January 23, 2000

American Studies: Making the case for race as the face of sport changes color

By Philip Martin

In his new book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It (PublicAffairs, $25), former television producer and journalist Jon Entine calculates the odds of a black American teen-ager becoming a professional athlete at 1-to-4,000 -- a longshot to be sure, but still more than 20 times better than his white counterpart.

This is only surprising to a degree; while the numbers might surprise, anyone who pays even casual attention to sports must realize the preponderance of black faces among our elite athletes. Click on ESPN's Sportscenter -- the highlight reels of professional and college football and basketball games are replete with dark bodies leaping, twisting, running and committing superhuman feats. While only 13 percent of the population of the United States is black, black athletes constitute 80 percent of the players in the National Basketball Association. The National Football League is more than 65 percent black. Women's pro basketball is 70 percent black.

More than 60 percent of men's college basketball players are black, as are nearly 50 percent of college football players. And these numbers don't begin to convey the genuine supremacy of black athletes; an even higher percentage of the top stars of these sports are black. In baseball, where black players are only marginally over-represented -- 15 percent of Major League Baseball players are American-born blacks -- the star players are disproportionately black.

While anyone can see that black players are over-represented at the top level of sport, the reasons for this phenomenon are obscure and generally unremarked upon. It almost seems bad form to notice that most of the competitors are dark-skinned. The simplest explanation that might be offered -- that blacks are better at sports -- quickly becomes complicated. In these "enlightened" days, to suggest that blacks make better athletes because of some innate quality that allows them to jump higher and run faster might be considered politically incorrect and insensitive, if not outright racist.

Instead, most explanations of the evident black superiority in sports concentrate on cultural and environmental factors. Blacks are better at basketball because they put more emphasis on basketball. The sport represents, for a great many young black men, a chance to escape the inner city. Because their opportunities in other areas are limited, the argument goes, blacks have a larger stake in basketball, so they play with more intensity than white kids who have more options.


In turn, the success of blacks in basketball generates role models who both encourage black kids to pursue their dream and discourage white athletes who perceive that they may be at a disadvantage. (There is an argument that the success of black athletes is in fact damaging to the black community; University of Texas professor John Milton Hoberman argues in his 1995 book Darwin's Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race that "this sports fixation damages black children by discouraging academic achievement in favor of physical self-expression, which is widely considered a racial trait.")

In other words, there is a disproportionate number of blacks in the NBA because more blacks have put in the hard work necessary to get there, because potential white players are diverted to other sports (or career paths), because basketball means more to black athletes.

That argument has the advantage of seeming both plausible and mild -- it doesn't raise the question of what other innate racial differences might exist. We can subscribe to this theory of black dominance in sports without wondering whether black athletes are born with any genetic advantages. Any differences between populations are a result of cultural and environmental factors and not the result of genetic differences.

This postmodern fiction may be defensible in light of America's ugly history of stereotyping blacks as superb physical creatures who lack -- in the words of former Los Angeles Dodger executive Al Campanis -- "the necessities" to compete with whites on an intellectual level. Attributing the extraordinary prowess of black athletes partly to genetic advantages is dangerously close to suggesting that there are fundamental differences in the races -- to wit, that blacks are somehow closer to beasts than white folk.

Yet as comforting as the environmental and cultural explanations may be, Entine believes they are insufficient and simplistic. "Sports success is a bio-social phenomenon," he writes. "There is extensive and persuasive research that elite black athletes have a phenotypic advantage -- a distinctive skeletal system and musculature, metabolic structures and other characteristics forged over tens of thousands of years of evolution."

This is not a new argument, though Entine takes particular pains to distance himself from those who've advanced theories of white supremacy based on the myth of black lassitude. What he is saying is that there's too much evidence to ignore and that an acknowledgment of black superiority in sports needn't be taken as an indication of any compensatory deficiency in that elusive quality we call intelligence.

"People feel if you say blacks are better athletically, you're saying they're dumber," sportswriter Frank DeFord says in Taboo. "But when Jack Nicklaus sinks a 30-foot putt, nobody thinks his IQ goes down."

