Summer 2000



Breaking the Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports
And Why We’re No Longer So Afraid to Talk About It

Jon Entine

“If you can believe that individuals of recent African ancestry are not genetically advantaged over those of European and Asian ancestry in certain athletic endeavors, then you could probably be led to believe just about anything.” Or so says biological anthropologist Vincent Sarich. To which professor of sociology Harry Edwards, also of University of California/Berkeley, provides the antithesis: “What really is being said in a kind of underhanded way is that blacks are closer to beasts and animals in terms of their genetic and physical and anatomical make up than they are to the rest of humanity. And that’s where the indignity comes in.”

For the synthesis, turn to Gideon Ariel, Biomechanist, former U.S. Olympic Committee scientist, former Israeli Olympic athlete: “I know that the American system is very sensitive to statements of black and white. But you cannot defy science. You cannot just say that day is night and night is day. These are facts.”

In fact, in running, basketball, football, and soccer—sports in which the social and economic barriers to participation are very low, creating the most level of playing fields—the yawning performance gap between blacks and everyone else is nothing short of astonishing. Yet allegations of racism often quash the overwhelming scientific evidence which convincingly suggests that this growing on-field disparity cannot be explained by culture and environment alone.

Even a casual mention that there exist any meaningful genetic differences between races can ignite a firestorm. In a speech before the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1995, Roger Bannister, the distinguished neurologist, retired Oxford dean, and the first man to break the four minute barrier in the mile, in 1954, was showered with ridicule for venturing his opinion “as a scientist rather than a sociologist” that all athletes are not created equal. “I am prepared to risk political incorrectness,” he said, “by drawing attention to the seemingly obvious but under stressed fact that black sprinters and black athletes in general all seem to have certain natural anatomical advantages.”

That’s the explosive “N” word—natural. “Nurture” alone cannot explain the remarkable trends. Over the past 30 years, as sport has opened wide to athletes from almost every country, the results have become increasingly segregated. There are only 800 million blacks, or one in eight of the world population, but athletes of African origin hold every major world running record from the 100 meters to the marathon. In the United States, where African Americans make up about 13% of the population, almost 90% of professional basketball players, 70% of the National Football League, and more than a third of professional baseball is black. In Britain, with a black population of less than 2%, one in 5 professional soccer players is black. Blacks have also come to dominate world boxing.

Why do blacks of West African ancestry dominate sports in which the social and economic barriers are lowest?

Fifty years of anthropological and more recent physiological studies have documented clear, if overlapping, biologically-based differences between athletes of different populations. Scientists are just beginning to isolate the genetic links to those differences (though the fact that the anatomy and physiology are in large measure inherited is unequivocal). That’s the science. The politics is more precarious. Any suggestion of human differences is publicly and politically seen as divisive or worse in a country which sometimes gives lip service to equal opportunity and where race remains a festering sore.

African Americans understandably are suspicious about where this discussion can lead. “People feel if you say blacks are better athletically, you’re saying they’re dumber,” Frank Deford, the respected author and sports reporter once noted. “But when Jack Nicklaus sinks a 30-foot putt, nobody thinks his IQ goes down.” Athletic achievement has long been a Catch–22 for blacks. When an athlete lost a contest, it encouraged racist notions that blacks were an inferior race, intellectually and physically. But winning reinforced the equally pernicious stereotype that blacks were closer to animals and therefore less evolved than whites or Asians. That is the fate that befell Jesse Owens after he shocked the 1936 Olympics, held in the capital of Hitler’s Germany. His four gold medals were subtly devalued as a product of his “natural” athleticism.

The racist stereotype of the “animalistic black” stretches back centuries. Fascination about black physicality and black anger about being caricatured as a lesser human being, closer to a jungle beast, have been part of the dark side of the American dialogue on race, with deep historical roots in hundreds of years of European colonialism. In the 19th century, white Europeans were enraptured by pseudosciences such as phrenology. Racial and ethnic groups were ranked by skull size that supposedly proved that white males were intellectually superior. Jews, blacks, and other minorities were targets of the most egregious generalizations, usually associated with physical characteristics and intellectual prowess.

Since World War II, in an understandable reaction to extremist race theories that provided intellectual fuel for Nazism, anthropological orthodoxy has held that the very concept of race is a meaningless social construct. Discussing “race science” as it came to be called, became a taboo subject, publicly and academically. The issue took on incendiary proportions in the early 1970s when it was publicly married to findings of race differences in I.Q.

