Frederick Douglass on Sports


In Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, he gives a detialed account of his life as a slave and the journey he went on to become a free man. Throughout the book, Douglass highlights the tactics used by slave owners to keep slaves ignorant. He talks about the brutal whippings they endured, the cruel conditions they were made to live in, and the methods used to “break” them and get them to behave how their owners saw fit. One thing in specific is how holidays were spent and the ways slaves were made to spend their days off as a way for slave owners to keep them down. Douglass uses a critical tone when talking about how sports were used as a way to keep slaves from doing anything productive while on break. Douglass claims that slaves were encouraged to play sports, drink, and avoid any type of work during holidays in order to keep ignorant when not working.

Frederick Douglass argues that the holiday given to them between Christmas and New Year’s Eve is less of a break for their health but more of a safety measure for the slave owners. He says that the break is needed to “carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity”(Douglass). By this Douglass is saying that slaves were only given holidays to give them time get their frustrations out, a way for slave owners to make sure they did not rise up against them. Douglass also claims that slaves were encouraged to play sports to prevent them from getting bored and seeking knowledge or freedom. He states that giving breaks were the best way to keep the slaves down. Slaves would be forced to drink excessively for the owner’s entertainment and slaves who could not afford alcohol were shamed. Douglass claims that this is a way to convince slaves that freedom was not what it appeared to be and made them choose between being “slaves to man [or] to rum”(Douglass). Douglass feels that holiday time off and sports were used by slave owners to keep slaves ignorant and make them afraid of freedom.

Douglass’ claim that sports are a way to keep slaves uneducated can be seen in this present day image that compares the processes of NFL combines to the slave trade. In the images there are black men being subjected to inspection by white men, examined for their strength and ability, similar to how slaves were examined before purchase. My initial impression was to immediately disagree and say that it is unfair to make that comparison because of the fact that football players are payed astounding salaries, but after further thought I began to agree with the image more. Looking at it from Frederick Douglass’ points about sports being used to keep slaves from gaining knowledge and using personal experience with family members and their pursuit of professional athlete dreams, I saw the sad truth behind the image and Douglass’ points. Douglass claims that slaves are encouraged to play sports during their holidays in order to keep them from looking for knowledge or freedom. This argument still holds true to this day. Many young black boys are sold the dream of NFL or NBA stardom and are told that they need to focus all of their time on one sport instead of school. This mind set that sports are the path to success and school is not as important, combined with the statistics proving only a small percent of those kids will make it as far as college teams, makes for a lot of disappointed and uneducated kids. According to a study done by the NCAA in late 2013 and updated in early 2015, only 3.4% of high school men’s basketball players will go on to play for a college and of those 3.4%, only 1.2% will be drafted into the NBA.

Douglass is very critical of sports being played by slaves and goes as far as to say that sports are used to stop slaves from seeking further knowledge when on holiday and claims that they are one of the most effective ways to keep slaves ignorant. Douglass’ claims can be backed by today’s statistics of how many young athletes actually succeed in making it to a professional level after years of neglecting school.

Works Cited

  1. Scott, T. (2014, December 9). 5 Ways the NFL Combine Reminds Us of Slavery – Page 4 of 5 – Atlanta Blackstar. Retrieved January 8, 2016, from
  2. Probability of competing beyond high school. (2013, December 17). Retrieved January 8, 2016, from