Why Race Matters in Sports
April 25, 2001
By JON ENTINE
Williams, the cat-like guard of the Sacramento Kings, is affectionately called
"The Thrilla in Vanilla" by his teammates. As in: Wow, maybe some white
guys can jump and run.
But let's be real: the best whites and Asians
cannot jump as high as elite African American athletes. Blacks have redefined
modern sports, making up 87% of the NBA and 75% of the NFL. And while only one
in eight people in the world are of African ancestry, blacks hold every major
My book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports
and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It addresses this phenomenon free
from racist rhetoric.
What are the facts? What have scientists who
actually study this issue found?
"If you can believe that individuals
of recent African ancestry are not genetically advantaged over those of European
and Asian ancestry in certain athletic endeavors," notes retired University
of California-Berkeley molecular biologist Vincent Sarich, "then you probably
could be led to believe just about anything. But such dominance will never convince
those whose minds are made up that genetics plays not role in shaping the racial
patterns we see in sports. When we discuss issues such as race, it pushes buttons
and the cerebral cortex just shuts down."
Of course, blacks don't
dominate all sports. If you don't have access, you can't to excel; there are no
Texans starring in the National Hockey League playoffs. But by and large, athletes
who trace their ancestry to Africa are over-represented in many sports in which
the social and economic barriers to participation are low. Remarkably, as equality
of opportunity has increased in the past 30 years, equality of results on the
field has declined.
The socially acceptable explanation for such a staggering
trend – that blacks succeed to escape the clutches of the ghetto – is unconvincing
and I believe racist. Donovan Bailey, the Olympic 100-meter champion, who quit
his job on the Toronto Stock Exchange and put his Porsche in hock to pursue his
dream to become the world's fastest human, hardly fits such a sweeping stereotype.
Neither does the (once) middle-class Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant who speaks fluent
Italian, Chris Webber who went to private school before moving on the University
of Michigan, or Grant Hill, the son of a Yale father and a Wellesley mother. Few
people glibly claim that white skiers or female soccer stars, many of comfortable
means, are successful because they needed to flee desperate financial conditions.
We only use such stereotypes to stigmatize black athletes.
succeeds because of economic conditions or ancestry. The success of each individual
is a product of that person's ambition, creativity, and intelligence matched with
the serendipity of life - the X factors that make sports so compelling. But if
the roulette wheel of genetics did not land on that athlete's number, hard work
would come to naught. So while the success of any individual rests with the athlete,
the pattern of success in sports is circumscribed by population genetics - the
inherent differences between populations shaped over many thousands of years of
"Differences among athletes of elite caliber are so
small ... it might be very, very significant," agrees Robert Malina, Michigan
State University anthropologist and editor of the Journal of Human Biology,
who has studied anatomical differences of elite athletes over more than 30 years.
"The fraction of a second is the difference between the gold medal and fourth
Running offers the best prima facie case for the potential
impact of body type differences. Athletes of West African descent dominate sports
requiring speed and jumping, such as basketball and football. They hold the fastest
two hundred 100-meter times, all under 10 seconds, and 494 of the top 500 times.
In last weekend's NFL draft, of the 69 players who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5
seconds or less, only one is white.
This is not to say that blacks of
West African ancestry are "superior" athletes. Body type does not confer
rank. Generally, they are lousy at endurance sports as a consequence of smaller
natural lung capacity, body type, a preponderance of fast twitch type muscle fibers
type, and characteristics. Having less natural body fat, an advantage in sprinting,
is a disadvantage in swimming; sports scientists have long known that blacks are
less natural buoyant, which makes becoming an elite long distance swimmer a long
shot at best.
Humans are different, the consequence of thousands of
years of evolution in varying terrains. This is not an issue of black and white.
East African blacks, from Kenya and Ethiopia, for example, have traveled a different
evolutionary path and are genetically distinct in many aspects of their body type
and physiology from West Africans. The best East African time in the 100 meters,
10.28 seconds, ranks near 5,000 on the all time list.
poor sprinters, East Africans win more than 50 percent of top endurance races.
Almost all trace their ancestry to the 6,000-8,000 foot highlands that snake along
the western edge of the Great Rift Valley. This region of roughly 1.5 million
wins 40 percent of international distance events. The Nandi district in Kenya,
500,000 people – one-twelve-thousandth of Earth's population – sweeps an unfathomable
20 percent, marking it as the greatest concentration of raw athletic talent in
the history of sports. They win in large measure because elite runners have a
near perfect biomechanical package for endurance: lean, ectomorphic physiques
and huge natural lung capacity.
"Kenyans are born with a high number
of slow twitch fibers," states Bengt Saltin, director of the Institute of
Sports Science in Copenhagen. "They have 70 to 75 percent of their muscle
fibers being slow. Very many in sports physiology would like to believe that it
is training, the environment, what you eat that plays the most important role.
But based on the data it is 'in your genes' whether or not you are talented or
whether you will become talented."
