April 25, 2000

Black men can jump...and sprint and run long distances faster than anyone else. Why? Despite theracist overtones, one white author argues it's genetic superiority.


Daily Herald Staff Writer

We know some thoughts should remain unspoken. "Isn't it strange how many Native Americans have a problem with alcohol?" "Asians really are good at math, aren't they? Even if statistics and studies back up our observations, we feel guilty mentioning them. Black athletic superiority is near the top of the forbidden list.

Even if statistics and studies back up our observations, we feel guilty mentioning them. Black athletic superiority is near the top of the forbidden list. After all, look what happened to the late TV gambling maven Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, who tried - albeit ungracefully - to address black supremacy on the field. "The black is a better athlete because he's been bred to be that way," Snyder said one fateful January evening in 1988. "During slave trading, the slave owner would breed his big woman so that he would have a big black kid, see. That's where it all started."

The reaction was swift and merciless. For his tipsy candor, Snyder was immediately fired and banished from the public eye. He died years later lonely and bitter about his exile.

Subsequently, the issue of black dominance in many sports has become a two-ton elephant in the room that everyone tries to ignore. But Jon Entine has dared to dissect the subject of black athleticism in his book, Taboo.

After analyzing what seems like a mountain of data, Entine comes to a controversial conclusion: Blacks are genetically predisposed toward success in several sports, such as basketball, football, marathon running, track and soccer.

"What I've written is the most uncontroversial issue in the science world," Entine says, noting the dominance of Kenyans in marathon races. "It's only become controversial because of the political and racial echoes that you raise."

Some in the black community support Entine's meticulously researched work. "My initial reaction when I saw the title was, 'Uh-oh, here we go again,'" says Gary Sailes, editor of The Journal of the African American Male and associate professor of sports sociology at Indiana University. "But after reading the book and meeting Jon, I'm very comfortable with the book. It is not racist to acknowledge science."

Others, however, are not so complimentary. "Jon is dead wrong," says Harry Edwards, a black professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. "The book is silly. The idea of race-linked, biogenetic-based excellence is a palpable myth. You can no more tell who is going to be a great athlete by racial heritage than you can tell who is going to be a great pianist by the space between their thumb and pinkie."

Do the evolution

Entine, a 47-year old former TV producer, became interested in this subject 11 years ago when he worked with Tom Brokaw on a award-winning documentary titled "Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction." He revisited the idea in "Taboo," although he knew the book might cause trouble for him."I thought it might be a career-ender," says Entine, who lived in Chicago from 1977 to 1983.

In the end, he decided that keeping mum about the subject only perpetuates the mythical "inverse proportion between athletic ability and intelligence," he says.

"Frankly, I think not talking about it is what's caused racism," he says. Entine's basic point is simple: Blacks and whites (and Asians) have evolved differently. Some of these evolutionary differences lend themselves to success in sports. He cites convincing circumstantial evidence - runners of African descent hold the record for every major running event, from 100 meters to the marathon.

Every one of the top 200 times in the 100-meter dash, all under 10 seconds, are held by athletes with West African heritage. Meanwhile, no white or Asian runners have ever run the race in less than 10 seconds.

At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Kenyan runners won the races of 800, 1,500, and 5,000 meters, as well as the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Based on population percentages alone, the odds of that occurring would be one in 1.6 billion, Entine calculates.

Ken Blazek, head boys track coach at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, doesn't have any doubts about the controversy. "You look at African-American athletes, and for the most part, they tend to be the Faster sprinters," he says. "The times back that up. It's been scientifically proven."

Racial diversity shouldn't be surprising, considering the cultural, physiological and geographical differences between groups of people, Entine says.

"To evolve different physiological types is very uncontroversial in the science world," he says.

And, Entine notes, this equation doesn't always favor blacks. Whites are geared for success in some sports, too. Forty-six of the top 50 hammer-throwing distances were achieved by Eurasian whites, he notes.

Different is different

Entine backs up his points with studies dating back to 1928, which have consistently found differences between black and white athletes: Blacks with a West African ancestry generally have smaller chest cavities, higher centers of gravity, longer arm spans, and higher percentages of fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Considering the premium placed on certain skills in sports - quickness and leaping ability in basketball, speed in football, etc. - it's only natural that these physiological differences would produce tangible results on the playing field, Entine argues. (That is, if the individual backs up this genetic advantage with a strong work ethic, Entine emphasizes.)

The problem arises when racist stereotypes get affixed to empirical facts. Such as: if a black athlete is said to be naturally gifted, the implication is that he's not smart, or that he hasn't had to work hard for his success. "The taboo is based on the fact that people think being physically gifted is somehow tethered to being intellectually inferior," Entine says.

