March, 2000

Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It
Jon Entine
PublicAffairs
400 pages

African-Americans comprise approximately seventy-seven percent of the National Basketball Association. The National Football League is more than seventy percent black. Almost every major world record in running is owned by a competitor of black African descent. Why? Why do blacks so completely dominate sports? If you believe that blacks are innately superior physically, does that make you a racist? Entine attempts to answer these troubling questions. He first notes that the "politically correct" explanation is sociological: that is, we're all born equal, but because of a dearth of other opportunities, African-Americans are channeled into sports, where success breeds success. The problem with this theory, argues Entine, is that it ignores the various genetic, cultural and physiological roots of black athletic superiority. He cites the differences between West and East Africans to prove his point. Athletes from East Africa--think of those amazing runners from Kenya--are "the world's best aerobic athletes," writes Entine, because they "have more energy-producing enzymes in the muscles and an apparent ability to process more oxygen more efficiently." By contrast, West Africans dominate in "such anaerobic activities as football, basketball and sprinting" because of relative advantages in certain physiological and biomechanical characteristics. Entine's nature-and-nurture argument is, ultimately, persuasive. But he undermines his research with occasional sloppiness: "Nor should genetics by itself for athletic success is a bio-cultural phenomenon" is one of several nonsentences I discovered. In addition, the book's title seems somewhat disingenuous. The topic isn't as taboo as Entine suggests; many writers and academics have examined this issue, most recently with the publication of Kenneth L. Shropshire's In Black and White: Race and Sports in America (1996) and John Hoberman's Darwin's Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race (1997). The topic remains a compelling one, but Entine is just the latest in a long line of race-in-sports theorists.

--David Davis

Copyright 2000