February 10, 2000
Local Author Tackles Taboo Subject: Race and Sports
by Robert Leiter
Have you ever wondered why the National Football League is 70 percent African-American and almost 90 percent of the players in the National Basketball Association are black?
Author and former Emmy Award winning TV producer Jon Entine not only wondered why, he worked scrupulously to find an answer, and its provided in his new book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It, published by Public Affairs.
It may not, however, be the answer that many people want to hear, for various reasons, all of which the author has explored. In a recent interview, Entine, who is Jewish and was raised in the Cheltenham area, noted that any mention of race skews a discussion ? whether it deals with intelligence or athletics. People insist that once this territory is entered, a slippery slope has been reached?one that invokes the Nazis and race science.
"These people don1t want to believe our genes tell us what to do, in any way," Entine said. "In the nature/nurture controversy, they want to believe that culture and personal relationships have much more to do with it."
But, according to Entine, there is no controversy over these issues in the world of science. "Scientists accept it as true that genes are determining factors in athletic ability," the author said. "I quote one scientist in the book to the effect that you have to be almost brain dead not to recognize and acknowledge that there are physiological and genetic differences among people."
However, he added, scientists tend to view race in a more complex way than those in the social sciences. "And they do not consider nature and nurture to be independent of one another," he said. "It1s just not the politically correct thing to say."
Entine makes a point to distinguish between measures of intelligence and athletic ability. "To begin with, intelligence isnt just one thing; its many things," he said. "But only one person finishes first in a race. And winning it has a great deal to do with how your skeletal structure and muscles are composed, your lung capacity. People of West African ancestry are more likely to have a body type and physiology to run faster and jump higher than most other people. And East Africans have the best bodies for endurance running. Asians, on the other hand, happen to have more flexible body types, so they excel at gymnastics, ice skating and diving.
"In evolutionary terms, West Africans were also more insulated than other people on the continent and other populations throughout the world, and so have a more common gene pool. Environment and culture, in fact, becomes embedded in the genes. You cannot bifurcate culture and genetics. All genetic changes are the result of environmental adaptations."
The search for a smoking gun One of the problems in dealing with this issue, in Entines opinion, is the popular search for a "smoking gun," or so-called specific athletic genes. "But there is no smoking gun, just as there is no smoking gun to prove the theory of relativity," he said. "All the scientific and anecdotal evidence are in accord. The lessons of population genetics is that humans are wonderfully diverse, biologically and culturally."
According to Entine, the great concern is that once you start talking about differences in people, there will always arise those who will use the data for their twisted purposes, to prove that one race is "superior" or "inferior" to another. "Its a minefield," Entine said. "So I took a year to after writing the book and I sent it to scientists. I was trying to ensure that I was clearly and calmly conveying the science, and putting it into political and social context. What has heartened me is that the African-American response has been remarkably positive. This is a direct attack on stereotypes."
"There are, of course, some negative associations with blacks and sports, as if being athletically gifted implies something is missing between the ears," comments Entine. "For hundreds of years, blacks have been subjected by some to the racist belief that they are more animalistic and, so, less intelligent. But thats ridiculous. We can appreciate our differences without ranking people."
"The taboo in discussing these issues is actually enforced by whites, most of whom are liberal," he says. "They are almost patronizingly protective of blacks. But I find that blacks have been celebrating the message of diversity in the book. And it must be remembered, although population genetics might help explain some patterns we see in sports success, it says nothing about the success of any individuals. Thats all about individual initiative, drive, and the intelligence of that athlete."
A good example of how race colors the discussion of sports can be seen in terms of Jews, blacks and basketball in Philadelphia, which Entine discusses in one chapter of the book. "For a time in the 1930s with the SPHAs, Jews dominated basketball in the city," the author noted. "People then said [that] once things opened up for Jews, they left basketball behind, because they were smart and didnt need it anymore as a way out of the ghetto. But the truth is that social changes explain only part of the story. Jews and whites in general found themselves less competitive as blacks came in and changed the game. The skill level shot up. Its not that Jews were smarter and went on to other things. And it1s not that blacks have stayed in basketball because theyre less intelligent than Jews; its because theyre so good at what they do."
Entine said that if there is a theme to his book, it is this: "Let us acknowledge human diversity and respect peoples1 differences without implying inferiority or superiority."