March 2000

Hurdling the Taboo of Superior Black Athletes

by Carolyn White

Jon Entine hasn't given up. In 1989, the White, Emmy award-winning producer and author wrote a controversial television special, with Tom Brokaw, on the inherent superiority of Black athletes. His latest book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It, confirms that this topic is still controversial, still taboo, even more than a decade later.

Are Black Athletes superior to their White counterparts? Do they have genetic and anatomical differences that allow them to run faster and jump higher? Or can their dominance be traced to long hours and hard work—a type of psychological conditioning and single-minded commitment that guides them down the path of athletic success in areas where intimidated White athletes feel they can no longer succeed?

Taboo offers a more thoughtful, thorough and sensitive treatment of this emotional issue than Brokaw's Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction. Entine looks beyond the obvious—the phenomenal success of Kenya's distance runner, the all-African-American line-ups in the 100-meter finals—to the historical, sociological and environmental factors that could lead one group to dominate in an athletic event. He understands the reasons Blacks lash out against the determination theory, knows that whatever White America gives to Black athletes in terms of athletic superiority, it takes from their mental abilities. Great athletes, dumb jocks. And the stereotype, suggests Entine, is probably the single most important reason people have problems debating the issue.

As we learn from Taboo's preface, "People are attracted to simple cause/effect relationships. Yet, it does not work that way in life or sports."

Olympian Carl Lewis, one of the best sprinters of all time, has commented that Blacks are made better physically. The late tennis great Arthur Ashe said, "We Blacks have something that gives us an edge." Yet sports writer Ralph Wiley sees things differently. "The search for genetic explanations would deny Black athletes the right to dream, to aspire, to strive," he writes. "It suggests that Black man cannot set goals."

Taboo is a good read for anyone interested in the history of Black athletes in the United States and worldwide. While the black's focus is on African-American and African athletes, it treatise is non one-sided. It also examines the notion that Asians are considered better swimmers, skaters and gymnasts, and traces how Jews once dominated the domestic basketball scene the same way African-Americans do today.

Whether you agree with Entine or not, Taboo illustrates that some controversies are too complex to be stated in terms of Black and White.