January 28, 2001

By Jon Entine, author of "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It"

"What would I say to Ray Lewis?" The soft words accentuate the rage that consumes the victim's grandmother. "Why did you participate in the thrill-killing of my grandson?" It's a sentiment insinuated in dozens of stories emanating from the center of the sports media universe in Tampa.

A year ago this week, two men were stabbed to death outside an Atlanta nightclub after a post-Super Bowl party. Until the most serious charges were dropped, Baltimore's star linebacker and NFL defensive player of the year faced a murder rap.

"I equate it to an ambulance chasing," shouts Ravens coach Brian Billick, directing his ire at the gathering herd of journalists. "[You] are not going to retry the case. It's inappropriate and you are not qualified."

This brouhaha is widely portrayed as a debate over whether Lewis should be watching the Super Bowl on a prison TV Sunday instead of hunting New York Giants. Such incidents worry NFL Inc. and its billion-dollar portfolio, but that is only part of the story.

Even though the victims were black, the controversy is not about Lewis, but about race. My concern is not with the guilt or innocence of Ray Lewis–we have a court system to determine that–but the context of the discourse, which is invariably inflammatory. Since blacks dominate professional football, consciously or unconsciously such incidents, to some observers, seem to "prove" that blacks are innately more violent than whites. Although there is no evidence that black athletes are statistically any more violent than whites, their overwhelming visibility in sports feeds this poisonous racial prejudice. As a consequence, sports, black skin and crime are increasingly seen as synonymous.

The issue is complicated, however, because blacks do dominate so many sports, particularly those in which cultural or economic prejudices don't limit access (most winter sports, for example). Nineteen of the 22 starting defenders in Sunday's Super Bowl, and most of the players on offense, were of primarily West African ancestry. Seventy-five percent of the NFL, 85 percent of pro basketball, and more than a third of the players in Major League Baseball are black. Athletes of African ancestry hold every major world running record.

Athletic achievement has always been a double-edged sword for blacks. A loss encouraged the belief that blacks were inferior, intellectually and physically; every victory risked being devalued as simply a product of ancestry.

White fascination with black physicality has been part of a dark historical undercurrent. In the 19th Century, whites became enraptured by pseudo-sciences such as craniology (the study of the characteristics of the human skull). Racial and ethnic groups were ranked according to all kinds of measurements, for example: skull size. Whiteness came to symbolize wealth, rationality and civilized culture, whereas blackness became equated with hypersexuality, musicality, laziness, intellectual deficiency, cultural pathology--and athleticism. By this noxious stereotype, which still holds sway in many circles today, black athletes are seen by some as contemporary African savages in breechcloth and nose ring.

It is this racially charged subtext that informs the Lewis controversy and needs to be shattered.

"Race" is soaked in much folkloric nonsense. Virtually all complex phenomena, such as intelligence, do not fall into neat racial categories. Top geneticists, such as Stanford's Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, reject the biological meaningfulness of race, while still recognizing that many individual characteristics, from facial features to physique to the susceptibility for certain diseases, show up more frequently in certain populations.

Although racial labels are occasionally helpful terms, as when geneticists try to isolate shared genes that cause diseases, they can mislead. Some few traits are correlated, as with dark skin color and curly hair. But such links are not absolute. Some East Indians also have dark skin, but straight hair.

The flood of research resulting from the Human Genome Project is beginning to radically reshape our understanding of how genes and the environment interact. This new model makes the racial patterns we see in sports much more comprehensible. After all, over the past 30 years, as sports have opened wide to athletes from almost every country and as the playing field has become almost level, the results have become increasingly segregated. What's going on? Are blacks physically "superior" to whites?

The short answer is "no," notwithstanding that there are notable anatomical differences between subpopulations within the classic folk groupings of black, white and Asian. As a result, different populations may appear to be genetically advantaged in particular sports and laggards in others.

