Is there a genetic reason that African-Americans dominate professional sports? Even raising the question seems tantamount to heresy. Jon Entine not only raises the question, he strives to answer it in Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It
Entine is no stranger to controversy, having worked with Tom Brokaw on the award-winning NBC News documentary Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction in 1989. He's also willing to ask tough questions--and come up with answers that anger people on all sides of the issue. Entine starts off with some statistics indicating that African-American athletes are disproportionately represented in professional sports: for example, 13 percent of the U.S. population is black, but the NFL is 65 percent black, the NBA is nearly 80 percent black, and the WNBA is 70 percent black. He also examines cultural issues, laying to rest the long-held idea that blacks excel in sports because it is the only avenue open for advancement.
Some scholars cry foul at the idea that blacks are physically gifted, seeing this as a subtle way of saying that they are therefore intellectually stunted. Entine carefully argues that historically athletic ability and intellectual prowess were linked--with a positive bias. The "dumb jock" stereotype is a relatively recent construct--perhaps a defensive mechanism that arose when blacks began to participate on a level playing field and gain prominence in the sporting world. There's no reason to suppose athleticism and intelligence are inversely related; Entine quotes respected sports reporter Frank Deford: "[W]hen Jack Nicklaus sinks a 30-foot putt, nobody thinks his IQ goes down." The issue of physical superiority is further complicated by fears that a genetic explanation results in a belief that blacks don't succeed because of hard work, dedication, and drive, but rather (in the words of Brooks Johnson, who doesn't believe Entine's claims) "because God just gave 'em the right gene."
Is the fear of sounding racist hindering legitimate scientific inquiry? Entine believes so, noting that, "Anyone who attempts to breach this taboo to study or even discuss what might be behind the growing performance gap between black and white athletes must be prepared to run a gauntlet of public scorn, survival not guaranteed." Taboo is destined to make most of its readers uncomfortable. Hopefully this discomfort will serve as a wedge to open up discussion of an issue too long avoided. --Sunny Delaney
Few issues are as provocative and as poorly understood as biological differences among the races. So loaded are statements suggesting racial superiority or inferiority that, for the most part, an anxious hush surrounds the topic. To his credit, journalist Jon Entine has tackled this problem with a no-holds-barred assault. Not shy about poking at the issue's softest spots, he goes after the history of sports and race science, the segregation and integration of sports, racial breeding and eugenics, sports and IQ, and the emergence of the black female athlete. Entine has put together a well-researched, relatively thorough and lucidly written case, arguing that in many sports-particularly basketball, football, and track and field-athletes of African descent show a competitive advantage. He opens Taboo with the firm conclusion that "to the degree that it is a purely scientific debate, the evidence of black superiority in athletics is persuasive and decisively confirmed on the playing field. Elite athletes who trace most or all of their ancestry to Africa are by and large better than the competition." While acknowledging that success in sports is a "bio-social phenomenon," he asserts that "there is extensive and persuasive research that elite black athletes have a phenotypic advantage-a distinctive skeletal system and musculature, metabolic structures, and other characteristics forged over tens of thousands of years of evolution. While people of African descent have spent most of their evolutionary history near to where they originated, the rest of the world's populations have had to modify their African adaptations after migrating to far different regions and climates." Entine adds that "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." Such differences are, of course, mediated by experience, from prenatal health to education. In other words, environment and culture can amplify or diminish tiny genetic variations. Considering the variance within each geographic, racial and ethnic population, such differences "may appear minuscule, but at the elite level, they are the stuff of champions." To support this biocultural theory, Entine supplies a wealth of anecdotal information. For example, he notes that although Asians constitute 57 percent of the world's population, they make up a small fraction of professional runners, soccer players or basketball players. In contrast, whereas persons of sub-Saharan African ancestry comprise 12 percent of the world's six billion people, they disproportionately represent the top athletes in those sports requiring running, jumping and endurance. During the 1960s, the National Basketball Association's racial breakdown stood at roughly 80 percent white and 20 percent black; today that proportion has nearly reversed. In fact, a black male has a one-in-4,000 chance of playing in the NBA, compared with a white male's one-in-90,000 chance. Meanwhile, among professional women's basketball players, 70 percent are African-American. In the National Football League, 65 percent of players are black. In college sports, 60 percent of male basketball players and nearly half of all football players are African-American. In track and field, nearly every men's world record belongs to an athlete of African descent-including the top 15 world running records (ranging from 100 meters to the marathon). Such talent, Entine maintains, originates disproportionately in three African regions: the West African