Genetically linked, highly heritable
characteristics such as skeletal structure, the distribution of muscle fiber types,
reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency, lung capacity and the ability to use
energy more efficiently are not evenly distributed among populations and cannot
be explained. For example, whites of Eurasian ancestry, who have, on average,
more natural upper-body strength, predictably dominate weightlifting, field events
such as the shot-put and hammer (whites hold 47 of the top 50 throws), and the
offensive line in football. Where flexibility is key, East Asians shine, such
as in diving and some skating and gymnastic events (hence the term "Chinese
"It's time we dispense with the notion that athleticism
is entirely due only to biology or only to culture," says Michael Crawford,
University of Kansas professor of genetics and president of the Human Biology
Association. "Any dialogue between different racial groups should start with
What about claims that "race is biologically meaningless"
or that "humans share 99.9% of their DNA proving there are no racial differences"?
yes and no. The 19th century concept of race based on skin color and defined as
"white, yellow, and black" is certainly biologically naïve. Rather than
identify groups by facial characteristics, scientists now isolate populations
based on gene frequencies and proteins. "I don't believe this is a racist
issue," says Saltin, one of hundreds of scientists who have documented patterned
physique and physiological differences between populations. But such overwhelming
evidence does not prevent journalists, and even some scientists, from injecting
charges of racism into what is mainstream human anatomy.
A few weeks
ago, at a New York conference on race and sports, Harvard anthropologist Stephen
Jay Gould, renowned for his political correctness as much as for his scientific
acumen, apparently attempted to score some media points with his declaration that
there is no "running gene." However, no scientist claims there is a
running gene. Geneticists assert only that evolution has played in role in circumscribing
some patterned differences between populations, including in body type and physiology.
circumlocution seems designed to play to the popular myth of equal possibility.
Reuters fell for the ruse, headlining its story: "Athletic Achievement Isn't
in the Genes." Yet, even Gould didn't go that far. In his speech, he noted
that sports success is a complex combination of social, environmental, and biological
factors, none of which can easily be teased out and isolated. Of course, that's
exactly what geneticists and anthropologists have shown repeatedly. Humans are
different, a product of the intertwined and inseparable relationship of genes
The media reporting on genetics rarely demonstrates
Unfortunately, some scientists, themselves anticipating
a backlash from those who see genetic research as inexplicable or something to
fear, perpetuate the confusion. In February, Dr. Francis Collins of the National
Human Genome Research Project made a point of stating that humans are "99.9
percent the same." It echoed comments made by President Clinton in his State
of the Union address in January 2000. Attempting to allay fears about the unethical
potential of recent advances in genetic science and mindful of the ways in which
research on genetics has historically been abused, Clinton declared, "there
are more differences within races than between races."
were meant to reassure us that (in the words of one nationally syndicated columnist),
"there are no scientific differences between humans -- race has no biological
reality, it is only a 'social construction' that perpetuates racism."
truth, while technically correct, such assertions are scientifically meaningless
and provide absolutely no support for the popular myth that "race has no
biological reality." There is zero genetic difference between a wolf and
a cocker spaniel. If one really believes that such genetic similarity means that
there is no hard-wired functional difference between a wolf and a hand-licking
spaniel, then I invite that person to adopt a wolf as a house pet for the children.
Such differences are grounded in gene sequences and proteins and are activated
by obscure environmental triggers. All the training in the world is not likely
to turn an Inuit Eskimo, programmed to be short and stout, into a NBA center or
an American (black or white) into a great marathoner: nature sets limits.
do we so readily accept that evolution has turned out blacks with a genetic proclivity
to contract sickle cell and colo-rectal cancer, Jews of European heritage who
are one hundred times more likely than other groups to fall victim to the degenerative
neurological disease Tay-Sachs, and whites who are most vulnerable to cystic fibrosis
and multiple sclerosis, yet find it racist to acknowledge that the success of
East African distance runners, Eurasian white power lifters, and sprinters of
West African ancestry can be explained, in part, by genetics? Why would Dr. Collins
and Professor Gould and so many other respected scientists continue to publicly
peddle the myth that there are no meaningful patterned biological differences
when their own research belies this?
Few scientists are willing to
talk about this charade, let alone acknowledge their silent complicity. As UCLA's
Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel) has noted, "Even today,
few scientists dare to study racial origins, lest they be branded racists just
for being interested in the subject."
Most researchers are fearful
that their views will be misinterpreted by journalists (and by the general public)
unable to grasp the magnitude of the revolution in our understanding of what it
means to be human. Certainly, caution over the potential misuse of genetic research
is certainly warranted. After all, pseudo-science and claims that certain "races"
are genetically superior and destined to dominate historically have been evoked
to justify colonialism, slavery, apartheid and the Holocaust. But scientists who
have documented anatomical differences between populations generally reject notions
that physical ability and mental acuity are inversely linked. Yet, in some important
ways, certainly in the proclivity to many diseases and in highly heritable characteristics
such as skeletal structure, musculature and metabolic efficiency, group differences
are real and sometimes huge.
Science is not an assertion of inalterable
facts but a method of interrogating reality. The question is no longer whether
inquiries about human diversity will continue but to what end. The challenge is
in whether we can conduct the debate so that human diversity might be cause for
celebration rather than serving as fodder for demagogues. "If decent people
don't discuss human biodiversity," warns Walter E. Williams, an African American
social scientist at George Mason University in a review of Taboo, "we
concede the turf to black and white racists." Sports offer a nonpolemical
way to convey this message and de-politicize what has sometimes been a vitriolic