March 12, 2000

Facing A 'TABOO' Fact: Race Makes A Difference In Sports

By Bill Williams

In all 15 of the most common running events, from 100 meters to the marathon, every world record is now held by an African or someone of African descent.

In baseball, basketball and football, blacks are represented in numbers far greater than their share of the population, and many, if not most, of the superstars are black.


Journalist Jon Entine says it's in the genes, a conclusion that surely will be considered controversial and one that certainly goes against the grain of current thinking.

Critics, however, cannot easily dismiss Entine's work. The author builds a powerful and nuanced case for his views as he sifts and ponders various studies and theories.

Although Entine believes that black athletic success cannot be fully explained without considering the role of heredity, it would be a gross oversimplification to say he thinks genes explain everything. In regard to the classic argument of nature vs. nurture, or genes vs. environment, Entine says both are essential in weighing sporting achievement.

"Simply stated, the opposing and incompatible claims that black athletic success can be explained by environmentalism or evolution are equally simplistic," he says. "Sports success is a bio-social phenomenon."

In other words, genes may give blacks a slight edge to begin with, but training and other factors are hugely important, too, in determining who advances in each sport. However, at the elite level, where a fraction of a second can mean the difference between Olympic gold and also-ran, the genetic advantage can be decisive, Entine says.

A TV producer since 1974 and author of a business column called "The Ethical Edge," Entine first grappled with this delicate issue at NBC in 1989, when he and Tom Brokaw made the award-winning documentary "Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction."

The most remarkable aspect of "Taboo" is the amount of ground the author covers. He includes telling anecdotes and statistics, a revealing overview of race science and how often it has been tied to a racist agenda, and a thoughtful history of sports integration.

After the Civil War, blacks excelled in various sports until they gradually were driven out by hardening racist sentiment. Baseball, for example, was integrated until 1887, when a rule was passed forbidding contact with the "colored element." It remained segregated until after World War II, when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

By 1950, all three major sports (baseball, basketball and football) had started integrating.

Today, about 80 percent of the players in the National Basketball Association are black. In football, there are few white running backs, cornerbacks and wide receivers -- positions that Entine says demand speed and quickness.

One popular explanation for black athletic success has been that, because blacks were denied opportunities elsewhere, they went into sports to get ahead. Entine argues persuasively, however, that the magnitude of the phenomenon is too great to be explained by cultural- environmental factors alone. The answer cannot be found simply by looking at training, ambition or similar factors.

He provides an insightful overview of the whole idea of race, showing that at best it is a fuzzy concept, "part social construct and part science, built like a huge Dagwood sandwich."

There is, for example, little agreement on the number of races and even less on a definition of race. Yet, Entine contends, the fact that there's no consensus does not undermine the reality of racial or population differences.

The book covers many sports, but the focus is on running.

The statistics are compelling. In the 100-meter dash, the best time by any white runner does not even rank in the best 200 times in the world. In the last four Olympics, the eight finalists in the 100- meter dash have all been black. Entine pays particular attention to the amazing success of Kenyan runners. Kenyan men have won the world cross-country championships every year since 1986 and have won the Boston Marathon every year since 1990.

"Kenyan domination of distance running, and the virtual takeover of elite-level track by athletes of African descent, is powerful anecdotal evidence of innate physical differences between populations," Entine says.

So why has there been so much reluctance to discuss the subject of black success in sports?

Entine says one reason is widespread acceptance of the American ideal that everyone is created equal, that we all start as a blank slate, that race and genes don't matter. That notion became embedded in the Western imagination after World War II to the point where anyone (from sports commentators to athletes) who raised the possibility of genetic differences was branded a racist.

Complicating the debate was the persistent notion of brains vs. brawn, or the idea of the dumb jock. Whites could acknowledge black success on the playing field while asserting that black athletes were intellectually inferior.

Entine includes abundant data, much of it intriguing, from numerous studies to bolster his thesis. For example, researchers have found that black infants develop physically much more quickly than white infants. By age 5 or 6, black children consistently excel in short running and jumping events.

Entine describes the physical characteristics (much of it has to do with types of muscle fiber) that produce success in running and then shows that genetics plays a crucial role in who is born with these characteristics.

He asks why people readily accept the idea that evolution has turned out populations with a genetic disposition to certain diseases (Type II diabetes, sickle cell) "yet find it racist to suggest that West Africans may have evolved into the world's best sprinters."

The book is not without faults. Entine includes so many names and so much information that the main story line sometimes becomes blurred. In his zeal to be fair, he seems to touch upon every theory ever advanced on evolution, intelligence, IQ and genetics.

Still, his book is a model of careful writing and reporting about a sensitive subject. Perhaps it will open the door a crack on an intriguing topic that merits wider discussion.

(Copyright © The Hartford Courant 2000)