A topic no one wants to discuss?
'Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It'
February 1, 2000
(CNN) -- John Entine claims in his book that scientific research now definitively proves that blacks are better at most sports. So, he asks, why are whites so uncomfortable about it?
By The Numbers
More than twenty years after his retirement as a competitive runner, Brooks Johnson looks as fit as the day he last laced up his spikes. Lean and handsome, with a touch of gray at the temples, he looks more like a professor than a college running coach. On this day, the former Olympic and Stanford coach takes his athletes -- almost all of them are white -- through a demanding drill mixing fast bursts with relaxed jogging. Coach Johnson shouts encouragement as one runner after another throws his exhausted body over the finish line.
"I've been an Olympic coach twice," he muses as he reviews the lackluster times of his charges. "I've had Olympic champions, world-record holders. The big challenge left for me is to put these silly notions to rest. To rub their noses in it. I want to find the white Carl Lewis. That's my mission."
How could it be, Johnson is asked, that elite white sprinters are virtually extinct? "It's racism, pure and simple." He pauses. "But against whites." Johnson speaks with conviction but smiles impishly. It is not clear whether he believes his own words. "Whites are brainwashed to think that because I'm black, I'm going to be faster than you. That means that from the time you were a little kid, you were scared every time you saw me at the starting line, and that gives me an unbeatable edge."
Johnson is repeating a popular, if tired, refrain from the late 1960s, as the racial transformation brought about by desegregation rippled through America. Blacks began to dominate the most popular American sports, erasing once-and-for-all the Anglo-Saxon myth of white physical superiority. According to sociologists, in reaction, whites began to believe that they could not compete in certain sports. "The 'white race' thus becomes the chief victim of its own myth," wrote Harry Edwards in 1973.
By his own admission, Coach Johnson has become obsessed with disabusing people of what he believes is the silly notion that blacks are naturally superior athletes. He sighs, acknowledging for a moment the quixotic nature of his quest to find a white 100-meter champion. "I'm going to find him. In fact for every Carl Lewis, there are nine white Carl Lewises out there. I'm going to find one of them."
"Dear Brooks," wrote San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Scott Ostler when he heard of Johnson's comment, "Pack a lunch."
Biology Circumscribes Possibility
Simply stated, the opposing and incompatible claims that black athletic success can be explained by environmentalism or evolution are equally simplistic. Sports success is a bio-social phenomenon. 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.
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. But all such differences are mediated through experience, from our prenatal health to the educational opportunities while growing up. In other words, our environment and culture can enhance or diminish whatever tiny variations linked to evolution that may exist. Considering the wide variation within each geographic, racial, and ethnic population, such differences may appear minuscule, but at the elite level, they are the stuff of champions.
These inbred differences influence who does how well and in what sports. Asians, who constitute about 57 percent of the world's population, are virtually invisible in the most democratic of world sports, running, soccer, and basketball. The smallest of the major "races," those with sub-Saharan African ancestry, comprise approximately 12 percent of the world's 6 billion population, yet their hold on many sports, particularly running, is staggering. In the United States, 13 percent of the population is black. In the mid-1960s the racial breakdown in the National Basketball Association (NBA) was 80 percent white, 20 percent black; today it's almost exactly reversed. Women's pro basketball is 70 percent African American. The National Football League (NFL) is 65 percent black. In college, 60 percent of men's basketball players and nearly 50 percent of football players are African Americans.
Becoming a professional athlete is still a long-shot for aspiring teenagers, but it's a lot longer for whites. A black male would have about 1 chance in 4,000 of playing in the NBA, as compared to about a 1 in 90,000 shot for a white. And even as African Americans are abandoning baseball in droves for basketball and football, more than one-third of Major League Baseball and a higher percentage of the top stars are blacks from North and Latin America.
Even these eye-popping numbers grossly understate the trends. Check the NBA statistics: not one white player has finished among the top scorers or rebounders in recent years. White running backs, cornerbacks, or wide receivers in the NFL? Count them on one hand. Roll the calendar back decades, to the 1950s, to find the last time a white led baseball in steals. A white male toeing the line at an Olympic 100-meter final? Not in decades.* Don't expect to see a white man set a world record in a road race -- any race, at any distance from 100-meters to the marathon. It may happen. In some future decade. But don't hold your breath.
There is a new racial barrier in sports. Positions that require speed and jumping ability are almost exclusively black. In street parlance this phenomenon is blamed on a malady, virulently infectious but apparently limited to Caucasians -- white man's disease. "The NBA is perhaps the only arena of American life," opined sports writers Bob Ryan and Terry Pluto in their book "48 Minutes," "where to be white is to be immediately judged inferior. [It is] not necessary to have a Ph.D. in kinesiology to realize that the average black player can jump higher and run faster than the average white player."