"Body stature does not fit classic 19th Century theories of race," notes Joseph Graves, an evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University, who has a book, "The Emperor's New Clothes," coming out in April on this very subject. "However, the fact that monolithic racial categories do not show up consistently in the genotype does not mean there are no group differences between pockets of populations. It varies by characteristic. It doesn't necessarily correlate with skin color, but [rather] by geography."

Although it is critical to remember that no individual athlete can succeed without the X factor--the lucky spin of the roulette wheel of genetics matched with considerable dedication and sports smarts--genes proscribe possibility (that is, theoretically, anyone could be the fastest runner in the world, but, in fact, it's impossible without a certain genetic makeup). Blacks of West African ancestry tend to have mesomorphic physiques--muscular with a smaller natural lung capacity and a natural preponderance of "fast twitch" muscle fibers. It's not surprising that over 100 meters, the purest test of speed, the top 200 times, and 494 of the top 500 times, are held by sprinters who trace their roots to West Africa.

"It's a strong genetic component (that determines) what type of muscle fiber you have, either slow or fast," says Bengt Saltin, director of the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center, an expert in this field. "And West Africans [almost all African-Americans trace their primary ancestry to West Africa] have already 70 or 75 percent of the fast type when they are born."

Whereas West Africans evolved in lowlands, ectomorphic (lean limbed) East Africans, who have large natural lung capacity and a preponderance of slow twitch fibers, predictably, dominate distance running. Kenya, with but 28 million people, holds more than one-third of the top times. Including other East Africans, that domination swells to almost 50 percent.

Whites remain dominant in sports that place a premium on upper body strength over foot speed--shot put, hammer throw, javelin and weightlifting. It may play a role in the continued white presence on the interior lines in football (witness Ravens tackle Tony Siragusa, who clogs the middle of the defensive line).

So, all the training in the world is not likely to turn an Inuit Eskimo into an NBA center or a Nigerian into an elite marathoner. The world's most elaborate sports factory combined with state-supervised illegal drug supplements still could not turn even one East German sprinter into the world's fastest human. Highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, musculature and metabolic efficiency are not evenly distributed across population groups.

Complicating this prickly matter, however, is that folkloric categories of race, occasionally, do hold. "Populations with roots in equatorial Africa are more likely to have lower natural fat levels," Graves notes. "That is likely a factor in running. It's an adaptive mutation based on climate. But that's a long way from reconstructing racial science."

In America, the environment and cultural channeling long have been the default explanation to explain black domination of so many sports. Does "nurture" matter? Of course! There are no hockey superstars from Texas--white, black or Latin. However, there is little more than speculation in support of stereotypes that such racial disparities are "determined," as many sociologists claim, by social factors alone.

Even small biological factors can be the difference between a gold medal and finishing out of the money. Such trends feed on themselves, creating cultural stereotypes that amplify small, but meaningful, differences in performance linked to heredity. Many whites avoid pursuing sprinting and basketball because there are so few elite white athletes to emulate; for years, blacks avoided tennis and golf for the same reason. This dynamic creates a biosocial feedback loop, with nature and nurture fueling each other.

So, why, now talk about such a potentially divisive issue as human biodiversity? The science of genetics has now advanced to the point where open discussion can destroy, rather than reinforce, the most harmful of stereotypes.

Humans are different. Some subpopulations of blacks are predisposed to carry genes for colorectal cancer and sickle cell (though blacks who have evolved in cooler climates are no more likely to contract sickle cell than non-blacks). Some white populations are more genetically predisposed to cystic fibrosis and multiple sclerosis. Ashkenazi Jews have a genetic predisposition to breast cancer.

Sports provide a way to help us discuss this new paradigm, which is emerging out of the genetic revolution. Maybe it's time we celebrate human biodiversity rather than just offer lip service. Pretending that there are no slippery questions does not prevent them from being asked, if only under one's breath. Unless and until we can talk about such controversies, openly and constructively, ugly and distorted debates, such as that swirling around Ray Lewis, will continue.

Copyright Jon Entine 2001