March 26, 2000


Justice B. Hill

You don't have to be on the brink of retirement to remember an ABC "Nightline" telecast from April 1987. The program was billed as a tribute to Jackie Robinson's breaking baseball's color barrier. As the show unfolded, Al Campanis, a Los Angeles Dodger executive who knew Robinson from their playing days, steered the discussion into another area. He offered the thesis that black ballplayers were superb athletes who lacked "the necessities" to handle the more cerebral aspects of sports. Campanis voiced his sentiments, or so he told host Ted Koppel at the time, without prejudice.

Not quite a year later, oddsmaker Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, eating lunch at Duke Zeibert's restaurant in Washington, D.C., poured more petrol on this American pastime, which is this: figuring out which race produced the superior athletes. Blacks were bred during slavery, Snyder said without prejudice, to be better athletes than whites.

This debate has raged like a steelworker's blast furnace long before Snyder's alcohol-driven history lesson or Campanis' empty-headed comments made headlines. The fuel that stokes the debate today is Jon Entine's tome "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It." From shock radio to, Entine has drawn praise for writing a thoughtful text on the subject. "A brilliant and illuminating work that will cause racists and reverse racists alike to froth at the mouth and yell, 'Foul!' " gushed Jack Olsen, an author who wrote "The Black Athlete: A Shameful Story." Olsen's perspective seems to have broad appeal.

For "Taboo" covers more horizon than the Starship Enterprise, but the conclusion misses the mark, as did many of the findings of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in their infamous "The Bell Curve," which posited the belief that whites were intellectually superior to blacks. Entine's work, in essence, is the bastard son of Herrnstein and Murray's research, and "Taboo" touches the same racist chords that have been the hallmark of too much race-related scholarship.

That scholarship highlights white America's obsession with color, which Abraham Lincoln explained this way: "There must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

Nothing in Entine's 387-page book suggests that Lincoln's view on the white race's superiority has lost currency. Entine trots out a library-full of research papers to build his case in sports, and he points to the race-based utterings of Charles Darwin, Arthur Jensen, Ernst Haeckel, William Shockley and Kenneth Kidd to fortify his position. But what "Taboo" comes down to is one writer's ideology wrapped up as scholarship. And Entine has an ideology - a warped one.

Yet to pick on Entine would be to take on a fruitfly with an Uzi. Besides, he is not alone in peddling the concept of blacks as superior athletes. Other researchers, academicians and racists look at the same body of research and end up echoing Entine's viewpoint. They examine the NBA, the NFL, track and Major League Baseball, and they paint a panoramic picture of the athletic superiority of men and women of color.

These researchers, however, discount the overwhelming numbers of white athletes who dominate volleyball, hockey, tennis, golf, rowing, skiing, rugby, cricket, figure skating, weightlifting, wrestling, surfing, bowling, softball, billiards and soccer. Are these not sports that demand some athleticism? Where does black dominance manifest itself in those sports? Entine does not answer that question well, because to tackle it earnestly would be to stray from his mission: to preach the athletic superiority of blacks, those "noble savages."

His sermon would not come across so hollow if not for the implications woven tightly into it. Journalist and media critic Ralph Wiley, in an essay on this subject, took a baseball bat to the entire discussion. While swinging for the fences, Wiley was wondering aloud why anybody needed an answer to this question anyhow. "I want to know why black men have to be naturally superior athletes," he wrote. "If we are, it would inevitably follow that black men are naturally inferior at something else. Like thinking."

But white researchers like Entine have become cautious lately about weighing in on intellect, for the backlash Herrnstein and Murray got from "The Bell Curve" would throw any white scholar off that pothole-filled trail. Maybe these white scholars are afraid that an examination of numbers will lead to the unthinkable: that maybe, just maybe, Asians are smarter than whites. That would be a sensible conclusion if the focus stays on pure numbers.

Because numbers tell Americans that a disproportionate percentage of Asians are outpacing whites in intellectual pursuits. But those numbers alone don't explain the cultural or social or familial influences that motivate Asians in the classroom, and numbers alone do not tell people anything about the dedication, discipline and determination that propel blacks to stardom in the NBA, NFL or boxing. Unless, of course, those same people are bent on achieving this predetermined conclusion: all muscle, no brain.

Entine is. His work on race goes back to a 1989 documentary he worked on with NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. Their TV program, "Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction," earned wide acclaim, and it led to the same rancor and disagreement that "Taboo" is playing to now. But "Taboo" looks like a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces missing to finish it. Entine's book, though, does offer an exhaustive look at race and the issues that have been at the core of the uneven research into the topic -- the good, the bad and the ugly.

And the book has more ugly to it than anything else.

"What really is being said in a kind of underhanded way is that blacks are closer to beast and animals in terms of their genetic and physical and anatomical makeup than they are to the rest of humanity," said Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at the University of California-Berkeley whom Entine quoted. "And that's where the indignity comes in."

Indeed, if nothing else, "Taboo" stands as the latest indignity to men and women of color. The book and the whole discussion belong in the category of pseudo-science, the kind of White-Men-Can't-Jump nonsense that has led to racist stereotypes about Native Americans and Latinos - and about the "sexual prowess" of the black "beast." At bottom, if blacks have a decided edge in high-profile sports, it is simply because those sports have held an iron grip on the dreams of black youth. They excel there for the same reason Asians tend to excel in the classroom: They work at it.

"Isn't it strange," said Richard Lapchick, a lecturer on race and sports whom Entine quoted, "that no one feels very compelled to look for physical reasons for white domination in sports?"

No, it isn't strange; it simply points to this fixation among white folks to be No. 1, and not just at IBM, at Microsoft or in politics. When they are not, whites scour the landscape for reasons. That's unadulterated racism, not scholarship. Yet it's a hardboiled reality of life in America, a country where being No. 1 is the only thing that matters.

At this point, black intellectuals such as Edwards and black writers such as Wiley have tired of the discussion, which sprouts anew like crabgrass.

As Edwards put it succinctly, "There are no differences that make any difference. Athletic skills are essentially culturally linked capabilities. It is racism, not genes, that explain the domination of black athletes."

Entine cannot refute this statement in "Taboo." Nor has anybody else who has decided it is a worthwhile exercise to ascribe supernatural ability to athletes with African roots.

Justice B. Hill, a former Journal Gazette sports editor, is assistant sports editor at The Seattle Times.


Excerpts from "Taboo"

"There is a new racial barrier in sports. Positions that require speed and jumping ability are almost exclusively black. In street parlance this phenomenon is blamed on a malady, virulently infectious but apparently limited to Caucasians - white man's disease."

"Although the overall number of blacks in baseball do not approach those in football or basketball, the stars are disproportionately black. A 'dream team' recently put together by USA Today sports writers included only one white among the position players. ... Whites are far more likely to be the marginal players filling out a roster."

"Numerous studies have found that by age five or six black children consistently excel in the dash, the long jump, and the high jump, all of which require a short power burst. Racial differences become more pronounced over time. By the time boys are teenagers, blacks demonstrate a significantly faster patellar tendon reflex time - the knee jerk response - and an edge in reaction time over whites."

"In a few rare cases, it appears that nature has conspired with the environment and cultural factors to produce athletic 'bio-cultural hot spots.' The Dominican Republic, home of Sammy Sosa, with only 8 million people, is the world's greatest per capita producer of baseball talent, turning out six times as many major leaguers as baseball-mad Mexico (12 percent as compared to 2 percent), yet with a population only one-tenth the size of Mexico's."


All content 2000 FORT WAYNE JOURNAL-GAZETTE and may not be republished without permission.