Growing up in the Sixties, it never occurred to me to judge blacks as less intelligent. And I celebrated with most liberal-thinking Americans when Muhammad Ali redefined boxing and when the raised black fist of the 1968 Mexico City Olympians became a potent symbol of freedom. I entered the shark infested waters of this debate in 1987, when Los Angeles Dodger general manager Al Campanis had been fired after commenting on national television that he believed that blacks didn’t have the mental “necessities” to be a manager or general manager. The following January, Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder, a prognosticator with CBS Sports, was fired and publicly ridiculed after making an off-hand comment that slave owners had bred blacks to produce the best physical specimens and that this contributed to black success in sports. At the time, I was producing for Tom Brokaw at NBC Nightly News. After much internal hand-wringing, we decided that maybe we should address the myths and stereotypes of blacks in sports—including the racial taboos. Perhaps dialogue could dissipate some of the noxious poison.

The end product was our 1989 documentary, Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction. Before it aired, it provoked intense reaction, dividing journalists, frequently along racial lines. A white columnist at Newsday called it “a step forward in the dialogue on race and sports” while a black writer at the same daily wrote that “NBC had scientists answer questions that none but a bigot would conjure up.” Yet the public, particularly African Americans, seemed far more receptive to the balanced treatment of a heretofore untouchable subject. Even Harry Edwards, a long-time critic of the suggestion that there are any meaningful racial differences, would comment that “the NBC documentary opened the door to enlightenment on a controversial subject.” Black Athletes went on to win numerous awards including Best International Sports Film.

Over the next few years, the science of human performance and our knowledge of human genetics barreled forward at breakneck speed. I became even more intrigued by the genetics of human performance. At the urging of my literary agent, I circulated a book proposal that offered to explore the issue in far more depth. The timing, I believed, was opportune. This was a chance to write a cutting edge, popular but scholarly book that discussed genetics and the problematic social history of race. Sports would merely be an access point for a wide-ranging conversation.

As a measure of my commitment, I assembled a “board of advisors”—top biologists, anthropologists, exercise physiologists, and sociologists, black and white, from all over the world, who offered to act as informal scholarly reviewers as the book took shape. They embraced the proposal as provocative and responsible. Perhaps that’s why I was so stunned by the consistently negative response it engendered from publishers, many of whom refused to even read it—on “principle.” Again and again, I heard: “This is a racist subject. By even suggesting that blacks may have a genetic edge in sports, you are opening up the Pandora’s box of intellectual inferiority.”

Finally, after more than a dozen rejections, an independent-minded editor at Macmillan, Rick Wolff, offered a contract for what was to become Taboo. The turn of good fortune proved fleeting, however. Soon after, Mr. Wolff moved to Warner Books. Though he wanted to take the book with him, Warner balked. “It was considered too dicey a subject, too controversial,” Wolff recalls. “Once the other editors heard it was about racial differences, they wouldn’t even let me present it at an editorial meeting.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Wolff’s eventual replacement as editor, Natalie Chapman, knew nothing about sports and was only vaguely sensitive to the science and politics of race. Nonetheless, I proceeded with an early draft, always staying in close contact with my advisory board and an expanding list of experts, who were sent the evolving manuscript for feedback.

By this time, I had grown quite confident of my findings. Using DNA evidence, scientists were in the process of compiling maps of the waves of human migrations that have led to today’s “races.” Although the move out of Africa by modern humans to Europe and Asia occurred rather recently in evolutionary time, scientists were nearly unanimous in their belief that even small, chance mutations can trigger a chain reaction with cascading consequences, possibly even the creation of new species, in relatively few generations. Economic ravages, natural disasters, genocidal pogroms, and geographic isolation caused by mountains, oceans, and deserts have deepened these differences.

As a result of evolution, every population group has some unique physical and physiological characteristics, many of which have a genetic basis. Most of today’s genetic research focuses on finding cures for diseases, more than 3,000 of which are genetically based. For instance, blacks are predisposed to carry genes for sickle cell anemia and susceptibility to colorectal cancer.4 Beta-thalassemia is most prevalent in Mediterranean populations. A form of diabetes has been linked to a gene most commonly found among North American Indians. Northern European whites are more susceptible to cystic fibrosis.