Standing 5 feet, 7 inches tall in high-tops, former NBA guard Spud Webb used to dunk the ball in warm-ups. "Just to keep everybody honest," he would say. Even Mugsy Bogues, 5 feet, 3 inches short, can dunk. White players, many of whom line the bench, wonder what kind of future they have. "White people can't jump as high," sighs Scott Brooks, a white guard who bounced around the league in an undistinguished NBA career. Another itinerant guard, Jon Barry, son of Hall-of-Famer Rick Barry, believes he is the last of a "dying breed." Only the demand for mutant giants of any background is likely to forestall a near total washout of nonblacks in coming years.
This is a worldwide phenomenon. Black athletes are now stars in many western countries, from Europe to Asia. For example, tiny Senegal, population 8 million in a country the size of South Dakota, has seventeen citizens playing college basketball in the United States as of 1998. It has also sent dozens of athletes to play in professional basketball leagues in Greece, France, and Israel. In a nation with just one indoor basketball court, it is a triumph of natural talent and tremendous desire over almost insurmountable odds.
That familiar trend is readily apparent in the world's most popular team sport, soccer. Nigeria won the Olympic gold medal in 1996 and qualified two years later for the World Cup along with Cameroon, Tunisia, and South Africa. With the global hopscotching of top players, Africans have become fixtures in Europe's top clubs, even with sharp restrictions on signing foreign players. The Netherlands national team, which made it to the semifinals in the '98 World Cup, includes stars from Suriname, and is about one-third black. France, winner of the 1998 World Cup, has a large contingent of players of African descent, including Ghana-born Marcel Desailly, one of the heroes of the World Cup. Even in England, which was slow to allow foreigners and has a black population of less than 2 percent, 1 in 5 professional soccer players is black.
As the world playing field continues to level, natural abilities are more likely to come to the fore. The Japanese are disciplined and very competitive, yet because of their small stature -- a result of evolutionary forces -- they make better ice skaters, marathoners, and sumo wrestlers than basketball players or sprinters. Is it more than just cultural serendipity that Brazilians are time and again the best soccer players, the Chinese among the best divers, black Dominicans among the best baseball players, and African Americans the top basketball and football players? Clearly, "racial" patterns in sports do not lend themselves to a facile black and white explanation.
What About Baseball?
The relative dearth of black players in baseball -- about one in six major leaguers is African American -- is frequently cited as proof that blacks do not dominate sports. When a "racial report card" published a few years ago by Northeastern University's Center for The Study of Sport in Society noted that the percentage of black baseball players had fallen slightly, an outraged editorial entitled "A White Man's Place to Be" appeared in the New York Times. Warning of an imminent white takeover of the base paths, it expressed "renewed anxiety about the whiteness of players." It noted the sky-high black participation rates in other sports, then quoted a scout as predicting that "African Americans would soon disappear from the game."
In fact African Americans make up approximately 15 percent of top professionals, higher than their 13 percent of the general population. Americans so reflexively expect black domination that anything less than an NBA or NFL-sized black majority is taken as a sign of renewed discrimination -- against blacks. To invoke racism for a slight drop in the percentage of black players (the raw numbers have actually increased with expansion) shows how deeply the belief in black athletic superiority is ingrained in Americans, black and white.
The racial report card's numbers actually distort the racial trends. There are far more black players in baseball than ever before. Only 60 percent of Major League Baseball players are American-born whites, and the number is decreasing every year. Over the past twenty years, Hispanics, many of whom are black, have jumped from 8 to 24 percent of major leaguers. Today, well more than 40 percent of professional baseball players are black or Latin.
By the numbers, black Hispanic ballplayers are the most likely to make it to the big leagues, followed by players of mixed black and white heritage, then whites, with Mexicans (who, according to physical anthropologists, typically have shorter legs and are less muscular in the lower body than Caribbean blacks as a result of their Native Indian heritage) having the toughest time. The largely black Dominican Republic, which currently has more than seventy players in the major leagues, is a baseball hothouse.
Although the overall numbers of blacks in baseball do not approach those in football or basketball, the stars are disproportionately black. A "dream team" recently put together by USA Today sports writers included only one white among the position players. This phenomenon is not a recent development. In the fifty years since Jackie Robinson became the first black to be named Most Valuable Player (MVP), a black player has been chosen National League MVP thirty-two times. Since 1963, when Elston Howard of the New York Yankees became the first nonwhite named MVP in the American League, black players have won the honor eighteen times. A clear majority of MVP's are black. Whites are far more likely to be the marginal players filling out a roster.
