Editorial Reviews

Is there a genetic reason that African-Americans dominate professional sports? Even raising the question seems tantamount to heresy. Jon Entine not only raises the question, he strives to answer it in Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It.

Entine is no stranger to controversy, having worked with Tom Brokaw on the award-winning NBC News documentary Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction in 1989. He's also willing to ask tough questions--and come up with answers that anger people on all sides of the issue. Entine starts off with some statistics indicating that African-American athletes are disproportionately represented in professional sports: for example, 13 percent of the U.S. population is black, but the NFL is 65 percent black, the NBA is nearly 80 percent black, and the WNBA is 70 percent black. He also examines cultural issues, laying to rest the long-held idea that blacks excel in sports because it is the only avenue open for advancement.

Some scholars cry foul at the idea that blacks are physically gifted, seeing this as a subtle way of saying that they are therefore intellectually stunted. Entine carefully argues that historically athletic ability and intellectual prowess were linked--with a positive bias. The "dumb jock" stereotype is a relatively recent construct--perhaps a defensive mechanism that arose when blacks began to participate on a level playing field and gain prominence in the sporting world. There's no reason to suppose athleticism and intelligence are inversely related; Entine quotes respected sports reporter Frank Deford: "[W]hen Jack Nicklaus sinks a 30-foot putt, nobody thinks his IQ goes down." The issue of physical superiority is further complicated by fears that a genetic explanation results in a belief that blacks don't succeed because of hard work, dedication, and drive, but rather (in the words of Brooks Johnson, who doesn't believe Entine's claims) "because God just gave 'em the right gene."

Is the fear of sounding racist hindering legitimate scientific inquiry? Entine believes so, noting that, "Anyone who attempts to breach this taboo to study or even discuss what might be behind the growing performance gap between black and white athletes must be prepared to run a gauntlet of public scorn, survival not guaranteed." Taboo is destined to make most of its readers uncomfortable. Hopefully this discomfort will serve as a wedge to open up discussion of an issue too long avoided. --Sunny Delaney