As race relations in the U.S. remains at the forefront of discourse following last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Va., ESPN aired a sketch on Monday that many are calling tone-deaf, including New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and the NBA’s Kevin Durant.
Fantasy football drafts, in which players pay imaginary money for ownership of players on sports teams, usually take place online. On Monday night, during a 28-hour fantasy football marathon, ESPN2 aired a segment featuring a live, outdoor auction draft. Using paddles, predominantly white fantasy football players purchased several Black football stars. White players were purchased as well.
A clip of Beckham being sold went viral on social media. An auctioneer stood at a podium holding a stick with a photo of the athlete’s face. The bid began at $15 and escalated to $24.
“Sold at 34, to shiny top,” the auctioneer said.
Soooooo ESPN just did an “auction” sketch 🤔 pic.twitter.com/zvezCItems
— Jᴀsᴏɴ (@rjasonscales) August 14, 2017
Former Giants defensive tackle Dominique Hamilton shared the clip of ESPN’s auction with Beckham.
— Dominique Hamilton (@Underrated_Dom) August 15, 2017
He replied with one word: “Speechless”
— Odell Beckham Jr (@OBJ_3) August 15, 2017
Many on social media said the segment had racial undertones and began comparing the scene to a modern-day slave auction.
The 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant tweeted:
Bum ass espn running out of ideas…. pic.twitter.com/4QVTtncN6R
— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) August 16, 2017
ESPN issued an apology on Tuesday but said those critical of the segment took it out of context:
“Auction drafts are a common part of fantasy football, and ESPN’s segments replicated an auction draft with a diverse slate of top professional football players,” the network said in a statement.
“Without that context, we understand the optics could be portrayed as offensive, and we apologize.”
The network noted that white players, including Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski, were auctioned off as well.
Kenny Mayne, a sports journalist for ESPN, tweeted:
Fam-The optics aren’t good-agreed. But it was replicating Fantasy Football auctions–whites up for bid too.
We appreciate you. https://t.co/oTVl1pkJku
— Kenny Mayne (@Kenny_Mayne) August 15, 2017
In regard to optics, in many ways, the clip of Beckham being sold is comparable to a scene in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” when a young Black man is being sold in a silent auction. Peele’s film — the most profitable film so far in 2017 — uses a combination of comedy and horror to make commentary on the state of race relations in the country.
Beyond fantasy football, in reality, Seattle Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin said in an interview last year for Sports Illustrated’s “Football in America” that some people treat the NFL like an institution of slavery.
“I don’t know how to put this, but to some people the NFL is basically modern-day slavery,” Baldwin said.
“Don’t get me wrong, we get paid a lot of money. There’s a sense of ‘shut up and play,’ that this is entertainment for other people. Then, when we go out in public we’re like zoo animals. We’re not human beings.”