“Since the word race causes such discomfort, ethnic groups is often substituted, but it is inappropriate,” adds Theresa Overfield, University of Utah professor of anthropology and expert on the biology of health and illness. “Race is a characteristic used most effectively to describe, rather than explain, health difference. … Ignoring the differences between humans is at least shortsighted and can be medically harmful.”

So why do we so readily accept that evolution has turned out Ashkenazi Jews with a genetic predisposition to Tay-Sachs, or blonde haired and blue-eyed Scandinavians, yet find it racist to suggest that blacks of West African ancestry have evolved into the world’s best sprinters and jumpers?

“In human biology and clinical studies, as well as in epidemiological research, it is important to understand if age, gender, race, and other population characteristics contribute to the phenotype variation,” wrote Claude Bouchard, Laval University geneticist, obesity expert and exercise physiologist, in a recent article in the American Journal of Human Biology. “Only by confronting these enormous public health issues head-on, and not by circumventing them in the guise of political correctness, do we stand a chance to evaluate the discriminating agendas and devise appropriate interventions. To disregard monumental public health issues is to be morally bankrupt. "I have always worked with the hypothesis that ignorance fosters prejudice. [Critical inquiry] is the greatest safeguard against prejudice."

In fact, highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, the distribution of muscle fiber types, reflex capabilities, lung capacity, and the ability to use energy more efficiently are not evenly distributed across racial groups and cannot be explained by known environment factors. Consider diving, gymnastics, and ice-skating, sports in which East Asians excel. Asians tend to be small with relatively short extremities, long torsos, and a thicker layer of fat. “Chinese splits,” a rare maneuver demanding extraordinary flexibility, has roots in this anthropometric reality.

Eurasian whites are the premier wrestlers and weight lifters in the world. Evolutionary forces have shaped a population with large, muscular upper bodies with relatively short arms and legs and thick torsos. These proportions tend to be an advantage in sports in which strength rather than speed is at a premium. This region also turns out an extraordinary number of top field athletes—javelin throwers, shot-putters, and hammer throwers (whites hold 46 of the top 50 all time throws).

Athletes who trace their ancestry to western African coastal states, including British, Caribbean and American blacks, are the quickest and best leapers in the world. Consequently, they almost completely monopolize the sprints up to 400 meters. No white, Asian, or East African runners have broken 10 seconds in the 100m. Athletes of West African descent hold the top two hundred times in the 100m—all less than 10 seconds––and 797 of the top 800 times. All 32 finalists in the last four Olympic men’s 100-meter races were West African. 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.

Studies have shown that athletes of West African origin hit a biomechanical wall after about 45 seconds of intense, anaerobic activity, when aerobic skills come into play. East Africans, who have small and slender ectomorphic body types and are therefore hapless in the sprints, dominate distance running.

Whereas the West African population evolved in the lowlands and remained relatively isolated, East African runners trace their ancestry to the highlands. This region in Africa is also a genetic stew, with studies indicating a mixture of genes from invading Arabs and Middle Easterners. Kenya, with 28 million people, is the athletic powerhouse. At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, Kenyan men won the 800, 1,500, and 5,000 meters, along with the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Based on population percentages alone, the likelihood of such a performance is one in 1.6 billion. The Kalenjin people of the Great Rift Valley adjacent to Lake Victoria—who represent 1/2000th of the world population —win 40% of top international distance running honors and three times as many distance medals as athletes from any other nation in the world. One tiny district, the Nandi, with only 500,000 people, swept an unfathomable 20% of major international distance events. By almost any measure, the Nandi region is the greatest concentration of raw athletic talent in the history of sports. It’s a potent example of the interacting bio-cultural forces that shape great athletes.

By this time, the draft of Taboo was taking shape. I sent it off to Macmillan and waited. And waited. Eight months passed without a word before I received the brush-off in a brusque letter. “Much of the manuscript is smoothly and elegantly written, and most of it is quite enjoyable to read,” wrote Chapman. “[But] while I admire the goals of the book, I must regretfully inform you that [it] lacks sufficient persuasiveness…to avoid being torn apart by critics, reviewers, and readers.”

