Interview with Jon Entine A 'short' talk with award-winning author and producer Jon Entine.

A 'short' talk with award-winning author and producer Jon Entine.

Have you seen a positive, negative or undeterminable impact on discussions of race and sports as a result of your writings?  Is having more people talking about it enough?  Or do we need more people saying the right things about it?

On the whole, the impact of this line of discourse has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly among black scholars and journalists, who initiate many of the discussions. Just check the reviews (most are on my web site) that appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times, The Black World Today,, Emerge,, the Seattle Times, the Hartford Courant, American Enterprise and in any number of other publications by black writers. They all found something inspiring to take from this book. Will some carp? Of course, but that’s not bad either.

It’s helped frame the issue of human differences in a constructive, non-racist way, so that we can discuss our differences without sacrificing the basic reality that those differences in no way overwhelm the fundamental similarities that make us human.

The elephant in the living room is intelligence. In the familiar if erroneous calculus, IQ and athleticism are inversely proportional. Jocks are dense, so the stereotype goes, whether we are talking about a lean black power forward or a beefy white offensive lineman. Like a barnacle to a boat, this stereotype has attached itself to blacks, particularly African Americans, because blacks are starring in disproportionate numbers in almost all sports.

It’s time to decouple intelligence and physicality. It’s time to move from censorship to careful debate. After all, the issue of whether there are meaningful differences between populations has all but been resolved. The evolutionary crucible has left population groups with distinct physique, musculature, testosterone levels, metabolic efficiency, reaction time, and a slew of other characteristics. Soon we will have maps pinpointing the genes responsible for many traits. And though the earth may have become a much smaller place over the past few centuries–humans are notorious for “sleeping around”–our mobility has not yet erased what nature has forged. Human variation still congeals in distinct population groups: if you land in Nairobi, Shanghai, or Delhi, you certainly know you are not in Kansas.

Is the environment a factor? Of course, both in determining our genetic heritage and in setting the limits of any individual athlete. Human potential at birth may not be akin to a proverbial blank slate but we are far from a fully written book. Athletic success is certainly more complicated than environmental determinists might have us believe. Consider Michael Jordan, who grew up in the security of a two-parent home in comfortable circumstances. Or Grant Hill, son of a Yale-educated father and a Wellesley graduate. Or one of the world’s top sprinters, Donovan Bailey who was certainly not motivated by a desperate need to escape destitution–he already owned his own house and a Porsche, and traded life as a successful stockbroker to pursue his dream of Olympic gold. More and more top black athletes are from the middle-class. The classic argument that blacks pursue sports to escape desperate poverty is less and less plausible every day.

The nature/nurture split is a false dichotomy. Ultimately there is no real separation between the environment and biology, just a constant loop of experience passed through the genes and back around again. Today basketball is a “black sport” both genetically and culturally, with no clear separation. But don’t expect ideological skeptics to agree that genetics matters. “Such dominance will never convince those whose minds are made up that genetics plays no role in shaping the racial patterns we see in sports,” says Vincent Sarich. “When we discuss issues such as race, it pushes buttons and the cortex just shuts down.”

Whether biologically or culturally defined, acknowledging human differences can be empowering or pernicious, depending on who is doing the analysis and for what end. Yes, we must be on guard against the slippery slope of racism, for those can harden into something far worse. Yet it is no solution to replace reasoned debate with fears that find a racist behind under every rock. The “censor-it–don’t-test-it” attitude, rooted in the never-never land of postmodernism where everything is a social construct, is distressingly rampant.

The hard truth is that we cannot avoid confronting our human biodiversity. The science of genetics, and its quest to solve medical and scientific problems, is barreling into the future, particularly in the arena of gene therapy, a key focus of the Human Genome Project. Limiting the rhetorical use of folk categories such as race, an admirable goal, are not going to make the patterned biological variation on which they are based disappear. The question is no longer whether these inquiries will continue but in what manner and to what end. Caricaturing population genetics as pseudo-science just devalues legitimate concerns about how this information will be put to use. If we do not welcome the impending onslaught of genetic and anthropological data with open minds, if we are scared to ask and to answer difficult questions, if we lose faith in science, then there is no winner; we all lose.

Science is a method of interrogating reality, a cumulative process of testing new and more refined explanations, not an assertion of dry, inalterable facts. It is a way of asking questions, not of imposing answers. Scientific theories are testable and can be disproved in part or in whole if they do not explain the evidence. Although it is certainly true that all ideas are filtered through the prism of personal beliefs and cultural biases, it’s bunk to hyperbolize that if conclusions make some uncomfortable, they should not be expressed. This is not just saber-rattling; look at the hoops evolutionary biologists have had to jump through in their unending battle with “creation science.”

In this case, the scientific evidence for black athletic superiority is overwhelming and in accord with what we see on the playing field. By and large athletes who rely on the ability to sprint and jump trace their ancestry to West Africa; East and North Africans are best at endurance sports, particularly distance running; whites fall somewhere in the middle. Certainly no individual athlete can succeed without considerable dedication and sport smarts, but the pool of potential success stories is far larger among certain populations. Cultural explanations do not, cannot, account for the magnitude of this phenomena. But the interaction of science and culture can. The evidence speaks for itself. Humans are different. No amount of rhetoric, however well-motivated, can undermine the intriguing kaleidoscope of humanity.