April 16, 2000
TACKLING A TABOO TOPIC: WHY BLACKS SOAR AS ATHLETES
I couldn't believe it. Jon Entine has stepped into it this time, I told my wife as we made our way through a Nashville bookstore recently.
"What do you mean?" she asked, somewhat puzzled
. Just look at the title of his new book, I replied. He couldn't have picked a more controversial topic. (Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We're Afraid To Talk About It)
"I think African Americans are far more willing to talk about it than whites are frankly," Entine told me over the telephone this past Wednesday. My discussions among African-American scholars and journalists and others have been far more open and constructive than with whites, who are so nervous about the issue and so nervous that they are going to offend blacks that they don't talk about it," Entine added.
Is that so? Entine's book argues that different populations, whether they be Of European, Asian, East African, or West African origin, dominate certain athletic events because they have innate skills peculiar to that sport and that social and cultural factors exaggerate and enhance these small but crucial differences.
"I think people think there is some zero-sum game in sports and mental ability," Entine said as we continued our conversation. "That if you're physically gifted, you're mentally inferior. First of all, blacks are not physically gifted. They're just physically different. If you said to me people of West African ancestry are great long distance runners, I would say no. They are among the worst in the world.
"Does that mean they're physically retarded? Of course not. We have to understand how biology plays in our society. We need to know it for medical and science reasons because we're seeing it every single day in the pages of the newspaper. The understanding of how genetics work, and we know a lot of diseases are population specific.
The positive part of the book is that it allows us to discuss complex issues that will impact us over the next decade or two as we understand more and more the biological part of humanity. This is about how do we understand the fact that we know we're different in certain ways, and the question is how meaningful are those differences that we have," he noted, but he pointed out that "the important things are absolutely shared."
Entine said, "Some interesting things are different. People have different personalities and people have different ethnicities, and that can be a source of respecting diversity and not just doing lip service to it. We do a lot of lip service to diversity in our country but I don't think we really respect diversity as much as we say."
So, Jon what made you take on such a controversial subject?
"I wondered if I could write such a book without playing the race card," said Entine, a journalist and Emmy-winning producer, formerly with ABC and NBC news. That was my goal: To see if we could have serious, thoughtful Dialogue about a complex issue that actually touches deep nerves because I think there are so many racist notions attached to this. But I didn't start out to destroy the racist notions. I said I am going to explore this wherever it takes me."
But Entine did say he was afraid of being labeled a racist.
"Up until the first review came out I was scared to my soul that I would be branded a racist and that the issue would be politicized by people with agendas," he said. "Not everyone has to like it but I hope they respect it. I just wanted to create more discourse on this complex but yet important subject."
Shortly after Entine produced a television documentary in 1989 for NBC that had been written by Tom Brokaw, Black Athletes Fact and Fiction black sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards praised the network for "opening the door in enlightenment" on a controversial subject.
"That's the type of show CBS should have done instead of firing Jimmy the Greek," Edwards was quoted as saying in the Dallas Morning News. He referred to the dismissal of commentator Jimmy the Greek for making racist remarks. "Firing is no remedy for ignorance. Education is a remedy for ignorance."
And the beginning of that education is discussion, not shrinking from taboos. By discussing such issues all of us, as my friend Jon Entine said, have a better opportunity of learning how to treat people as people" and not simply on the basis of their skin color.
(Lewis is a columnist, a regional editor for The Tennessean, and a member of the newspaper's editorial board. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)