Years of work were suddenly in mortal danger. My agent embarked on a full court press to find a new publisher, but to no avail. As before, most everyone treated the proposal (and now an early manuscript) as a skunk on the loose. Basic Books, a first-rate independent publisher affiliated with HarperCollins, appeared ready to publish Taboo until an African American consultant nixed the book, without reading it, as “potentially racist.” One female editor lectured my agent about how insensitive he was even to propose such an idea. Would she please read the book? he responded. “I don’t have time for such trash,” she retorted.

Such intense personal reaction was all the more dispiriting given the lengths to which I had gone to include, in a non-polemical way, many diverse historical and ideological perspectives. To a man and woman, the board and reviewers were on record that they respected Taboo as fair and constructive, with racial healing as one of its messages.

“You will be accused of spouting old fashioned racism for even raising the issue of African American superiority in athletics,” wrote Earl Smith, chairman of the department of sociology and ethnic studies at Wake Forest University, a leading black scholar and author of several books on race and sports, and one of my board members. “All this beating around the bush has to stop. This is a good book. I am quite excited with the arguments that are raised.”

But Dr. Smith’s endorsement, along with reviews and letters of support from the president of the Human Biology Association, then the editor of the Journal of Human Biology, a US Olympic Committee scientist, prominent African American anthropologists, and top athletes couldn’t crack the political status quo. As I was learning, when it comes to race, “the cortex shuts down.” No one would even read the manuscript and give Taboo a chance.

Public Affairs, another independent publisher with authors such as international financier George Soros, former Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam war Robert McNamara, and 60-Minutes commentator Andy Rooney, broke the log jam when an editor read it, loved it, and assumed the rights. Yet even with a respected publisher behind Taboo, the hysteria continued in some quarters. In early January, just before the book was released, The New York Times Magazine informed me that it was killing plans to publish an adaptation, calling the book’s thesis potentially “dangerous.” “Our reluctant decision to drop the project is no reflection of my regard for your work, which remains high,” wrote Kyle Crichton, an editor who had championed the article. “In brief, the whole subject worries my editor….”

Taboo is now finally in the hands of the public. Will it be as skittish about the contents as the publishing industry? Apparently not. As of the day I write this, Taboo has so far received consistently positive if sometimes guarded praise in dozens of reviews. Ironically, the negative comments have come from those journalists who consider themselves “liberals.” For instance, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, columnist Rick Telander, apparently attempting to inject some “balance” into a review that generally praised the book, wrote: “Reviews of Taboo have been as uptight as anything, with reviewers figuratively holding the book the way an exterminator might hold a spraying skunk.”

To buttress this incendiary conclusion, Telander writes: “‘Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid,’ is how USA Today titled its review.” Minor problem: The title of the article was 180 degrees the opposite: “Some Things Not Better Left Unsaid.” In fact, columnist Christine Brennan praised the book, writing “the dialogue that [Entine] almost certainly will provoke is not the problem. It’s the solution.”

Telander also quoted a Washington Post reviewer that Taboo “underplays the political and cultural land minds underlying the discussion”—is equally misleading. Paul Ruffins, a former editor of the NAACP’s Crisis magazine actually admired the book. “Because it bravely tackles the exhaustive list of ideas that must be considered in any open-minded discussion of this topic, Taboo could well be the most intellectually demanding sports book ever written,” Ruffins wrote. “Taboo is an informed exploration of a fascinating phenomenon. Entine marshals such an impressive array of evidence that we should no longer be content to explain why blacks excel at certain sports by simply resorting to the old cultural argument that athletics have been the only avenues of upward mobility that were truly open to them. He’s raised the argument to new heights.”

A number of columnists (every one white) apparently have felt uncomfortable about being seen as praising a book that suggested that humans are indeed as diverse—culturally and biologically—as multi-culturalists claim. Stan Hochman of the Philadelphia Daily News and Scott Winokur of the San Francisco Examiner injected a racial, almost hysterical, tone to their articles, anticipating and inviting widespread anger among blacks. Yet the reaction has been just the opposite. As writes in its culture column, “Summary Judgment”, "You might expect that claiming to show a genetic basis for the dominance of certain sports by people of African descent would raise a firestorm. But in fact Entine's book gets warm reviews: "a careful and reasoned case for this point of view" (The New York Times) … a "balanced, well-reasoned and—above all—calm examination of the issue" (Sports Illustrated).

What has been the reaction from the black community, to the degree that it has been homogeneous? Gary Sailes, editor of the Journal Of The African American Male, wrote a blurb for the book in which he calls Taboo “Compelling, bold, comprehensive, informative, and enlightening.” The black magazine Emerge, in its March issue, called the book “thoughtful, thorough, and sensitive. …Taboo is a good read for anyone interested in the history of black athletes in the United States and world-wide.” John C. Walter, professor of history in the American Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Washington, in a review in the Seattle Times, writes that “Taboo is both provocative and informed. Entine has provided a well-intentioned effort for all to come clean on the possibility that black people might just be superior physically, and that there is no negative connection between that physical superiority and their IQs.”

What are we to make of this phenomenon in which some whites, so quick to crow about their own racial sensitivity, recklessly inject racial divisiveness into a debate in which most African Americans see thoughtfulness? It’s apparent that many blacks have become irritated to the point of anger by the patronizing censorship and condescension of many journalists and academics. “I am an editorial columnist,” wrote Bill Maxwell of the St. Petersburg Times in a personal note to me after his glowing column on Taboo. “I reviewed your book because I enjoyed reading it. It cut through all of the bullshit. I am black.”

The evidence that there are bio-culturally grounded differences between populations in body type, physiology, and athletic performance is overwhelming and growing. Although the African biological edge in some sports is not great, at the level of an elite athlete, even a small advantage can be the difference between a gold medal and finishing out of the money. On-the-field trends create a cultural advantage that forms a biosocial feedback loop, with nature and nurture fueling each other. Nevertheless, it is critical to remember that no individual athlete can succeed without the ‘X-factor,’ the lucky spin of the roulette wheel of genetics matched with considerable dedication and sport smarts. “It’s the brain, not the heart or lungs, that is the critical organ,” Sir Roger Bannister told me. “But one would have to be blind not to see a pattern here. I hope we are not at a time and place where we are afraid to talk about remarkable events. I hope not.”

Popular thought is now beginning to catch up with scientific knowledge. The genetics revolution has decisively overturned the dated belief that all humans are created with equal potential, a tabula rasa, or blank slate, for experience and culture to write upon. Acknowledging human biodiversity may approach a danger zone, but pretending that there are no slippery questions does not prevent them from being asked, if only under one’s breath.

Taboo is not so much a sports book as it is a cultural and historical account, warts and all, of how western culture has understood what it means to be human. It debunks facile theories of race that have been used for hundreds of years to justify racism and even genocide. Most important, it shatters stereotypes that blacks or whites or any racial group are innately “superior” or “inferior.” This is a book about the rich diversity of life, free of the myths of “ranking” that have plagued Western thought for centuries. That’s the message of Taboo; for the most part, it is being heard.

“Entine understands the reasons Blacks lash out against the determination theory, knows that whatever White America gives to Black athletes in terms of athletic superiority, it takes from their mental abilities,” wrote Carolyn White of Emerge magazine. “Great athletes, dumb jocks. And the stereotype, suggests Entine, is probably the single most important reason people have problems debating the issue.”

Human beings are different. Although it should never be far from anyone’s mind that white fascination with black physicality has long framed this issue, it’s more than clear that the stereotype that blacks make better athletes than whites is neither wrong nor racist.

The major criticism, by well-meaning blacks and whites, is ‘why even take up this subject’? The answer is that we have no choice. Censorship and the invocation of a taboo on issues of human diversity, biological and cultural, are not viable options. Limiting the rhetorical use of folk categories such as race, an admirable goal, is not going to make the patterned biological variation on which they are based disappear. The question is no longer whether these inquiries will continue but in what manner and to what end.

If we do not welcome the impending genetic revolution with open minds, if we are scared to ask and to answer difficult questions, if we lose faith in science, then there is no winner; we all lose. Science is a skeptical endeavor. It is a method of interrogating reality, a cumulative process of testing new and more refined explanations, not an assertion of dry, unalterable facts. It is a way of asking questions, not of imposing answers. The challenge is in whether we can conduct the debate so that human diversity might be cause for celebration of our individuality rather than serving as fodder for demagogues.

If decent people don’t discuss this subject,” writes George Mason professor Walter E. Williams, an African American, in an admiring review in The American Enterprise magazine, “we concede the turf to black and white racists.”