Addressing Tough Questions: African American Athletes, Sport, and Genetics

Earl Smith, Ph.D.

Ernest Rubin Distinguished Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Chairman, Department of Sociology, Wake Forest University

In the United States, a country obsessed with sports, race and athletics are inextricably linked. But it is a subject that is often difficult to discuss because of our long and deeply antagonistic racial history. All of us–professional scientists, weekend-end sports enthusiasts, athletes, coaches, and even "soccer moms," may wonder why Jon Entine, a journalist, has jumped into these stormy waters? Collectively we may also ask: "why this particular topic at this point in time?" Is there some way to take on such tough questions, especially by someone who is White, and not be labeled a racist? I definitely think so.

Jon breaks with the stereotypes of nineteenth-century racial discourse that represented African Americans as a race of physical bodies (athletes) without minds or spirits. He has skillfully rekindled the burning questions of the innate physical abilities of African American athletes that have been the focus of speculation, research and scholarship for more than 100 years.

Most importantly, though Taboo: Why Blacks Dominate Sports And Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It? opens the possibility for concrete dialogue. It will cause people to think. It allows for professional disagreements. I have convened a panel of experts for a professional society meeting to discuss it and have had numerous opportunities to engage Jon in many a varied discussion about the book. Overall, the book has prompted me to reconsider the types of questions I now ask myself, especially those that were once deeply recessed in my mind. What accounts for athletic superiority, real or imaginary? Why, for example, is every finalist in the elite Olympic 100-meters dash (or 400 meters for that matter) of African origin?

Over two decades ago, in 1978, the eminent Harvard University sociologist William J. Wilson was lambasted by his peers–both African American and White–for writing a book entitled The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. Wilson’s thesis that social class had become more important in determining the life-chances of African Americans than were issues related to race (e.g., mobility through different class strata), was a bold, new, and extremely unpopular perspective, especially so coming from an African American scholar . Critics churned out books and essays while professional societies and university campuses convened panel discussions.

What struck me most were the tenor of the public denouncement, a high pitched rancor, and the source of the loudest denouncements, a group of African American sociologists. "The Association of Black Sociologists is outraged over the misrepresentation of the black experience," read the widely-circulated critique. "We are also disturbed over the policy implications that may derive from this work and that, given the nature of American society, are likely to set in motion equally objectionable trends in funding, research and training." Yet, looking back, William J. Wilson’s analysis, considered controversial at the time, proved to have been right.

I will argue that Jon’s book will take it’s place in historical scholarship, but as with the Wilson book, it may have to wait years before full assessments are realized.

According to opinion polls, this is a topic that most North Americans are interested in. I suspect that many will be curious. The distance between journalistic inquiry and scholarly research has received much attention. It is a sort of "Two Cultures" debate, rooted in the notion that a journalist cannot and should not tackle difficult subjects. Why? They don’t have the time to do the necessary research for good, solid analysis. This is not true in this case. Jon has not rushed his subject and he has certainly done the research.

Taboo argues that different populations, be they 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. African American athletes dominate in North American sports because they are able to run faster, jump higher, and perform some incredible feats that athletes’ from other racial or ethnic groups can not. Is this the primary reason that Michael Jordan became the best basketball player in the world? Or, is Jordan the best because he has an insatiable work ethic? Jon’s book forces us to re-think such questions. Hopefully, it will contribute to finally putting to rest the long torturous stereotype of the "dumb black jock." For sure, this distorted view of African American athletes does not apply to Michael Jordan!

People are attracted to simple cause/affect relationships. Yet it does not work that way in life or sports. Since this is the case, the public should ask for more from journalists, researchers, and scholars. Hopefully, Taboo does not mark the end of the dialogue, but acts as a stimulus to new research. In particular, I would like to see addressed the origins–the etiology–of African American athletic domination. At what point did a despised, segregated people come to "dominate" many North American individual and team sports? My suspicion is that if African American athletic domination exists at all, it began with the destruction of the high walls of segregation in sports.

In rummaging through old magazines, I came across a Sports Illustrated that pictured the start of an Olympic 100-meter dash. It showed only the athletes’ feet wearing Nike, Adidas, and Puma running shoes. In viewing such a picture I often wonder: "why are all the feet are black?" Anyone seriously interested in knowing about the "double edged sword" of athletic achievement for African American athletes need look no further than Jon’s book. If nothing else, Taboo: Why Blacks Dominate Sports And Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It? will make it possible to more openly discuss this issue.

Earl Smith
October 1999

Return to Top