February 13 , 2000
Chicago Sun-Times

Color Commentary

by Rick Telander, Sun-Times Columnist

The NBA All-Star Game will be played in Oakland, Calif., today, and it should be a rousing affair, considering nobody plays defense in these games and the league's top 13 scorers are involved.

But the game also will display evidence of a continuing trend in the NBA and many other elite sports, as well—the overriding dominance of the black athlete.

All 10 starters for the East and West squads are African Americans. And of the 14 reserves, only creaky, 37 1/2-year-old John Stockton is white.

Who cares, you say? In a perfect world, no one would. Nor would anyone notice.

But we don't live in such a world.

Race, ethnicity, religion, skin color—all matter more than we want them to, more than we know how to explain. It is into this world that Jon Entine, an award-winning journalist and former Emmy-winning television producer with NBC and ABC News, brings forth his incendiary book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It. Why is Taboo incendiary?

Because Entine openly states—with an incredible amount of hand-wringing and apologizing to anyone whose feelings may be hurt—that athletes descended from African roots are, at least at the elite level, far better athletes than those from Europe, Asia or anywhere else.

And the reason those athletes dominate far beyond their numbers in society is not simply because of greater desire, training or effort than their lighter-skinned counterparts—although Entine readily admits desire, training and effort are hugely important—but because of evolutionary advantages.

"The decisive variable [in sports dominance] is in our genes—the inherent differences between populations shaped over many thousands of years of evolution," Entine writes. "Physical and physiological differences, infinitesimal as they may appear to some, are crucial in competitions in which a fraction of a second separates the gold medalist from the also-ran."

Uh-oh. Here we are in Al Campanis land, Jimmy the Greek terrain, Marlon Brando gibberish-ville.

It is such a dangerous thing to make firm statements regarding genetic differences in groups of humans that it takes either a fool or a very self-certain, research-documented trailblazer to do so.

Entine would like to believe he is the latter, and if we ever could put away our phobic passion about this matter, we might tend to agree.

The truth is, Entine is not a mad eugenicist or even a warped libertarian scholar such as Richard Herrnstein or Charles Murray, who co-wrote the infamous 1994 examination of class and intelligence, The Bell Curve. Entine, basically, is a liberal who believes in tolerance, understanding and empathy, but who feels compelled to document what he believes is scientifically manifest.

He says again and again that learning the truth about ourselves as people—even if it means acknowledging differences—ultimately will bring us closer together.

"This book uses sport as metaphor," he writes, "to examine why blacks and whites have such a difficult time acknowledging our differences—the first and most important step in bridging them."

But we don't have trouble acknowledging certain variations and proclivities in races—skin color, hair type, medical dissimilarities such as sickle cell anemia, osteoporosis or skin cancer, even height, weight and eye color. What bothers us is making any delineation that even subliminally suggests that one group is superior to another.

And that is a valid concern, for too many times in our history physical differences in groups have been used to make pronouncements about one group's supposed deficiency in intelligence, spiritual development or even closeness to God.

In other words, we have every reason to be wary about books such as Taboo.

But we have every reason to listen, too.

"Blacks—physically in many cases—are made better. Does anyone really question that?"

That's not Entine speaking. That's America's greatest track star, Carl Lewis.

The point is, there is kind of an on-the-field understanding of everything Entine researches, even if there is deep reluctance to discuss it in the mainstream media.

"White Men Can't Jump," was the winking/joshing name of a movie about street basketball, but it also is a phrase that every playground hoopster knows to be true.

Entine addresses the aspects of speed, explosiveness, jumping ability and endurance that come out of the African heritage. All the men's track world records—all 15 of them from the 100-meter dash through the 400-meter relay to the steeplechase and marathon—are held by athletes of African descent.

But Entine also notes something that is little addressed—Africa itself has more variety in people than any continent or populace. And in running, Africans are more diverse than all other people on the globe: "West Africa is the ancestral home of the world's top sprinters and jumpers; North Africa turns out the top middle-distance runners; and East Africa is the world distance-running capital."

So what do we make of this?

Reviews of Taboo have been as uptight as anything, with reviewers figuratively holding the book the way an exterminator might hold a spraying skunk.

"Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid," is how USA Today titled its review.

"Even if valid," Robert Lipsyte wrote in the New York Times, "[Entine's work] would have no real purpose except to give management another evaluating tool." Entine's research was "simultaneously silly and dangerous."

Entine "underplays the political and cultural land mines underlying the discussion," Paul Ruffins wrote in a Washington Post review that ran in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Wow. Is that what happens when someone ventures brazenly and passionately into the minefield of race relations and population differences in this world?

Don't tell me of the danger of such exploits gone awry. I have a 1975 book titled, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, written by A.R. Butz, then an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Northwestern. The book "proves" that the Holocaust never happened.

"The thesis of this book is that the story of Jewish extermination in World War II is a propaganda hoax," Butz wrote in his heavily footnoted tome.

Is Taboo just another malevolent piece of screed masquerading as scientific fact? I don't think so.

But I would ask each person who takes the time to read this book to ask himself, What does this mean to me and my own views of mankind? And I would hope each person's answer is: Didn't God make us with a flourish?

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