars takes care of Antetokounmpo and his family for generations. 

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.

Without a demonstration of supreme talent, immigrants from African countries endure dangerous migration and decades of poverty and a stateless status in foreign lands. 

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 the Giant of Africa (Nigeria’s nickname) 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.

Photo by Tobi Oshinnaike on Unsplash

Greater than SARS

As #EndSARS protests enter their second month, Nigerians and diasporic Africans see that the police force is a symptom of greater corruption.

For roughly two decades, the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS), a police force created in 1992, has been synonymous with extrajudicial killings and corruption manifesting as violence and harassment.

The Nigerian government stated in 1992 that SARS would combat robbery and other violent crimes, including those committed by other police, but critics of SARS say it has become a part of the corrupt system it was created to regulate. Several cases of extortion, bribery and abuse of power have been documented and gone viral in recent years. 

Last month, in a scene that has become commonplace around the globe this year, tens of thousands of Nigerian protesters began occupying public spaces throughout the West African nation, demanding their government disband SARS.

SARS has been seen harassing or physically assaulting people who carry high-value items like iPhones and digital cameras.

In 2019, Nigerian journalist Kofi Bartels tweeted that he was beaten by three SARS officers after attempting to film them harassing someone else.

“It has affected my life so much that I’m not safe even in my own country as a youth,” said Chima Uwakwe, who has been participating in demonstrations in Port Harcourt, the capital city of Nigeria’s River State. “I can’t dress properly because looking too good is an offense to SARS, using an iPhone is like carrying a gun.”

Protests have continued for over a month. While promises from the government to disband SARS have been made, citizens are persisting for material changes and demand broad reform in a government that millions of Nigerians in the country and throughout the diaspora say does not serve their interests. 

“To me, it isn’t just about ending SARS or police brutality,” Uwakwe said. “It is about changing the government and its wicked acts. We want a better Nigeria with good foods, good roads, lights, security…We are tired and don’t want to continue with the bad government.”

The alleged “wicked acts” include hoarding of resources that would improve Nigerian quality of life. Viral videos show anti-SARS demonstrators distributing caches of food hoarded in warehouses throughout the country. The caches have been identified as COVID-19 relief; and Nigerian’s say these resources have not been provided to them in a reasonable fashion. Reports from BBC and Reuters corroborate these claims.

SARS has not been stripped of its power, meeting peaceful protesters with fatal violence since the early days of the protests in October. 

“I have a cousin that lives in Lagos,” said Nigerian-British media personality Joy Monene. “She’s seen some terrible things. She stated how she saw literal dead bodies on the floor and it’s really shaken her.”

Monene, who was born in the UK and been to Nigeria multiple times, keeps in contact with her Nigerian-dwelling family members and follows national affairs in the country, where her mother was born. Several of her platforms cover Nigerian athletes and feature a tangible pride in her heritage. 

Monene has experienced corruption and profiling from Nigerian authorities first-hand.

“My realest encounter was when I was walking around with my aunt,” she recalls. “We got stopped and the first comment was about our dressing….once I spoke and they heard my accent they eased off but kidnappings are really common.” 

“Because of my British accent, they may have automatically assumed that I’m really well off so (they) could hold me for ransom…if it wasn’t for my accent and us calling my uncle I don’t know what would have happened. I know of too many kidnapping stories.”

Earlier this year, without anticipating these specific protests in opposition to SARS,  Monene told her audience on Instagram live that she did think conditions could improve in The Giant of Africa, but that “many people must be willing to die” to bring about that change.

“The current system needs to be scrapped and remodeled from the bottom up,” she said when asked about this remark. “Unfortunately, because of the state Nigeria is in, lives would be lost and RIP to all the innocent brave souls who died for the cause. Their deaths will not be in vain…I genuinely didn’t know it would happen this soon.”

In fear and desperation, as SARS continues to brutalize and kill Nigerian citizens, some have called for foreign nations, such as the United States and those of the European Union to intervene. 

Monene does not think such intervention would bring about lasting change.

“I understand why people may want to seek help from outside of the country/ continent but…they have never helped us,” she said matter-of-factly. “Colonialism and imperialism is what brought us in this mess in the first place. So looking towards the same countries who are still profiting off that is a wrong turn.”

She continued, calling for Nigerians to realize the power they have if unified and the abundance of resources within their own borders–the ability to address their own problem without intervention from Western nations.

“Nigeria is not a poor country, it’s ridiculously rich however the people are poor because all the money is at the top. It’s just greed,” she said. “In terms of accountability we are definitely looking to our government because they are the ones in charge. Once we do what we need to do, we can then look towards the Western countries as there’s unfinished business there.”

The virality of the SARS protests–mainly by way of the #EndSARS hashtag–has made it a diasporic affair. Black celebrities, activists and journalists around the globe have helped spread awareness, collect donations and mobilize protesters on and off the continent in solidarity.  

Uwakwe, Monene and many of these global organizers believe any lasting change must be created by these coalitions. 

“(Speak in) one voice,”  Uwakwe said of Nigerian protesters and Black voices in the Diaspora. “The louder we can get the better the world can hear us.”