February 14, 2000
Why black men rule the game
by Jack Todd
Watch a football game, watch a basketball game. Watch the sprinters coming to the line at the Sydney Olympics. Watch Vladimir Guerrero play for the Expos. You will reach an inevitable conclusion: black athletes are better.
Thirty years ago, the National Basketball Association was 80 per cent white; today it's 80 per cent black. Women's pro basketball is 70 per cent African American. The National Football League is 65 per cent black, and the last barriers are falling at the traditionally white position, quarterback. At the sport where the playing field is most level, running, athletes who are either African or of African descent now hold every world record from 100 metres to the marathon.
No white man has ever run 100 metres under 10 seconds; the Namibian runner Frankie Fredericks alone has done it 26 times, Maurice Greene 25, Ato Boldon 22 and Donovan Bailey 16. The best time by a non-African in the 10,000 metres, a 27:08.17 recorded by Arturo Barrios of Mexico, is only 21st on the all-time list; Africans have the 20 best times.
Everyone connected with sports knows all that to be true, and yet few people are willing to say so for fear of being labeled a racist. It is to the credit of Jon Entine, a former NBC producer in New York who teamed up with Tom Brokaw to visit this subject first in a 1989 television documentary, that he has lifted the veil and removed the taboo from a potentially explosive subject.
Entine, equally comfortable in the worlds of sports and science, builds his case with evidence from both fields, especially the science of genetics, a science that still makes some people nervous because for so much of its history as a science it was a tool of racist pseudo-science, culminating in Hitler's theories of the master Aryan race and the genocide of the Holocaust in Europe.
There are, in other words, good reasons for the taboo of Entine's title, good reasons for blacks to feel nervous when scientists, even with the best of intentions, begin studying the reasons for black dominance in sport.
"The hard truth," Entine writes, "is that we cannot avoid confronting our human biodiversity. The science of genetics, and its quest to solve medical and scientific problems, is barreling into the future, particularly in the area of gene therapy. . . . Limiting the rhetorical use of folk categories such as race, an admirable goal, is not going to make the patterned biological variation on which they are based disappear."
Entine opens the inquiry in the widest possible way in a book that is both a history of racism in sport and a history of the way in which black athletes have excelled in spite of that racism. Excelled to the point that there can no longer be any real doubt that, in certain sports, they are genetically equipped to excel.
Entine looks in detail at two primary groups of athletes who are either African or of African descent: East Africans, particularly Kenyans from the Rift Valley, who have come to dominate the distance-running events almost to the complete exclusion of whites at the elite level; and athletes of West African descent, mostly the American descendants of slaves, who dominate the sprint events such as the 100 and 200 metres and the hurdles and North American professional sport, particularly basketball, football and baseball.
The evidence is overwhelming. In the sport in which the playing field is most level - running - black male athletes now hold every world record from the 100 metres through the marathon. Cultural accident? A mere coincidence of opportunity?
Cultural differences play a role, but the evidence Entine assembles is overwhelming: at the sports in which they excel, blacks are superior in part because they are both aerobically and anaerobically superior, because they have more fast-twitch muscle fibre and quicker reactions of the patellar tendon, because they have less body fat and greater bone density.
Much of the heart of this book is a painful history of racism, especially racism in sports in North America, dating back well into the 19th century. It is shameful throughout, even agonizing at times, especially when you consider that African-American athletes were widely tolerated in American sports like baseball, horse-racing and race-walking (which they virtually created) until the collapse of post-Civil War reconstruction and the resulting backlash at the end of the century.
Sports had created a narrow window of opportunity for black athletes, but the window slammed shut around 1890 and stayed shut in all sports except boxing until after World War II. Even following Jackie Robinson's widely publicized integration of baseball in 1946, it took 13 more years before the Boston Red Sox became the last all-white team to integrate in 1959.
It is an appalling, tragic history, a history that persists into the present, which is why this book is so explosive, why Entine is at such pains to emphasize the role of intelligence in great athletic feats of any sort. But ignoring the overwhelming evidence of the abilities of the black athlete is simply reverse racism; eventually, we have to open up the dialogue to admit that there are differences between racial groups without in any way implying that one human being is innately inferior to another because of his race.
Entine has done a brilliant job of making his case. There will be those who will refuse to listen, but his work will be difficult to refute, given the overwhelming nature of both the anecdotal and the scientific evidence. It's a shame, given the enormous amount of research that went into this book and it's potential impact on public discourse, that Entine has been so badly served by his copy editors. There are dozens of silly mistakes that could have been caught by a reasonably competent editor at even a casual reading.
That is a separate and minor problem. Entine will be attacked from both sides, by sociologists and anthropologists who wilfully refuse to acknowledge what both science and common sense tell us - that in many of the games to which we devote so much money, passion and attention, black athletes are simply better.