For years, Entine said, blacks were considered both intellectually and physically inferior to whites. But when Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, the prevailing belief changed. Because of his awesome performance, blacks could no longer be considered physically secondary. So the belief changed, and the "athlete=savage" notion was born: Blacks were naturally gifted athletically, the dominant paradigm went, but that's because they were closer to animals.

When boxer Joe Louis was pummeling his opponents in the mid-1930s, for example, sportswriters called him a "bushmaster" and "brown cobra" who possessed the "instinctive speed of the wild." After Louis knocked out Primo Carnera, one writer began his story, "Something sly and sinister and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle last night to strike down and utterly demolish the huge hulk that had been Primo Carnera, the giant."

Entine says this line of thought is strictly an American phenomenon: "When I was in Kenya, and they talked about blacks being natural athletes, they didn't take it offensively at all," he says. "They were proud of it because of the British tradition of the scholar-athlete. So natural athlete was just a sense of admiration of the athletic abilities of that individual. Nowhere did it imply that they didn't work hard for it."

Was Jimmy right?

Given that other physical qualities are acknowledged to be race-based, saying blacks are genetically predisposed toward success shouldn't present a problem, Entine says. "Chances are, a Scandinavian is more likely to have blond hair and blue eyes than a Mexican," he says. "So to say that a Scandinavian is more likely to have blond hair and blue eyes shouldn't be considered any more racist than it would be to say that the chances are that a fast runner or a great jumper is going to be of West African ancestry." Entine notes, however, that Snyder was incorrect in his awkwardly stated theory that blacks were athletically superior because of breeding during slavery.

"I actually thought Jimmy the Greek was right when I started my research," Entine says. "I thought, 'I'm going to be brave on this and say Jimmy the Greek was right.' But the research told me, for one, that 70 percent of slaves were in one- and two- and three-person slave households, meaning there wasn't this huge pool of people to inter-breed them with. So there was no breeding going on."

Bring on the critics

Despite its controversial subject, "Taboo" has received laudatory reviews from people like Sailes of Indiana University. "We are genetically different," he notes. "If you were to put an African-American guy next to a white guy, you'd see some differences. Do these things have an impact on performance? Only an idiot would say no. It might sound racist to say this impacts performance, but it's not. There's nothing wrong with that."

Agrees Henry Harpending, a professor of anthropology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City: "If I ask my grandfather or grandmother if there are race differences and if they affect athletic ability, they'd say, 'Of course.'" He continues, "We've gone through this doublespeak of saying there are no differences between races. But there are. Why should scientists have the responsibility to lie because it makes people feel better?"

Not everyone, however, has been so positive. "Entine's book carries implications of a lack of competitiveness and discipline as far as African-Americans are concerned," Edwards says angrily from Berkeley. "And to that extent, it reinforces myths about African-Americans being more instinctual, animalistic, and less inclined toward intellectual and moral development."

Yet Entine's book - which has "crypto-Nazi" leanings, Edwards says - also performs a favor for society. "Jon Entine's book gives us the opportunity to reflect upon the fact that these highly virulent, racist notions - backed up by pseudo-scientific nonsense from the 18th and 19th centuries - are still out there, and from time to time, find fertile ground in which to grow and sprout," Edwards says. "I think Jon has stumbled and staggered into doing a great service to the nation, as wrong as he is."

What about the black dominance in some sports? There are almost no white cornerbacks in the NFL, for example, and few standout white wide receivers. Why do we see so few whites at positions that require breakaway speed? "For the same reason that you see very few black airline pilots," Edwards says. "It's not that we can't fly the planes. It's that socio-cultural circumstances and opportunities limit our prospects."

Another detractor, Jonathan Marks, also teaches at Berkeley. "It's a bunch of fluffy mush," says Marks, who teaches biological anthropology at the University of California. The problem with Entine's book, Marks says, is that it's impossible to remove external variations from the equation.

"You can't take any of this stuff outside of the political, social, and historical context," Marks says. "So you can't make generalized scientific conclusions about the biology in isolation."

When asked about black dominance in the major sports, Marks says, "I don't want to be in the position of saying why blacks dominate the NBA. Or I know why one kid becomes a surgeon, and another becomes a guard for the Detroit Pistons. That's not a scientific question, that's astrology. "But I do know that expectations and self-image of black and white kids in America are quite different, and it's quite possible to make your expectations into self-fulfilling prophecies."

Marks also agrees with Edwards' assertion that people usually end up in careers they're pointed toward as youth. He cites the prevalence of Jewish boxers like Louis "Kid" Kaplan and Benny Leonard during the early 1900s. "Where are the great Jewish boxers of today?" Marks asks, noting Jews have greater opportunities now than they used to. "They're in medical school." Entine has resigned himself to such criticism, but he says many people are missing the point of his work.

"Some people ask me, 'How are you going to ensure that people don't call you a racist?' And I say, 'I can't do a thing for people like that.' Twenty percent of the people believe the Holocaust didn't happen. I think it falls into that category."