February 7, 2000
Sports Illustrated

Not too hot to handle after all

By S.L. Price

If you believe that Ray Rhodes was fired as Green Bay Packers coach because he is black; if you thought O.J. got off only by playing the race card; if you think Richard Williams wasn't joking when he called Irina Spirlea a "big, tall, white turkey"; if you view with suspicion the absence in major league baseball of any black general managers—if you, in other words, think the worst of the most publicized intersections of race and sports over the last few years, then you'd find it no great leap to declare that relations between blacks and whites haven't progressed much since Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball's color barrier in 1947. Once the cutting-edge lab of race relations, American sport has become more like some junior high school hallway in which real issues of color too often get lost in moronic slurs and knee-jerk reactions.

Now, into the food fight, Entine has tossed his new book, Taboo. The title alone is guaranteed to stir controversy, you can be sure that without reading it, many on both sides of the black-white divide will ask, "Why stir up this again? Why now?"

But the fact is, the timing has never been better for Entine's balanced, well-reasoned and—above all—calm examination of the issue. The black domination of such high-profile sports as basketball, football and Olympic track is now so complete that its relatively unexamined state is almost embarrassing. Few people are comfortable talking about it for fear of becoming the next Al Campanis or Jimmy the Greek. Yet, as someone who has done the research, I can tell you that nearly every athlete, coach, general manager and fan has thought about Entine's subject. It is the elephantine subtext in almost every locker room, but in the absence of extensive study, too much myth has rushed in to fill the void.

In response, Entine's, who was the producer for Tom Brokaw's 1989 NBC News special Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction, has deconstructed every permutation of his subject, ranging from the ownership of distance running by Kenyans to the tawdry history of race science to the incomplete but intriguing evidence of black physical superiority. Entine convincingly argues for the primacy of the overwhelming on-field evidence, allows for the determining X factors of environment and depoliticizes the discussion by attempting to kill the long-held cultural bedtime story about the link between athletic excellence and low intelligence. Taboo is not a great book: Entine's leaps to the conclusion that in the genetic lottery, blacks have indeed been granted more physical gifts, even though the most prominent scientists he cites have said elsewhere that such a conclusion still can't be made without extensive testing of top-level athletes. But the scientists' doubts don't detract from the book's importance.

It is no small thing to make a bold effort, to discuss, unflinchingly, what we really talk about when we talk about race and sports. These days, you can even call it progress.