Baseball historian Bill James, author of dozens of books on the statistical twists of his favorite sport, believes this trend is not a fluke. In an intriguing study conducted in 1987, he compared the careers of hundreds of rookies to figure out what qualities best predict who would develop into stars. He noted many intangible factors, such as whether a player stays fit or is just plain lucky. The best predictors of long-term career success included the age of the rookie, his defensive position as a determinant in future hitting success (e.g., catchers fare worse than outfielders), speed, and the quality of the player's team. But all of these factors paled when compared to the color of the player's skin.
"Nobody likes to write about race," James noted apologetically. "I thought I would do a [statistical] run of black players against white players, fully expecting that it would show nothing in particular or nothing beyond the outside range of chance, and I would file it away and never mention that I had looked at the issue at all."
James first compared fifty-four white rookies against the same number of black first-year players who had comparable statistics. "The results were astonishing," he wrote. The black players:
James compared Reggie Jackson, who began his career as a rightfielder with the Oakland Athletics in 1969, to Bob Allison, who broke in with a splash ten years before with the Washington Senators. A star running back in college, Allison was fast as lightning and strong to boot. The young centerfielder hit a solid .261, smacked a rookie-high 30 homers, knocked in 85 runs, scored almost as many, swiped 13 bases, and led the American League in triples. He also sparkled in centerfield.
Allison's rookie year was remarkably comparable to Jackson's (see Table 1). Like Allison, Jackson was a star football player. Both were speedsters. But while Jackson got better and better, Allison went into a long decline after a few fine seasons with the Minnesota Twins. By 1965, he had lost his speed and was splitting time between left field and first. A few years later, he was out of the game altogether. Meanwhile, Jackson played on five World Series teams, earning the moniker "Mr. October" before retiring into the Hall of Fame.
Flabbergasted at what he had found, James ran a second study using forty-nine black/white comparisons. Again, blacks proved more durable, retained their speed longer, and were consistently better hitters. For example, he compared Ernie Banks, a power hitting shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, and Bernie Allen, who broke in with Minnesota. They both reached the majors when they were twenty-three years old, were the same height and weight, and were considered equally fast. Over time, Allen bombed and Banks landed in the Hall of Fame.
Or contrast the careers of Gus Bell, who played mostly for Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and Hank Aaron of the Braves. In their early years, Bell was faster and comparable to Aaron as a slugger. But a few years along in their careers, Aaron was stealing 30-plus bases a year and gunning for Babe Ruth's all time homer record; Bell deteriorated into a part-timer with "wooden legs."
In an attempt to correct for possible bias, James compared players with comparable speed statistics such as the number of doubles, triples, and stolen bases. He ran a study that focused only on players who had little speed. He analyzed for "position bias" and made sure that players in the same eras were being compared. Yet every time he crunched the numbers, the results broke down along racial lines. When comparing home runs, runs scored, RBIs, or stolen bases, black players held the advantage a startling 80 percent of the time. "And I could identify absolutely no bias to help explain why this should happen," said James in disbelief.
James also compared white Hispanic rookies, whom he assumed faced an uphill battle similar to that for blacks, with comparable groups of white and black players. The blacks dominated the white Latinos by even more than they did the white North Americans, besting them in 19 of the 26 comparisons. Blacks played 62 percent more games, hit 192 percent more home runs, drove in 125 percent more runs, and stole 30 percent more bases.
So why have blacks become the stars in baseball far out of proportion to their relative numbers? James eventually concluded that there were only two possible explanations: "Blacks are better athletes because they are born better athletes, which is to say that it is genetic, or that they are born equal and become better athletes."
That whites dominate golf, rugby, or the America's Cup yacht race is hardly big news, considering the fact that English-speaking whites invented the sports. More remarkably, black athletes are coming to prominence even in sports in which, by culture, economics, or geography, they are unlikely participants. For example, bobsledding. As a young boy growing up in Memphis, Garrett Hines certainly never fantasized about running the chutes. He dreamed about being a professional basketball player, dunking hoops with Dr. J, or sliding past Magic Johnson for an easy layup. He was fast -- like lightning, he was told. Instead, of pursuing basketball, however, he ended up running high school track and playing football, eventually becoming a two-sport star at the Southern Illinois University. In 1992, after graduation, one of his college buddies decided to try out for the U.S. bobsled team. What the heck, Hines thought. So they piled into the car for the twenty-two-hour drive to Lake Placid to pursue their crazy whim.
When he and his friend pulled into town after a day-long drive, there was more snow than Hines had ever seen in his life. He went on to shock even himself by making the team as a pusher -- the second person in the two-man and one of the two runners in the four-man bobsled whose job it is to launch the sled careening down the mountain. "I was so scared I almost quit right there," he recalled thinking after his first training run.