No, but until sportscasters became "politically correct," it was common for white players to be stereotyped as "smart," "heady" or "savvy" while blacks were "great athletes" and "natural talents." These ideas have become so entrenched as to seem innocent.

For instance, the Dodgers' Campanis was invited on a 1987 Nightline episode -- during which he made his disastrous remarks about the suitability of blacks to hold management positions in baseball -- to talk about the influence of Jackie Robinson on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the breaking of baseball's color line. Campanis had been a friend and minor league teammate of Robinson and as a Dodger executive he had signed many black and Latin American players and even campaigned for black Dodgers such as Jim Gilliam and Roy Campanella to be hired as major league managers.

"I have never said blacks aren't intelligent," Campanis said on Nightline. "But they may not have the desire to be in the front office. I know that they have wanted to manage, and many of them have managed. But they are outstanding athletes, very God-gifted, and they're outstanding people .... They are gifted with great musculature and other things. They are fleet of foot, and this is why there are a number of black ballplayers in the major leagues."

Campanis was apparently stunned by the reaction of Nightline host Ted Koppel and fellow guest sportswriter Roger Kahn. Campanis obviously had no idea he was saying anything offensive. Two days after the Nightline episode, the Dodgers fired Campanis -- after he'd spent more than 40 years with the organization. He lived out his life as a symbol of ignorant, arrogant white presumption.

A year later, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder, the CBS NFL commentator, casually suggested that slave owners had bred blacks for strength and endurance, a factor he believed contributed to their success in sports. This set off a firestorm of protest that culminated in CBS firing Snyder. Like Campanis, it probably never occurred to Snyder that he was saying anything at all provocative.

As Entine points out in Taboo, black athletes have -- from time to time -- offered virtually the same opinions as Snyder. Though they may be misinformed -- there was some "breeding" of slaves but it apparently was not a widespread practice -- they aren't filled with self-loathing. Whether a statement is racist often depends on who says it.


In 1994, Justin Armour was the only white wide receiver among the 44 chosen in the NFL draft. At a symposium on the role of sport in race relations held at Stanford University in 1995, Armour recounted how, at one of the pre-draft scouting combines, the mostly white physicians, coaches and trainers he spoke with invariably asked about his academic work and plans for a career after football. When talking to black players, Armour said, the same coaches were not only less talkative but didn't raise the question of "scholarship."

Armour also noted that during a pencil-and-paper problem-solving test some of the black athletes jokingly pretended to be looking over his shoulder to cheat off his paper. He said this joking was encouraged by league officials and that later, on the field, coaches made several references to Armour as a "smart guy."

At Stanford, Armour said the inherent racism didn't strike him until after the combine. He found it remarkable that well-meaning, well-educated people could perpetuate such stereotypes.

"What scares me about racism is that the majority of it is pretty subtle," Armour said.

Simple observation of sports might lead us to conclude that there are some sports that whites excel at -- golf, yachting, polo, swimming. But a closer look shows that class is more relevant than race in determining who succeeds in these sports. Golf and polo are expensive; until relatively recently, blacks did not have equal access to swimming clubs or pools. (In Taboo, Entine cites evidence that whites might have a genetic edge when it comes to swimming.)

Tiger Woods' emergence as the No. 1 golfer in the world might even enhance the stereotype, as the exception that proves the rule. (Though he's often referred to as the only black player on the PGA Tour, Woods' ancestry is famously diverse. He smilingly refers to himself as "Cablinasian" -- a word that suggests his white, black, American Indian and Asian heritage.) And Fiji's Vijay Singh is certainly dark-skinned enough to be counted as black in the minds of most.

Then there's the idea that in team sports there are "black" positions and a dwindling number of "white" positions. There is but one white cornerback in the NFL, the New York Giants' Jason Sehorn. Until a few years ago, football's quarterback position was usually reserved for white athletes.

While there are a few "white hopes" -- young white players like Keith Van Horn and Jason Williams in the NBA who seem to be able to play at the same level of athleticism as black players -- as social and economic barriers have come down the superiority of the black athlete has become increasingly apparent.

There is still room to believe that environmental and cultural factors play a significant role in athletic success.

But, after reading Entine's carefully marshaled, limited argument in Taboo, it is difficult to believe that genetics do not also play a role.


2000, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette