Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk about It.
  with Alexander F. Christensen, Ph.D.
By Jon Entine. (New York: PublicAffairs, 2000)

hite men can't jump." Anyone raised in the US has heard that line, regularly offered as an explanation of black dominance of professional basketball. Why do the majority of professional athletes in the US belong to a minority? Is it because they are biologically "superior" to the majority population? Or is it just because sports provide a way out of poverty? And is there a trade-off between athletic ability and intelligence?

These are questions that are generally discussed in locker rooms. Some people--such as Al Campanis and Jimmy "the Greek"--who have publicly expressed opinions have lost their jobs as a result. They are also some of the questions tackled by Jon Entine's Taboo. Entine looks at the history of American sports and the role of race within them, changing stereotypes about the athletic performance of certain groups, and the role of biology as a foundation of athletic performance. He looks at the effects of both culture and genes, and concludes that they both play a role.

Today we take it as a given that blacks are overrepresented in stadiums and arenas. But the integration of professional sports occurred comparatively recently. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many argued that blacks were physically and temperamentally incapable of playing any sports at a professional level. In the middle of the twentieth century, the dominant basketball players were Jewish. As the complexion of professional athletics has changed, so have American attitudes towards sports, and Entine chronicles these interrelated changes.

One example of changing attitudes is intelligence, which has always been linked to race in the popular imagination. Football players are stupid. Everybody knows that (which, of course, is the definition of a stereotype). And frankly, the academic performance of most (not all) college football players is below the average of their fellow students. But is this because they are stupid, or because their entire "academic" careers have focused on the gridiron, not the classroom? We do not expect football players, whether black or white, to be scholars, and those who are are seen as exceptional cases, worthy of newspaper articles. One hundred years ago, the reverse was true. Football was developed in the Ivy League to be played by gentlemen scholars. Most of them were white, but a handful were black, and the scholar-athlete was as powerful an icon in the black community as among whites. The library at the school where I teach is named after one of the foremost of these early football players, who was also class valedictorian and went on to be a renowned singer, actor, and political activist: Paul Robeson.

As sports have become more professionalized, athletes have been able to earn a living. This first removed the income barrier to participation and then made professional sports a way for a fortunate few to join the economic elite. At the same time, the level of play has improved steadily: If you are getting paid several million a year, you had better be working hard, year round, to improve your performance. Team sports, in particular, have sought out players from the furthest corners of the earth in their quest for talent.

As a result of these processes, professional sports, both individual and team, have become more diverse than ever. But this diversity has also revealed some striking patterns. Every men's running record is held by someone of African descent. 494 of the top 500 times in the 100 m are held by men of West African descent. More than half of the best times in long distance races are held by East Africans. Why is this?

At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Kip Lagat explained Kenya's dominance in long distance racing with "It's the road signs, 'Beware of lions.'" Is it really that simple? Does how and where you grow up explain everything? It is certainly true that children who grow up in western Kenya are acclimated to high altitude. Long distance runners and other athletes regularly train at high altitudes to boost their cardiovascular systems; it makes sense that those raised at high altitude would have an advantage. But even those born at high altitude may be at a disadvantage to those whose ancestors were also born at high altitude. Kenyans, like Tibetans and Peruvians, have been shaped by natural selection for life at high altitude. Some of these genes may well contribute to athletic performance as well.

Then why aren't there lots of Tibetan and Peruvian long distance runners? They may have the physiology, but they lack the physique. The average East African is significantly taller, skinnier, and longer-limbed than the average Tibetan or Peruvian. And in the marathon, no matter how efficient your lungs are at oxygenating your blood, if you have to take many more strides than the next guy, you are at a disadvantage. This tall and skinny build can be traced back further than our own species can: The earliest well preserved Homo erectus skeleton, the Nariokotome Boy, from 1.5 million years ago, has the build of a modern Kenyan or Tanzanian.

Of course, very few African Americans can trace their ancestry to the eastern part of the continent, which was not a major source for the slave trade. This leads to one of the most difficult scientific issues that Taboo has to deal with: It addresses the high performance of "black" athletes, while at the same time recognizing that "black," as defined in the US, is not a biologically meaningful category. The population of Africa is far more variable genetically than that of any other continent. Most American blacks are descended from a mix of West Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans. Entine recognizes this point, and discusses the differences between East and West Africans at some length. But when talking about sports in the US, he has little choice but to use the traditional racial categories. Recently, a similar debate has occurred within medicine, where doctors are becoming sensitive to "racial" differences in disease prevalence and treatment at the same time as racial categories are falling into scientific disrepute.

By contrast with East Africans, many West Africans have body proportions better suited to sprinting. Below the skin, many also exhibit muscular characteristics ideal for anaerobic activities, where the muscles are working as rapidly as possible for a very brief time. I find the scientific evidence less secure here than I would like, and I would love to see future studies that looked at the physiologies of different populations from different regions of Africa and elsewhere, both to document the distribution of these traits and provide some evidence as to what evolutionary processes have led to this distribution.

Entine is a journalist, not an academic, which has positive and negative consequences. He writes well, and I found Taboo an easy, fluent read. He ties together history, sociology, anthropology, and genetics, which few scholars trained in one specific field would try. As a specialist in one of those fields, at times I wished he had a more solid background in that subject in particular--but then again, any specialist would probably wish the same of any journalist. He documents his case with thorough footnotes, but his evidence is sometimes anecdotal, drawing from both scientific studies of specific questions and more general observations.

On the whole, the balance works well, and I think anyone who reads Taboo with no preconceptions will be at least partially convinced. There are clear genetic differences between elite athletes in different sports and the rest of the world, and at least some of the traits conducive to athletic success are more common in some populations than in others. Does this explain everything? Not at all. To succeed as a world-class athlete, an individual needs to have a body that is capable of success, and a mind that is focused on it. Genetics can explain the first, but not the second. As Entine writes, "Certainly no individual athlete can succeed without considerable dedication and sport smarts, but the pool of potential success stories is far larger among certain populations."

Sports are based upon differences in individual performance, and we recognize that some people are born with physiques better suited to certain sports than others. We do not expect to see an Ituri pygmy succeed at any major sport, because of his or her small stature. Is this racist? No. Given the current style of play in professional basketball, it is unlikely that the Chinese will ever win Olympic gold, despite the huge population they have to draw from, because a vanishingly small percentage of the Chinese population is seven feet tall. Is this racist? No. Everyone can see that height is an important trait in basketball, and it is obvious that different populations have different average heights. Why should other physical and physiological traits which are not as visible superficially be any different?

Does this take anything away from the success of Michael Jordan, or Tiger Woods? Not in the least. They are not superstars because they are black; they are superstars because they are wonderful athletes. They were born with several genetic differences from me. Some of these genes clearly affect their athletic performance--no matter how hard I might practice, I simply do not have their raw athletic talent--and some do not. Does skin color itself affect their performance? No, but in American society it is more important than any other genetic trait. Perhaps this will change eventually, but the fact that Taboo needed to be written, and the contentious response it has received, demonstrate that it has not yet.

--Alec Christensen