coast, North Africa and East Africa. To contrast physiological differences between populations from (or originally from) these regions and European populations, he offers descriptive data from sports anthropologists, exercise physiologists and genetic epidemiologists. Indeed, scientists have identified physical attributes that are more common to West Africans and East Africans than to Europeans, ones that might provide an edge in sprint and endurance exercises. These include a lower percentage of body fat, a higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers, a greater capillary-to-muscle fiber ratio, and a superior resistance to fatigue during high-intensity endurance activities that is associated with a higher muscle oxidative capacity and with lower plasma lactate accumulation. Entine does not examine the data on these findings closely, however. And he leaves a number of questions unanswered. Precisely how did these differences originate? The matter of temporal sequencing proves critical-that is, whether rigorous training precedes physiological adaptation (such as changes in oxidative capacity and fatigue resistance) or whether the capacity for tough training reflects a predisposing genetic endowment. Moreover, whether or not such differences are "racial" also remains unclear. And if they are racially related, do they primarily account for the dominance of black athletes in elite competitions? Furthermore, can we generalize data on black Africans to black Americans, given that black Americans have a more diverse gene pool? For example, it is unclear whether data comparing Scandinavian and East African distance runners can be extrapolated to black and white American athletes. Another troublesome question is whether Entine's use of black individuals to support generalizations about black populations is valid-particularly if those individuals are not representative of their "race." Thwarting Stereotypes Despite the questions that are left hanging, Entine's emphasis on open dialogue regarding racial differences is noteworthy. He acknowledges that even to write a book about black athleticism means to probe at a wound: "Given all the controversy involved in addressing such a potentially divisive issue, it is worth asking why it even matters whether blacks are better athletes. It's a fair question and there isn't a short and simple answer. Taboo does its best to understand both the question and the skeptics." As such, he calls the book "self-referential," grappling with "the issue of whether it should have been written at all, considering America's troubling racial history." A key motivation for the book, Entine says, is to thwart stereotypes. Despite decades of social progress, "sport remains a haven for some of our most virulent stereotypes. Taboo is out to do some damage to these prejudices. It was written in the optimistic belief that open debate beats backroom scuttlebutt." Among the most sinister stereotypes is the notion of "the dumb jock"-the idea that athletic prowess implies lesser intelligence. Taboo points out that, historically, brilliant black athletic feats are often associated with "natural" talent, rather than intelligence, dedication or skill. In contrast, weak performance is associated with intrinsic black mental or moral inferiority. To underscore his motivation for writing Taboo, Entine says that "the question is no longer whether these inquiries will continue but in what manner and to what end. Caricaturing population genetics as pseudo-science just devalues legitimate concerns about how this information will be put to use. If we do not welcome the impending onslaught of genetic and anthropological data with open minds, if we are scared to ask and to answer difficult questions, if we lose faith in science, then there is no winner; we all lose." Entine uses sports, he explains, merely as a metaphor to examine why discussions of racial differences are so uncomfortable. The challenge lies in whether "we can conduct the debate so that human diversity might be cause for celebration of our individuality rather than fanning distrust. After all, in the end, for all our differences, we are far, far more similar. That's Taboo's only real message." Ironically, the greatest strength of Entine's book-its single-minded focus and clarity-likewise yields its greatest weakness. Because Taboo takes the form of an argument-a case to be proved, rather than an inquiry-it has a polemical flavor. Instead of sifting through fragmented, conflicting data on the rise of black athletes in sports, Entine seeks to prove his case by presuming his conclusion is true, then supporting it with selected evidence. Such a "proof" would be reasonable, were it not for his claim of reliance on the "scientific method." It is a disingenuous claim. The book does not even attempt to examine a robust data set, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the information, or come to an evenhanded conclusion. Instead Entine chooses to spare his readers the ambiguities of robust data, which form the core of a scientific inquiry. Ultimately, the verdict is still out as to whether natural talent or hard work and determination account primarily for athletic prowess. The most probable answer is that they are inextricably linked. Rather than nature or nurture, the answer most likely lies in an interaction between the two. Entine's proposed biocultural theory offers an attractive explanation, suggesting that cultural conditions can amplify small but meaningful differences in performance related to heredity. Thus, inherited physiological differences may prove meaningless without rigorous training.
LORETTA DIPIETRO is an associate fellow at the John B. Pierce Laboratory and an associate professor of epidemiology and public health at the Yale University School of Medicine. She gratefully acknowledges Nina S. Stachenfeld of the John B. Pierce Laboratory for her valuable contributions to the review.