The Taboo of Blacks in Sports
If you believe his critics, he is one of this country's most dangerous thinkers, a man whose theories on race are so lethal they've been compared to deadly weapons. No, it's not John Rocker, the hot-headed Atlanta Brave. It's Jon Entine, a mild-mannered Jewish liberal, who has written a book called Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It. Published in January, Taboo is causing a ruckus because Entine, who is white, concludes that race does matter. He says that people of African ancestry enjoy a biological edge in certain sports, which helps explain why the 200 fastest times recorded in the 100-meter dash all belong to blacks and why blacks account for nine of every 10 NBA players and why seven of every 10 players in the NFL are dark-skinned.Taboo has its critics."[Entine's theory] is a milder version of eugenics," says Larry Proctor, a professor of anatomy at Washington State University, who is black. "And it's damaging to blacks who buy into the idea that they have a physical edge. It's like saying, 'Let's take the chains off the legs and put them on the mind.'"Proctor's reaction shows that discussions of race and sports in this country come with an explosive subtext. Too often, the topic of black physicality has implied that blacks are closer to beasts. Portland Trail Blazers guard Bonzi Wells says of Taboo's theme, "It's a real touchy area."USA Today's David DuPree agrees, saying he might be able to get away with writing about the subject, but his paper would be "real touchy" about the reaction. That's why Wesley Snipes can star in White Men Can't Jump, but white men can't utter the corollary, which is that black guys are built differently. And that's why Entine, may be stupid, brave or both for writing what The Washington Post says "could well be the most intellectually demanding sports book ever written."To any TV viewer, it's apparent that blacks dominate basketball, football and Olympic running events. What's not so obvious, until you've pored over the pages of Taboo, is the astonishing degree of their dominance. Consider running, which is the most democratic of sports, requiring virtually no equipment, teams or club membership. All it takes is a surface and a runner. Every record at every standard distance is owned by a runner of African descent, from the 100-meter dash to the marathon. In sprinting, Entine notes, all of the 32 male finalists in the last four Olympic 100-meter races were of West African descent. The statistical likelihood of that happening based on population alone is 0.0000000000000000000000000000000001 percent.In marathons, Kenya, a country the size of Texas, rules the world. At Boston, the world's premier marathon, Kenyans have not lost the men's race since 1990. In all, as Entine writes, Kenyans have won 38 Olympic running medals since 1964. Based on population alone, the odds that Kenya could turn in such a haul are one in 1.6 billion.Running isn't the only sport dominated by blacks. Check the NBA stats. Not one white has finished among the top scorers or rebounders in recent years. Over in the NFL, you can count the number of whites at the speediest positions -- cornerback, wide receiver and running back -- on your hands.Even in baseball, where only one in six major leaguers is black, the stars are disproportionately black. Since baseball was integrated in 1947, a majority of National League MVPs have been black.Conventional wisdom attributes this success to environmental disadvantage, not biological edge. For blacks, the reasoning goes, athletics is practically the only way out of the ghetto, so they have extraordinary motivation to succeed.To suggest otherwise is dangerous.Remember Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder? A football commentator for CBS, Snyder mused in January 1988 that slaveowners had bred black slaves to produce the best physical specimens. Black athletes, he went on to say, could "jump higher and run faster" because of their "high thighs and big size." Snyder's comments, caught on tape at a bar on Martin Luther King Day, generated outrage. A Washington Post columnist compared Snyder to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. The Boston Globe ran a cartoon showing a hooded Klansman consoling Snyder. The president of the Hollywood chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for Snyder's scalp, and CBS obliged a few days later.So why do black athletes dominate sports? How could the environmental-disadvantage theory explain the success of Michael Jordan, who comes from a middle-class background, or Grant Hill, whose parents graduated from Yale and Wellesley?Those questions once nagged New York Knicks fan and NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. In 1989, Brokaw and Entine, who then worked as his producer, made a one-hour TV documentary on the subject. Although critically acclaimed, the show drew hundreds of complaints and angered some of Brokaw's black friends. Brokaw turned his back to the controversy and went on to write a bestselling book about old white men who'd fought in World War II. But Entine, now 47, remained curious.A former football place-kicker at Trinity College, in Hartford, Conn., then a marathon runner and self-described "jock sniffer," he relished the chance to write something substantive about sports. "It was a dream story," he says, over a recent breakfast of waffles and ham. "It touches on so many aspects of our lives -- science, sociology, anthropology." Entine knew it was a dicey subject, but that attracted him. "I was intrigued by how we feared the debate," he says.In his book, Entine connects legitimate scientific findings, which show that some physical differences exist between black and white people, to black athletes' increasing dominance in certain sports. The book plows new ground and goes far beyond