The Associated Press
Saturday, November 5, 2005

Sportsview: Discuss Race With Common Sense


Before Joe Paterno gets dunked in the same tub of recycled hot water where Fisher DeBerry nearly drowned last week, let's get one thing straight: They're right. Both of them. Black athletes run faster.

Not all black athletes, of course. Distinctions are never more important than when discussing race, which is why a generalization like the paragraph above is bound to cause headaches. But the most recent, most credible research on the subject arrived at the very same conclusion, over and over. And that was five years ago.

Too often in the past, saying blacks were superior athletes was little more than a backhanded compliment, intended to smear them in the same breath as inferior human beings. Like many of us, author Jon Entine hoped that notion was history by the time he wrote "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It."

But as the furor over DeBerry's remarks demonstrates, and while few would argue with what the Air Force Academy coach said, even fewer are comfortable talking about why it's true.

Entine is not, perhaps because he is careful about drawing distinctions, even among black athletes. He says descendants of East Africans _ Kenyans, for example _ are predisposed to lean body types better suited for distance running. Descendants of West Africans, on the other hand, have more muscular body types favoring speed.

DeBerry didn't bother with such distinctions when he explained a 48-10 pounding of his football squad by TCU this way: "The other team had a lot more Afro-American players than we did and they ran a lot faster than we did."

And earlier this week, asked about the offensive explosion in college football, Paterno stuck his toe gingerly into the same pool.

"You got to be careful how you say things sometimes, DeBerry got in trouble," Paterno began hesitantly. But then the Penn State coach added, "The black athlete has made a big difference. They've changed the whole tempo of the game."

For a full, frank discussion of why that's so, read Entine's book. For a quick explanation, scan the ranks of NFL cornerbacks and world-class sprinters.

"I did hear the gist of it and I think I know the point that he was trying to make," said Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, one of the NFL's most thoughtful leaders and a former cornerback himself.

"I didn't really read anything into it other than he wanted more speed on his team. ... I didn't think it was a racist comment. It may have been politically incorrect to say it that way," Dungy added, "but I didn't view it negatively at all myself."

Neither did Jon Drummond, a U.S. gold-medal sprinter who, like Dungy, is black.

"I laughed the first time I heard what the Air Force coach said. In fact, the flip side is a running joke in the sprint world. We're always saying, 'Find a white man who can run real fast and you'll find a man making a whole of money.'

"So do I think a guy should be reprimanded or fired for saying blacks are faster? No," Drummond said. "I think we've definitely come a long away from the attitudes in place a generation or two ago. But do I think that coach needs to have a conversation, have somebody pull him aside and explain that it's still a very sensitive subject? Absolutely."

The subject is still so raw that the right-thinking people at the Air Force Academy made a wrong-headed decision and forced a tearful apology from DeBerry the day after his original comments. All that proved is that people of every color can be made to atone in a hurry.

But DeBerry's sin wasn't as egregious as that committed by Paul Hornung, who said Notre Dame, his alma mater, should lower admission standards to net more blacks. Nor was it was as foolish as the pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo that Al Campanis and Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder tried to pass off as observations. Hornung got off light, but the same nonsense cost Campanis and Snyder their reputations and their jobs.

It's shameful how little the debate has advanced since. Entine believed when he finished "Taboo" five years ago that any discussion about race in the open "beats backroom scuttlebutt." But every time it spills back into the headlines, he's not so sure.

"I think what DeBerry said was absolutely accurate, though he didn't say it as elegantly as he should have. The problem arose because of the historical context in which the discussions have been carried on ... that because blacks are better athletes, they somehow have less between the ears.

"But DeBerry wasn't saying that," Entine added, "and frankly, I don't see how anybody with any common sense would question what he did say."

In 1999, Entine was attending an academic conference and listening to speakers debate whether racial profiling was still widespread in sports when he noticed a man the size of a defensive lineman sitting alone in the back. He turned out to be an assistant football coach at a big-time college.

"I've been listening to this nonsense going on half an hour. ... At Division I or in the pros, to survive coaches have to recruit the best players and we damn well better play them at the optimal positions," the assistant said. "We don't care if a player is white, black or striped. The pressure to win is immense."

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