November 29, 2001

Raising an Old Question About Race


In the late 80's, wired from having attended Knicks games, Tom Brokaw would buttonhole colleagues at NBC News, an Ancient Mariner with a burning modern question: Why were African-Americans dominating basketball? He would not take environment for an answer, and he eventually brushed aside both the cautious and the righteous who warned him that even asking the question could be construed as racist.

The resulting 1989 documentary and panel discussion, Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction, was variously criticized as timid, racist, liberal and, most fairly, as inconclusive. That was the short-term reaction. The long-term reaction was more telling. The question was tabled. No one else wanted to push a stick into that scorpion huddle.

Brokaw went on to write a current best-seller about heroic old white men. But the documentary's producer, Jon Entine, has come back after 10 years with a book to be published in January called Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It" (Public Affairs). This consistently interesting, readable, provocative, possibly wrongheaded book will, if it does any good at all, help reignite public discussion on the fuzzy definition of race, or it will disappear like a stone into the deep well of denial.

Entine's basic premise is that "the scientific evidence for black athletic superiority is overwhelming and in accord with what we see on the playing field." Using tables and statistics, he maintains that athletes who trace their ancestry to West Africa have a biological advantage in sprinting and jumping because of proportionately greater muscle mass andpercentage of fast-twitch muscles, a higher center of gravity, and more testosterone and anaerobic enzymes.

East Africans, who dominate in distance running, have larger lung capacities, more slow-twitch muscles, a typically slighter body profile and the ability to process oxygen more efficiently. Whites, according to the scientists Entine quotes, fall physically between East and West.

None of this is startlingly new, and for many it is disturbingly evocative of the so-called race science used by many societies to dehumanize the "other." One indefatigable champion of the egalitarianism that grew out of the Holocaust, World War II and the drive for human rights, Richard Lapchick, founder of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, dismissed the 1989 NBC documentary at the time as pseudoscientific prattle. "Didn't we hear all this in Germany in 1936?" he said.

Another critic, Harry Edwards, the Berkeley sports sociologist, is quoted in Entineís book as saying that such scientific data was an "underhanded way" of saying that blacks were "closer to beast" than they are to the rest of humanity."

Entine, who seems up for a controversy, agreed in an interview last week that "there's a slippery slope out there but it's worth risking because sports can offer such a clear way to frame some important issues that affect all aspects of society." He is hardly hard-core on nature over nurture, concluding that the Africanbiological edge is not great, but that it creates a cultural advantage that becomes a biosocial "feedback loop," nature and nurture fueling each other.

Sports race science can be viewed as simultaneously silly and dangerous. Even if valid, it would have no real purpose except to give management another evaluating tool. Add the ancestry check. A Nigerian grandmother? Put that runner in the sprints. What, his father was a Kenyan? Make him a marathon man instead. Entine writes, "It's neither racist or a myth to say 'white men can't jump.' " O.K. So what?

Entine says the issue will be unavoidable once the human genome project puts our biodiversity in our faces. Genetics is destiny. But others see the discussion as a diversion; let us cure such genetic diseases as Tay-Sachs and sickle cell anemia before we fund a study about the color of the 100-meter dash. And, of course, as Entine admits, it's divisive in bad hands.

So let us get to the true issue, which is class, not race, and the real problem in sports. Dump the geneticists and flood the locker rooms with cultural anthropologists. The consistently prophetic Edwards predicted 20 years ago that as more athletes from the so-called underclass were recruited, the survivalist values they brought from their dangerous streets would infect their games. Their behavior patterns would influence their working- and middle-class teammates.

Since many athletes are black, comparing them on a class basis should not be construed as racist. Fans have no problem understanding that Michael Jordan, Ray Lucas and Lennox Lewis may be in the same race, whatever that means, as Dennis Rodman, Lawrence Phillips and Mike Tyson, but they were not in the same socioeconomic class. And everybody knows what that means, even if they say they do not, or claim that class does not exist in America.Where do you think the sensibility that produced last week's epidemic of pro football throat-slashing taunts came from? New Trier High School or North Philadelphia?

It has been 10 years since Brokaw asked about race; now it is time for that hardy rock-climbing anchor to ask why bad behavior is dominating sports. He is still going to Knicks games, so he is still in play. Or maybe this question is just too taboo.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company