Snyder's tipsy sound bites. No one before Entine has combined the arcane science with the sports-performance insights in a book."He puts together a lot of information about sports physiology that hasn't been in one pile before," says Ralph Holloway, an anthropology professor at Columbia University, who's using Taboo in one of his classes. "You'd have to go to very specialized journals to get it." So what did the latest findings in genetics, physiology and anthropology tell Entine?He says that athletes who trace their ancestry to West Africa (which includes most African Americans) are exceptionally fast and can jump high. In short, that's because of greater muscle mass and percentage of power-enhancing fast-twitch fibers, a higher center of gravity and more anaerobic enzymes.Another population, the East African descendants who dominate distance running, have larger lung capacities, more endurance-enhancing slow-twitch muscle fibers, a typically slighter body profile and the ability to process oxygen more efficiently. Whites, according to the scientists Entine quotes, fall physically between East and West Africans.Entine is careful to stress that he's talking about trends among groups of very elite athletes. He's not saying white guys should give up playing pickup ball because they can't jump. He is saying that among the small population of elite athletes, there are differences that could give a fraction-of-a-second advantage to people of African ancestry, which makes the difference, at the elite level, between a medal and fourth place. Michigan State University anthropologist Robert Malina agrees."Differences among athletes of elite caliber are so small that if you have an advantage that might be genetically based, it might be very, very significant," he says.Entine isn't discounting the hard work of black athletes, nor is he suggesting that most blacks athletes are superior to most whites. Rather, he's saying that the pool of potentially great athletes in certain sports is deeper and wider for blacks.In the end, Entine says, the individual's work ethic, competitive spirit and training remain the key to success. "That's why plenty of guys with Scottie Pippen's talent are [stuck] in the CBA [Continental Basketball Association]," he says.Still, Taboo has rekindled an academic rumble that pits what might be called, in extreme terms, the culturalists against the biologists, the neo-creationists against the social Darwinists, the Mau Maus against the racists.On one side are those who say race is an oppressive social construct created to explain trivial differences between people of dissimilar skin pigment. These well-meaning people worry, as one scribe wrote, what will happen to the brotherhood of man when some brothers can run faster than others.On the other side are those who say forget about the genetic similarities between races -- it's a red herring. It's not the amount of genes that count -- heck, we share 74 percent of ours with roundworms -- but which genes. It's time, these scholars say, to stop denying science and start truly celebrating diversity.Some of Entine's critics flat-out disagree with his findings. They argue that Taboo doesn't prove that black athletes owe their success to genes, rather than individual drive."His evidence is not conclusive," says Richard Lapchick, founder of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. Most, though, have a different complaint: They fear the book will give ammunition to racists.Taboo has been called dangerous and insidious and been compared to weapons of destruction. "I see this like guns or uranium," says Jeffrey Sammons, a history professor at New York University. "Some information has a more dangerous content than others. Only bad things can come from research into racially-based differences in sports performance."Sociologist Harry Edwards, the man who engineered the Black Power protest at the 1968 Olympics, once explained why the topic of black physicality is so incendiary."By asserting that blacks are physically superior," Edwards said, "whites at best reinforce some old stereotypes long held about Afro-Americans -- to wit, that they are little removed from the apes in their evolutionary development. It opens the door for at least an informal acceptance of the idea that whites are intellectually superior to blacks."Some say Entine has blown that door off its hinges."Jon's thesis doesn't threaten white racism. Jon's thesis affirms white racism," says C. Keith Harrison, assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Michigan and director of the Paul Robeson Research Center for Academic and Athletic Prowess."The book itself is not dangerous, but reactions to it can be," agrees Lapchick, who is white. "Generally, the conclusion that there is black physical superiority puts blacks into a physical box and whites into an intellectual box."David Shields, who writes for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, says, "It's such a loaded, controversial topic because the subtext is black people are only physical beings."The comments of Entine's critics reveal one of the strange things about the reaction to his book: It's not being criticized for what it says, but for how a bigot might distort its findings.While it seems an intellectually flimsy critique of Taboo, it's also understandable. For many black athletes, the mere mention of their athletic superiority carries a stigma.Former NBA star Isiah Thomas used to complain that black players never get credit for their hard work. "When whites perform well, it's due to [their] thinking and work habit," said Thomas. "It's not the case for blacks. All we do is run and jump. We never practice or give a thought to how we play. It's like I came dribbling out of my mother's womb."Aggressive as a terrier, Entine takes the criticism personally. He calls Keith