Talking about race is a sign of progress

March 29, 2004

No big deal that his prediction missed. Vandy beat Western Michigan, then N.C. State. It lost to Connecticut, as have many teams no matter their complexions. But being wrong on a trifle is an occupational hazard that will not prevent Ryan from climbing to the end of the next trembling limb, there to laugh at Dame Fortune.

More important, his white-guys line served a higher purpose. It was a small ray of disinfecting sunshine on a subject once such a taboo that we ink-stained wretches, though aware of what we saw, dared not mention it in print. Ryan's truth-in-jesting line was delivered with a wry spin that suggests we've come far enough in a dialogue on race in sports to try for a touch of real-world fun with it.

It wasn't always so. The 1966 NCAA championship game, Kentucky against Texas Western (now UTEP), is memorable because it was the first title game matching five black starters against five whites. The sportswriter David Israel called it "the Brown vs. Board of Education of college basketball."

With that phrase, Israel summarized the social, cultural and political significance of a simple basketball game. But he didn't write it that day; he was then a schoolboy. The major Kentucky newspapers of 1966, the Louisville Courier-Journal and Lexington Herald, didn't cast the game in racial terms. Nor did the time's preeminent national sports magazine, Sports Illustrated; its reporter, Frank Deford, never mentioned race.

At courtside that day, Bill Conlin of the Philadelphia Daily News began his column, "They came waving Confederate flags, determined to cling to a vanishing tradition. They cheered and they pleaded and they chanted Dixie, but it was no use. The tradition melted in the heat of a battle, and race became unimportant. Suddenly, it was no longer a showdown between five white basketball players from the University of Kentucky and five Negroes from Texas Western."

Then he dropped the subject: "Suddenly, it was an exciting game between two fine teams ..."

Across the next generation, the subject of race in sports would never be dropped. In today's NCAA Tournament, as in the NBA and NFL, the great majority of players are African-American. Anyone present as the domination of these games passed from white men to black must have asked, "Why?"

Jon Entine surely did. A journalist and television producer, Entine is the author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It. I asked him the "why" question but only after first asking, "Why write this book?"

"First, people see it happening and are curious," he said. "Second, in studying human performance, I wanted to know why people from certain countries performed better in certain events. Most critical of all, sports presents a measurable way to understand the genetic differences of races all around the world."

But conversation on what we see with our eyes is constrained, Entine says, because the question "Why?" has been considered divisive, even racist. Its presumed answer -- blacks are superior physically -- is also presumed to suggest that blacks are intellectually inferior, and that set of presumptions irritates many people, among them Harry Edwards.

Edwards is a former professor of sociology at Cal-Berkeley and a leader in the 1960s political protests by black athletes. He told me, "Entine, with his so-called 'research,' insults blacks by saying our genetic makeup is different, therefore we succeed without the intelligence, discipline and commitment of white athletes."

In fact, while Entine finds physical differences, he does not perpetuate the racial insult. He offers astonishing numbers as evidence of genetic differences, reporting that as of the summer of 2000, athletes of West African descent (including British, Caribbean and American sprinters) held the top 200 times in the 100 meters and 797 of the top 800 times.

"All 32 finalists in the last four Olympic men's 100-meter races were West African descent," he wrote. "The likelihood of that happening based on population numbers alone is 0.0000000000000000000000000000000001. Yet there are no -- not one -- premier distance runners who trace their ancestry to this region in Africa."

"What Harry Edwards doesn't fully appreciate is that I say genetics does matter but it is only one element of success," Entine says. "What we need to remember is that no athlete, black or white, succeeds without matching genetics with dedication and intelligence. But genetics can be the very small advantage that makes the difference at the very highest levels of sports."

In the end, Entine says, "We should celebrate our differences as evidence of human diversity, not let those differences be reason for discrimination."

Here I think of Bob Cousy, one of the NBA's all-time great players, a white man born in 1928 who understood the differences that produced a black man's rage in the America of the 1960s.

"If I'd been black," Cousy said, and here he named a man who'd advocated riot in the streets, "I'd have been H. Rap Brown."

A pause. "No, I'd have been dead."

Dave Kindred is a contributing writer for Sporting News. Email him at