Zoe Antona Art Blog
Could you imagine slavery still being a living thorn in United States’ side 153 years after slavery is said to have been abolished; seems unfathomable right? Though in the eyes of the law slavery is no longer legal, the separation between Black and White America is still ever present. There is no better example that explicitly represents how slavery has evolved in America than Hank Willis Thomas’ art. Hank Willis Thomas created his chromogenic print titled The Cotton Bowl (2011) from a digital file in 2011 that explores the parallels of the United States’ slavery ridden past and its current favorite past time of football. Just as the title suggests, the piece displays a cotton field on the left side and a football field on the right with two men mirroring each other in a three-point stance looking on. The Cotton Bowl (2011) is currently mounted in a frame that is relatively the size of the largest flat screen television at the Princeton University’s Art Museum but has been exhibited in a series in 2011 titled Strange Fruit. America’s treatment of Black Americans today in the sport entrainment industry is an evolved version of how African Americans were treated during slavery in America.
In order to fully experience The Cotton Bowl (2011) piece one must understand the history of slavery in the United States and how to this day black bodies are being exploited in the sports entertainment industry at multiple levels. By depicting two black men mirroring each other in two seemingly split settings on either side of the image, The Cotton Bowl (2011) makes the viewer question wither or not both men are serving the same purpose in their labor. The man depicted on the left side of The Cotton Bowl (2011) is most certainly represents the exploitation of African Americans doing free labor for their white owners. The man depicted as a young football player on the right side of the image represents the current day and how college football players are not compensated for their labor on the football field. In an interview with Rollins College, Hank Thomas explains that the work is about the past and the present coming both face to face in both land and labor and that these men are repeating history (Rollins College). Slaves during the 1800’s and College Football players today, are not, or were not, compensated for their work. Both men in The Cotton Bowl (2011) are being preyed on by a white dominated society. For example: prior to the Civil War, slave owners believed they were compensating their slaves for their labor by providing food and shelter and, after all, in the eyes of white society at the time it was a crime to be born black. Fast forward to 2018 and “schools take advantage of poor, talented athletes who accept whatever is offered to them because they can’t afford not to,”(Siebold). And how might the racial makeup of these “amateur” football programs look? According to TIME “black men comprise 57 percent of college football teams, on average, and at some universities it’s over 70 percent,”(Roberts) while “under 10 percent of head coaches in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision are black; 87 percent are white,”(Roberts). The people in power at most universities are benefiting off of the football players who are their work force. In Hank Thomas’s The Cotton Bowl (2011) the connection of free labor from black bodies during slavery and in college football is all too similar.
Though it could be argued that college football players are being compensated for their labor on the football field by receiving an education. If you take into account that the Universities nation wide make a profit of $3.5 billion a year the players who put in 40+ hours a week on practice, games, and other related activities do not see a dime. On the flip side the Universities coaching staff makes a very comfortable living. Take for example Alabama’s Football Coach Nick Saban, “Saban earns $11.1 million dollars per year,” (Siebold) with a contract that last for up to 10 years according to the Huffington Post. On the contrary the players that play for Saban are only guaranteed max of 4 years playing time and within that time can withstand life-altering injuries with zero compensation. Relating this to The Cotton Bowl (2011) the working time span of both the man working on the cotton field and the football player were short durations compared to the revenue that they both generate. Now taking into consideration that college football players do receive an education out of their labor a majority of players do not even graduate before they enter into the NFL draft where there they have a 1.7% chance of making it big (Siebold). For some viewers who look at The Cotton Bowl (2011) many may relate the men in the image to those who were sharecroppers and an NFL player.
Of the 1.7% of college football players who make it to the NFL only a handful of these men will actually make millions. In Thomas’ piece The Cotton Bowl (2011) it could easily be interoperated that both black men in the image are compensated for their work but not fully compensated for their work. During the 1800’s sharecroppers only received a fraction of what the land owner made off of the same land, looking at the present day black NFL players are only making a fraction of what white players make. In both the eyes of the white landowners of the past and the all white NFL team owners today black bodies are tools for profit (Wilson). As previously stated, all NFL team owners are white, this is true, of the 32 NFL teams every single one is owned by a white male, female, or family. When you look at Hank Thomas’ The Cotton Bowl (2011) it is easier to understand the meaning behind it just by understanding the statistical makeup of the NFL alone and how a majority of the players are black. If one were to look at the demographics of the NFL over 60% of the players are African American and less than 30% are white. Of the approximately 1500+ players who make up the entire NFL 9 out of 10 of the top paid players are white. According to forbes “NFL’s 10 top-paid players will earn $424 million in salary,” (Badenhausen). The meaning behind The Cotton Bowl (2011) is certainly loaded with meaning behind the parallels of both the NFL and Americas past.
Both men in Hank Thomas’ The Cotton Bowl (2011) don’t have their faces showing making them unidentifiable making the message behind the piece greater than these two men; the two men represent black America. In a nation where racial inequality is illegal in the eyes of the law it is still ever present in American society as a whole especially in the sports entertainment industry. A major post football season game titled The Cotton Bowl that generates a lot of revenue, is played by a majority black team. The name Cotton Bowl is ironic because it was cotton that generated a lot of revenue for the south during slavery in which black bodies were exploited. It’s quite interesting to see the racial demographics that make up both the NFL and college football and how similarly structured the two are in terms of who is in power and who is not. The Cotton Bowl (2011) is a piece that screams both history and present day issues that are still occurring and the viewer must listen up.
Badenhausen, Kurt. “The NFL's Highest-Paid Players 2018: Aaron Rodgers Leads With $76 Million.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 20 Sept. 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2018/09/20/the-nfls-highest-paid-players-2018-aaron-rodgers-leads-with-76-million/#212ab3c0117b https://aperture.org/blog/cotton-bowl-super-bowl/.
College, Rollins. YouTube, YouTube, 6 June 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1tPApzypJc.
Roberts, Diane. “College Football's Big Problem With Race.” Time, Time, 12 Nov. 2015, time.com/4110443/college-football-race-problem/.
Siebold, Steve. “NCAA's Football Slavery Scheme.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 5 Jan. 2018, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ncaas-football-slavery-scheme_us_5a4fec40e4b0f9b24bf31727.