January 23, 2000
Newark Star-Ledger

Sports Proves It’s Not Just Black and White

by Mike Vaccaro, Staff Writer

By the time he was finished at Duke Ziebert’s on that Martin Luther King Day, after the television cameras had been clicked off and he had gone off to his Washington, D.C. hotel to sleep it off, Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder had dusted off the oldest stereotype of all, polished it, shoved it right into the national consciousness again. Out there, for all to see.

"The black," Snyder said that afternoon, 12 years ago this month, "is a better athlete because he’s been bred to be that way. During slave trading, the slave owner would breed his big woman so that he would have a big black kid, see. That’s where it all started."

This was before he went on to discuss "high thighs and big size."

Looking, for all the world, like everyone’s drunk, bigoted uncle.

Snyder was in Washington that afternoon as part of the hype machine previewing Super Bowl XXII, whose core story line revolved around the new national fascination with Doug Williams, the quarterback of the Redskins, who would soon become the first African-American man to quarterback a team in the Super Bowl.

Later in the days before the big game, Williams’ presence would inspire one of the gathered deep thinkers of the media to ask him, deadly serious, "How long have you been a black quarterback?"

Proving, for one, that everyone has just the wrong thing to say stored up, lurking just around the corner from your tongue. And also that even in 1988, by which time we’d hoped to be past such foolishness, there was such a national curiosity spinning around the notion of a black quarterback good enough—and, it follows, smart enough—to lead his team to a conference championship and beyond.

"The way some people are conditioned," Richard Lapchick, founder of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sports and Society, has said, "the idea of a black quarterback is totally incongruous."

Which is the main reason Snyder’s comments caused such a firestorm, the airing of a quiet, stubborn prejudice, that black athletes succeed because of natural gifts, that white athletes succeed because of savvy and smarts.

The previous spring, Dennis Rodman has lashed out in a similar vein, making his first national headlines by criticizing the respective perception of teammate Isiah Thomas, who is black, and Boston’s Larry Bird, who is white.

Twelve years along, there are still issues that haunt the subject of sports and race, there are still Marge Schotts who litter the record with ignorant ramblings, and John Rockers who spout redneck rantings, without much remorse, it turns out.

There is still enough mistrust that Jesse Jackson feels compelled to take stands where he doesn’t belong, arguing on behalf of a failed coach like Ray Rhodes and not enough on the side of more important, lower-profile social concerns.

Still, of you look closely enough, you can detect progress, subtle in some ways, all but imperceptible. By the close of NFL business this afternoon, for instance, it is entirely possible that the Tennessee Titans and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have qualified for the Super Bowl. And if that happens, those teams will have been pushed toward football’s Valhalla by the prodding hands of Steve McNair and Shaun King.

Two upstart teams, two upstart quarterbacks.

Both of them African-Americans.

"This isn’t to say that everything has been solved, not by a long shot, not in everyone’s mind," said Jon Entine, an author and former network news producer.

"Jimmy the Greek was wrong, there’s no question he was wrong. But it’s also true that we’re in a climate now where we can take long, important looks at issues like the increasing numbers of black quarterbacks in the NFL, or black dominance in sports as a whole, and not automatically be viewed as people trying to back up his words and ways of thinking."

Entine has written a provocative new book, "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sport and Why We Are Afraid To Talk About It," whose title at first glance seems to summarize Snyder’s oral manifesto, but in truth illuminates—and fearlessly analyzes—how African-Americans—specifically, those of West African descent—have come to dominate professional basketball (the NBA is 80 percent black), the WNBA (70 percent), football (65 percent), track (every world record at every major distance, from the 100 to the marathon, is held either by West Africans or their descendants) and so many other sports at a rate much higher than their population demographic.

Entine, who is white, began studying this subject soon after Snyder’s remarks, and produced a much talked-about NBC documentary with Tom Brokaw, "Black Athletes: Fact or Fiction" that garnered critical praise and some critical backlash in 1989. While there are some who consider the very topic of his study to be racist in nature, he insists just the opposite is true.

Just because you say a population group has a natural affinity for a certain activity, you aren’t saying they are incapable of doing anything else," he said.

"For instance, Asians have shown a clear proclivity for string instruments over many years. Cubans are wonderful Olympic boxers. That isn’t to say Asians or Cubans are boxed into those professions, or that they can’t succeed elsewhere. Similarly, by saying African-Americans have the ability to excel in sports doesn’t automatically mean they can’t do other things well, which is the typical knee-jerk reaction people have."

Entine’s thesis was greeted with scorn in 1989, but with increasing acceptance in 2000. In the book’s introduction, Dr. Earl Smith, chairman of Wake Forest’s department of sociology, who is black, writes, "African-American athletes dominate in North American sports because they are able to run faster, jump higher and perform some incredible feats that athletes from other racial or ethnic groups can not.

"Is this the primary reason Michael Jordan became the best basketball player in the world? Or is Jordan the best because he has an insatiable work ethic? Hopefully, (the book) will contribute to finally putting to rest the torturous stereotype of the ‘dumb black jock.’"

Maybe the relative non-story that has accompanied McNair’s and King’s potential collision course will do the same thing. Progress isn’t always measured by the volume of the rhetoric. Sometimes, it sneaks up on you. Sometimes, it just happens.