By Gene Warner
February 20, 2000
TABOO Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It
Jon Entine; PublicAffairs. 387 pages, $25.
The politically correct crowd won't like this book.
The subject the role of genetics in blacks' domination of sports is a firecracker, way too hot to handle. Just ask two public figures, Al Campanis and Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder, who both fell on their professional swords trying to discuss the subject candidly.
So give author Jon Entine some credit for tackling this subject, and summing it up rather nicely in his title: "Taboo." Entine gingerly tiptoes through all the minefields of racial stereotypes, and the result is a full-spectrum debate about why blacks are so successful in many sports.
His thesis is pretty simple: It's sheer folly to suggest that genetics doesn't play some role in the ascendancy of athletes with African roots whether you're talking about sprinters, defensive backs, point guards, marathon runners, outfielders or wide receivers. White men can't jump, or sprint, and denying it for the sake of political correctness makes no sense, the author suggests.
Entine weaves a tale of black athletic history, anecdotal evidence, quotes from scores of sociologists and athletes (from Christian Laettner to Arthur Ashe to Roger Bannister) and some heavy scientific data to make his point. And while he never closes the deal and proves anything, he provides enough of an argument to set off a nasty cocktail-party debate.
People just don't like discussing this subject.
Consider the comments of Ashe, as widely respected for his intellect as his tennis prowess. Through massive research for his book on the history of black accomplishment in sports, Ashe accumulated thousands of anecdotes about the cultural forces shaping black success in sports. Yet Ashe wrestled with the question of whether genetics plays a role in that success, whether blacks possess a physical advantage.
"Sociology can't explain it," he said. "I want to hear from the scientists. Until I see some numbers (to the contrary), I have to believe that we blacks have something that gives us an edge.
"Damn it," he added. "My heart says 'no,' but my head says 'yes.' "
Entine provides a convincing argument that training practices and other social and cultural factors alone can't explain why sprinters with West African roots, African-American basketball players and Kenyan marathoners so dominate their field. These athletes possess a tiny, but crucial, edge in innate skills, he argues. Then the cultural conditions -- city blacks being drawn to urban basketball courts or young Kenyans learning that running success is in their blood -- kick in to exaggerate those tiny innate differences.
How else can a rational person explain the following?:
All 32 finalists in the last four Olympic men's 100-meter dashes were of West African descent.
No white sprinter's name appears on the list of the top 200 times in the 100-meter race.
Runners from the tiny Kalenjin region in western Kenya have won more than 40 percent of recent big-time international distance races, copping nearly threetimes as many medals as athletes from any other nation.
"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, yet find it racist to suggest that West Africans may have evolved into the world's best sprinters?" the author asks.
The reader, like a juror, will have to weigh all the evidence, sift it through his or her own biases and decide whether Entine has proven his point.
There's another, even more interesting theme that lurks throughout this book, and that's the way this subject has been ruled off-limits on the American agenda. Why, we might ask, can't a country that tolerates Jerry Springer and Morton Downey Jr., even inviting them into some of our homes, talk sensibly about the role genetics plays in blacks' success on the playing fields?
Entine is at his best here. "A country nurtured on the myth that all people are created equal is understandably uncomfortable talking about innate differences, particularly when it comes to race," he writes. "So when blacks are referred to as physically superior or natural athletes, hackles are raised. What's the real and underlying agenda? If blacks are better at sports, are they better 'sexual athletes'? Are they more brutish? Is black physical superiority inextricably connected to intellectual inferiority ?"
That, of course, explains why so many African-American leaders and liberal sociologists (whom Entine quotes frequently, to his credit) reject his thesis.
The author, through his quick history of blacks' ascendancy in American sports, shows how blacks often were seen as "dumb jocks," or some kind of jungle savages. Their athletic success created the stereotype of a "genetic see-saw," with physical ability on one end and smarts on the other.
"What really is being said in a kind of underhanded way is that blacks are closer to beasts and animals in terms of their genetic and physical and anatomical makeup than they are to the rest of humanity," California sociology professor Harry Edwards says in the book. "And that's where the indignity comes in."
Consider this wire-service lead after Joe Louis knocked out Primo Carnera in 1935: "Something sly and sinister and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle last night to strike down and utterly demolish the huge hulk that had been Primo Carnera, the giant."
We may laugh at that kind of thinking now, but stereotypes die hard. And that ridiculous image of Joe Louis has its modern-day counterpart in Mike Tyson spitting out a piece of his opponent's ear.
Entine works hard to debunk ridiculous stereotypes. He quotes noted sportswriter Frank Deford: "People feel if you say blacks are better athletically, you're saying they're dumber. But when Jack Nicklaus sinks a 30-foot putt, nobody thinks his IQ goes down."
There's one easy bone to pick here. The author, like this reviewer, is white, but that inference can be found only in the foreword, written by a college professor. That's an issue that Entine, an advocate of open debate, should have addressed in some detail.
Copyright 2000 The Buffalo News