Harrison, "a third rate academic" (although he asked Harrison to review his book). He also says that "sociologists and anthropologists are the bottom-feeders of academia."Entine doesn't think his book is bad for race relations; in fact, he thinks it will be productive. The NAACP's magazine, Emerge, gave his book a positive review, he notes, as have several prominent black scholars. "Hopefully, Taboo will contribute to finally putting to rest the tortuous stereotype of the dumb black jock," says black professor Earl Smith from Wake Forest University in the foreword he wrote for the book. Entine also goes to lengths to distance himself from The Bell Curve, the infamous 1994 bestseller that linked ethnicity and IQ, and he insists that race and intelligence are not related, according to his research. Taboo exposes the history of eugenics as well -- how it went from a utopian ideal, supported by Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, to a hideous reality carried out by the Nazis. Entine's depiction of racism in the U.S. is just as ugly: As late as 1942, when black G.I.s were fighting Hitler, 30 states in America banned marriages of blacks and whites to keep the white race from degrading.But Entine's pride and joy is that Taboo stands as a monument to open debate and the exchange of ideas unfettered by political correctness. He revels in the chance to take a few swings at the academics who claim there are no real biological differences between races. Their ostrich-like views might even be harmful, he says."Religion, violence, depression -- all have genetic components," he explains. "If we think that improving the social environment will change everything, then we'll leave some people behind."Entine does bluster at times, and he clearly has a bit of huckster in him. He's an author who knows how to package a story for a mass audience. But he is not a racist. Entine does more to inform whites of their prejudices than he's credited for, and by wrapping his stories of segregation, genetics and evolutionary theory in a sports book with a sexy title, he'll probably reach a wider audience than a scholar more closely tied to the ivory tower ever would.Entine and his supporters argue there's no harm in reporting on human diversity. If the discussion is about genetic vulnerability to a disease, it's no problem. Why should it be when the subject is sports? "Why do we so readily accept the idea that evolution has turned out Jews with a genetic predisposition to Tay-Sachs disease and that blacks are more susceptible to sickle cell anemia," Entine asks, "yet find it racist to suggest that West Africans may have evolved into the world's best sprinters?"Human diversity should be a cause for celebration. "It's time to say it's wonderful," says Columbia University's Holloway. "Our strongest weapon against extinction is our variability."The professor has a point. What's more enlightened: to acknowledge our differences without stereotypes, without saying one group is better or more intelligent, or to deny those differences for fear of encouraging the John Rockers of the world?"In the end, for all our differences," Entine says, "we are far, far more similar. That's Taboo's only real message."***Athletes and RaceNo white sprinter has ever cracked the 10-second mark in the 100-meter dash. Dozens of black sprinters have, and eight top black sprinters have broken the 10-second barrier a total of 136 times.Although Asia accounts for 55 percent of the world population, there are no sprinters of note from the continent that brought forth the Confucian and Taoist traditions of discipline.Blacks account for 13 percent of the U.S. population.Black boxer Joe Louis fought Primo Carnera in a 1936 bout portrayed as a battle of American democracy against Italian fascism. Yet even the fawning white journalists called Louis a "brown cobra" and a "magnificent animal" who "came out of the African jungle to strike down" Carnera.Charles Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton, gave birth to eugenics in 1883 when he suggested that social progress could be attained only by purging "undesirable genes," which meant restricting the mentally ill and nonwhite from propagating.Eugenics spread to Germany, where another Darwinist, Ernst Haeckel, said in 1899 that the lives of lower races should be assigned a "totally different value."Entine grew up in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia. His father was a dentist. After college, Entine became a TV producer for Tom Brokaw and Sam Donaldson."On the plantation, a strong black man was mated with a strong black woman. [Blacks] were simply bred for physical qualities." -- Calvin Hill, a black former football player, Yale graduate and father of NBA star Grant Hill.In a 1858 debate, Abraham Lincoln said, "There is a physical difference that will forever prohibit the two races living together on terms of social and political equality."Sportscaster Brent Musberger called the 1968 Olympics' Black Power protesters John Carlos and Tommie Smith a "pair of dark-skinned storm troopers."Entine says genetics, not religion, may explain the long-standing hostility between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.Entine says the "not in our genes" ideology has been taken to extremes. In 1998, the American Kennel Club was forced to reprint its nineteenth edition of The Complete Dog Book after charges that it perpetuated "pernicious stereotypes" about dog breeds.Concerned about rising dog bite injuries, the AKC reclassified some 40 breeds as being not good for children. Dog owners accused the AKC of canine racism and raising the Hitlerian spectre of "breed cleansing.""The belief that dog breeds do not have stereotypical personalities is as intuitively ridiculous as claiming that there are no meaningful differences between human populations," Entine says.