Hines's journey from urban basketball junkie to star college athlete to Olympic bobsledder is not as improbable as it may appear. The most critical factor in bobsledding is the start. If it's explosive, it can give a two- or four-man team an edge that can sometimes overcome a lesser-quality sled or a bumpy ride. With quickness so critical, it makes sense that the most explosive contemporary athletes -- blacks who trace their ancestry to West Africa -- would be among the best bobsled pushers. As unlikely as it sounds, that notion is becoming true.
Six years after that harrowing practice run, in 1998, Hines mused over the twists of fate that had lifted him from the streets of Memphis to a mountaintop in Nagano, Japan. As he settled his nerves and prepared to hurtle down an ice-slick bobsled run at speeds topping 80 miles an hour, he glanced across at his Olympic teammate and fellow pushman Randy Jones, a former football and track star from Duke University, who now owns his own computer upgrading and repair company. Jones was the side-push and brakeman on the 1994 U.S. team and winner of three gold medals during 1996 and 1997 World Cup competitions. The two were attempting to become the first African American men to win a medal at the Winter Olympics. "I never imagined this," said Hines. "Not in a million years."
There is already a tradition of black bobsledders and lugers. In 1988, the U.S. bobsled team sought out two track Olympians: Edwin Moses, who was in the midst of a 16-year, 122-race streak as world-record holder in the 400-meter hurdles, and sprinter Willie Gault. Gault was selected but didn't compete. The British team also included several athletes of Caribbean heritage. The Calgary Winter Olympics also marked the quixotic debut of the "Cool Runners" from Jamaica. Egged on by the country's tourist board, which saw the adventure as a way to boost Jamaica's sagging image, the islanders competed in two- and four-man events using hand-me-down sleds. With the world prepared for a chuckle, the four-man team rocketed out of the gate with one of the fastest starting times in the event, before crashing spectacularly. Still, they finished a respectable twenty-second among thirty-one teams.
The Jamaicans became an instant legend, with the crash forming the climactic scene in a Walt Disney movie, "Cool Runnings," which was loosely based on the experiences of the bobsledders. They celebrated with an international victory-less tour, including a guest appearance with the Los Angeles Lakers complete with tributes from Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Almost overnight, bobsled federations in several countries were clamoring to find the fastest runners to draft into the sport.
Within a few years, the United States, Britain, France, and Canada had drawn upon a deep well of black sprinters to stock their teams. In 1992 Brian Shimer recruited professional football player and former University of Georgia track star Herschel Walker to be his pusher in a two-man US team. Although they barely had time to practice together -- Walker chose to finish the 1991 season with the Minnesota Vikings rather than hit the World Cup circuit -- the media touted the duo as a pre-Olympic favorite. But their rustiness showed in Lillehammer, where they blew the start and finished a disappointing seventh. But the upstart Jamaicans finished fourteenth, ahead of both US teams, which had state-of-the-art high-tech sleds By 1998 black bobsledders were commonplace. The Jamaicans were even given an outside shot at a medal. They were joined by long-shot wanna-bes from Trinidad and Tobago, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. The top pushers on Team Canada traced their ancestry to Africa via the Caribbean. Sheridon Baptiste, a football, basketball, and track star at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, was one of the top brakemen in the world and the fastest man on the Canadian squad. His African-Canadian teammates included Ricardo Greenridge, a former 200-meter champion, and Ian Danney. The United States had high hopes that it could capture its first bobsled medal in decades. The previous November, at the World Cup in Winterberg, Germany, Shimer's four-man had crushed the course start record in both heats, a testament to the blazing speed of its two runners, Jones and Hines.
On the final day of competition at Nagano, Germany established an insurmountable lead in the four-man. The two Canadian teams faltered while Jamaica slid to twenty-first. With Switzerland clinging to second, it came down to the final slide. The start was phenomenal, as usual, with the US team blazing through the first 50 meters in 4.90 seconds, the fastest of the heat. But even the African American pushmen were not enough to overcome a sloppy run, as the US bobsledders missed a medal by .02 seconds. The unheralded French and British teams tied for the bronze medal. Two black pushers, Courtney Orville Rumbolt and Paul Jason Attwood, both star sprinters, powered Britain.What are we to make of this? For years, faster times in bobsledding were driven by technique and the development of ever-sleeker sleds. With the technology gap between countries now almost nonexistent, the human factor has again become paramount. Faster starts mean faster times. It's no surprise that bobsledding is turning to the fastest men alive: blacks who trace their ancestry to West Africa.
Copyright © 2000 Jon Entine
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