January 13, 2000

Some things not better left unsaid

by Christine Brennan

When I was growing up, I was enamored with the Miami Dolphins, especially their No-Name Defense. To this day I remember many things about that 1972 defense, including this: Of its 11 starters, only one was black. He was my favorite, Curtis Johnson, a cornerback from the University of Toledo, which happened to be in my hometown.

I was watching the NFL playoffs on TV the other day, and when Miami's starting defense was shown on the screen, I thought about Curtis once again, because this time, only one of the Dolphins' starters was white. Although this didn't surprise me, I immediately wondered why. Why, in 27 seasons, had a virtually all-white defense become virtually all-black? I know it's not unusual to find an NFL team with nine or 10 African-Americans starting on defense and another eight or nine starting on offense.

But do we ever ask, simply, why? Do we ever try to get beyond the Rockerisms, the racial stereotypes, and find out why many black athletes seem superior to whites? And are we prepared for the answers? Quite a few people have their own opinions.

"By and large, the athletes who run the fastest and jump the highest and have many of the skills that make for an elite professional football player trace their ancestry to West Africa, and that's African-Americans," says Jon Entine, author of the new book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It.

"These small but critical genetic differences are exaggerated by culture," says Entine, an Emmy-winning former network TV producer. "From an early age, whites begin recognizing they are not as fast as their black friends, and so they pursue other sports. Generally speaking, they have good judgment. But it ends up peeling away some white athletes who could compete, and then that enhances black domination. It becomes a feedback loop; a small but critical difference ends up becoming larger and larger."

But another author says this is not necessarily so.

"The performance records suggest that a genetic factor may play a role in this situation," says John Hoberman, author of the 1997 Darwin's Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race. "But it is premature at this point to have real scientific confidence in genetic hypotheses when the origins of elite athletic performance remain so poorly understood, especially given the psychological factor." That factor could be the collective training techniques of the legendary Kenyan runners, for instance.

This is serious business, and not simply because it features the age-old arguments of nature vs. nurture, genetics vs. environment. To talk about these issues is to invite controversy at the least, hatred at the worst. There are those who look at journalists like Entine, who is white, and ask if he is not playing into the most destructive stereotypes that exist against today's black athletes: that they are unintelligent and that they don't work hard.

Entine says that's not the case. "What we're talking about is a pattern that we see," he says. "There are athletes out there with the skills of Michael Jordan who will never get to the NBA because they don't have his desire, his drive, his determination and his willingness to practice endlessly. Genes set parameters, but they're only part of the equation."

I don't know if Entine is right or if he is wrong, although I hope someday after decades of bickering we'll find out. But I do know this. The dialogue that he almost certainly will provoke is not the problem. It's the solution.

"When you raise the idea of human differences in a country like the United States," Entine says, "people get frightened. They think it's a proxy for racism. So it becomes taboo. But why don't we talk about these things? The athletes talk about these things. Why don't we?"