MAXWELL:  The Game in Black and White

2/6/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


At long last, someone has the guts to tell it like it is. Actually, Jimmy the Greek, late of ABC News, told it like it is years ago and was canned. The it is the fact that African-American athletes as a group are naturally superior to white and other athletes _ or so claims former NBC and ABC journalist and Emmy Award -winning producer Jon Entine in his book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It. (Public Affairs, $25)

In 400 pages of easy-to-read prose, Entine uses the most recent findings in evolution and genetic science, including the heralded Human Genome Project, to explain why blacks run faster, jump higher and last longer, and why, for example, the best running backs, wide receivers and cornerbacks are black. Although Taboo will delight racists and mortify those such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, who argue that race does not exist, Entine has done the world a great service by breaking the silence on a topic that makes nearly everyone run for cover.

Racists will be disappointed, though, that Entine refuses to link physical prowess and intellectual ability.

Anyone who watches sports even casually has at one time or another wondered why blacks dominate. Is the reason environment? Or is it physiology? While acknowledging the importance of environmental factors, Entine pulls no punches in arguing why blacks, descendants of West and East Africa, are endowed with superior athleticism.

“There is extensive and persuasive evidence that elite black athletes have phenotypic advantage _ a distinctive skeletal system and musculature, metabolic structures, and other characteristics forged over tens of thousands of years of evolution,” Entine argues. “Preliminary research suggests that different phenotypes are at least partially encoded in the genes _ conferring genotypic differences, which may result in an advantage in some sports.”

What gives a Jerry Rice or Michael Jordan the advantages of power, quickness and explosiveness? We are not talking about impressions of advantages in some sports but about quantifiable advantages.

For answers, Entine turns to research: “Blacks with a West African ancestry generally have: relatively less subcutaneous fat on arms and legs and proportionally more lean body and muscle mass, broader shoulders, larger quadriceps, and bigger, more developed musculature in general; smaller chest cavities; a higher center of gravity … faster patellar tendon reflex; greater body density … modest but significantly higher levels of plasma testosterone … which is anabolic, theoretically contributing to greater muscle mass, lower fat, and the ability to perform at a higher level of intensity with quicker recovery; a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscles and more anaerobic enzymes, which can translate into more explosive energy.”

In addition to being an analysis of performance research, Taboo is a powerful history of African-Americans in sports itself. The reader is taken on a logical journey from the highlands of Kenya to the sandlots of Southern California to the Olympic Games in Atlanta. Familiar faces _ Jackie Robinson, Wilma Rudolph, Jack Johnson, Arthur Ashe _ are given human context.

Entine tosses out the canard that a lack of opportunity in other fields accounts for black athleticism. Only outsiders believe such nonsense, he argues. Most athletes, even whites, believe blacks are naturally dominant and dismiss the sociological arguments.

“I work camps in the summertime with white kids,” NBA forward Christian Laettner told Entine. “The white kids are still trying as hard as they’ve ever tried. They’re probably trying now harder. The players who tend to be really athletic and really good once you get to the higher levels, more and more it seems to be the black group. That’s just the way it is.”

And Lebanese-born Rony Seikaly: “The black players are superior. No doubt. I go to Lebanon in the summer, and we have pickup games, and there’s this one eighteen-year-old Nigerian playing in the Lebanese league who can touch his head to the rim. It’s amazing, (blacks’) athletic ability. They’re built, they’re buffed. We work out to get a body like that, and they come out just naturally gifted.”

Thanks to Entine, the genie is out the bottle, and the debate about race and athleticism will never be the same.

Bill Maxwell, who was a college football player and amateur boxer, is a Times staff writer.