In Praise of the "Natural" Athlete
Breaking taboos in race and sports

by Owen Perkins

  NOVEMBER 16, 2000:

Something sly and sinister and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle last night to strike down and utterly demolish the huge hulk that had been Primo Carnera, the giant."

That was sportswriter David Walsh's lead when Joe Louis first came on the scene in 1935, knocking out Primo Carnera in his first fight. It was the kind of praise that started Louis on the path to superstardom. But just try praising Tyrell Davis with the stirring similes that were used to describe Louis, "a magnificent animal ... a jungle killer ... a truly savage person." Job security plummets.

Scott Larrick

Jon Entine, author of Taboo

Jon Entine tackles the subject of race in sports in Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It (Public Affairs Press: New York). It's a daunting task, attracting heated opposition before people even read the book. "There's such a fear in our country of inflaming racial tensions," Entine told the Indy when he was in town last weekend for a conference on sports sociology. "We really can't talk about racial issues."

Is white man's disease an evolutionary curse? Is Howard Cosell advancing the study of genetics when he calls a running back a "little monkey?" Merely asking the questions reflects racism, according to former Olympic and Stanford track coach Brooks Johnson. "Few scientists dare to study racial origins, lest they be branded racists just for being interested in the subject," said Jared Diamond, professor of physiology at UCLA, quoted in the book. "It's certainly a sociological red button, no question about that," said tennis great Arthur Ashe in Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction, an NBC documentary co-written and produced by Entine and Tom Brokaw.

Even reading Taboo leaves one feeling somewhat tainted. For 345 pages, Entine holds his readers' unblinking attention on the minutiae of differences between the races. After a generation or two of trying to discipline ourselves to see beyond color when we look at the people around us, Entine rips the rules out from under us, leaving us with the proposition that we clearly weren't created equally after all.

One of the staunchest of Entine's critics has been Harry Edwards, professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. "What really is being said in a kind of underhanded way," Edwards told Brokaw in an interview for Black Athletes, "is that blacks are closer to beasts and animals in terms of their genetic and physical and anatomical make up than they are to the rest of humanity. And that's where the indignity comes in."

Simply discussing the possibility of racial physical advantages has become synonymous with equating African-Americans to animals. The long-standing precedent of "race science" has historically been used for just such a purpose, as Entine documents.

"In the familiar if erroneous calculus," Entine writes, "IQ and athleticism are inversely proportional. Jocks are dense, so the stereotype goes, whether we are talking about a lean black power forward or a beefy white offensive lineman." But because the prominent superstars are increasingly black athletes, the "dumb black jock" is becoming the new standard.

Furthermore, the praise of the "natural athlete" has been perceived as an attempt to undermine the hard work and effort of African-American athletes, suggesting that they are succeeding based on innate physical abilities while white athletes must counter with intelligent, disciplined playing. That's the n word that really raises people's ire these days. Natural is, to paraphrase Entine and New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, "a proxy for racism, a 'genteel way to say nigger.' "

"When you say you want to look at [differences between black and white athletes], you get labeled a redneck," according to Ken McFadden, a retired professor of anatomy from the University of Alabama cited in Taboo.

"Decent people don't discuss human biodiversity," Entine told an audience at his panel discussion Saturday, "we concede the turf to black and white racists."

Entine, a white journalist, has been accused of having an "obsession" for the subject, another coded and loaded term of race science, but he dismisses questions about whether his book might have been better received from a black sociologist. "The question is could a black person have written it," he responds, "and I think not." Entine cites the academic pressure to conform and the dependence on funding from politically correct sources as insurmountable obstacles.

Taboo takes a different path to reposit some of the comments that cost sports figures their jobs in recent years, including Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder and Al Campanis. Snyder remarked on camera that "the black is a better athlete because he's been bred to be that way." Snyder's "logic" included references to the "high thighs and big size" of black athletes, making them higher jumpers and faster runners, part of the heritage of slavery.

Entine traces the history of Africans being brought over as slaves, locating the genesis of American sport back to contests between slaves. He also makes the case that body type partially determines an athlete's potential success in certain sports, looking extensively into the phenomenon of long distance runners from Kenya and sprinters from West Africa.

"The record holders used to be athletes from industrialized nations who had access to technology, and financial incentives," Frank Shorter says in Entine's study of the evidence available in the sport of running. "As more Kenyans and Ethiopians could achieve the same access to agents, money and a lucrative running career, the balance of power changed. The Africans finally got a level playing field. Then, the game was over."

Al Campanis, then general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, trumped Snyder with the kind of lightning rod comments that keep people from wanting to talk openly about race in sports when he inserted his feet in his mouth in a Nightline interview on the anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking the color barrier in baseball with the Dodgers. As Entine explains, "He volunteered that blacks 'may not have some of the necessities' to compete with whites as managers or general managers." Campanis used the lack of black pitchers and quarterbacks -- the "intelligent" positions -- as evidence of these missing necessities.

Campanis also claimed, matter-of-factly, that blacks couldn't swim "because they don't have buoyancy." Campanis later did some unwitting backpedaling by asserting that "they are outstanding athletes, very God-gifted [another slur, see natural] and they're very wonderful people. ... They are gifted with great musculature and various other things. They are fleet of foot, and this is why there are a number of black ballplayers in the major leagues."

Entine distances himself from these old-fashioned arguments, but his own science follows a similar logic. Using evidence instead of hearsay, Entine documents the "fast-twitch" muscle tissue that predisposes athletes to become good in the disciplines requiring explosive speed, such as outfielders, running backs or sprinters. He even addresses the "buoyancy" question by pointing out that "in colloquial terms, blacks are considered 'sinkers.' Numerous studies over many decades have consistently shown that blacks have denser skeletons and that elite black male athletes have lower levels of body fat than whites or Asians." With science on his side, Entine can restate the theses that got men like Campanis and Snyder fired, cloaking it in careful research rather than unthinking generalities.

The bedrock of Entine's inquiry stems from an interview he and Brokaw held with Arthur Ashe shortly before his death. "The results are outstanding, nothing short of stellar," Ashe replied when asked if black athletes had a physical advantage. "Sociology can't explain it. I want to hear from the scientists. Until I see some numbers [to the contrary], I have to believe that we blacks have something that gives us an edge."

In Entine's opinion, the question has been answered. "The evidence is there. I think there's no question that there are differences," he said to conclude our interview. "It's a very limited, very benign argument. Whether the fact that the top 220 100-meter times are people of West African ancestry in and of itself is explained by this, we'll never know. I don't think that that's true. But we do know that the tendencies and the trends are accurate."