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TalkBack Live

How Important Are Genes in Determining Athletic Performance?

Aired January 28, 2000 - 5:10 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BOBBIE BATTISTA, HOST: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to TALKBACK LIVE. Big crowd here for the Super Bowl in Atlanta this weekend.

The numbers tell their own story. In two of America's most popular sports leagues, the NBA and the NFL, black athletes far outnumber their white counterparts. What is the reason for this and does it matter?

Jon Entine says it is important and we do need to talk about it. He also says those sports are only the tip of the iceberg.

And Jon Entine joins us here in Atlanta today.

Jon, good to have you here. Welcome to the show.

JON ENTINE, AUTHOR, "TABOO": Thank you very much.

BATTISTA: Not only do you contend that African-American athletes dominate these sports but you unequivocally conclude that black athletes are better than white. What evidence do have or that you present that supports that?

ENTINE: Actually, it's a more nuanced argument than that. I'm really saying that different populations, whether it's West African- descended blacks, and that's what -- African-Americans trace their ancestry to West Africa -- or East Africans or whites or Asians, they all have different body types and different physiological structures that allow them to have advantages in one sport or another.

It happens to be that quickness, jumping ability, explosive power, which we see in West African-descended athletes, correlate with the kinds of sports we play in the United States.

BATTISTA: Now, is this all just a theory or has it been scientifically proven?

ENTINE: You know, this is not a controversial subject in the science world. It's no more controversial really than saying that Scandinavians have blue eyes and blond hair, or when we look at diseases to say that Ashkenazic Jews, European Jews, are more likely to get Tay-Sachs disease.

It gets controversial because of the history of what we call race. Race has always had a social dimension to it. It's always been associated with colonialism, slavery. So, that's -- it's the political dimension of this that's really the controversy.

BATTISTA: Now what about sports where blacks don't dominate, say like hockey or tennis or even baseball for that matter?

ENTINE: Sure. Well, actually they are what we would say over- represented in baseball. About 35 percent of baseball is people of West African descent, and blacks represent -- whatever -- 12, 13 percent of the American population. So, that's two to three times the size they are in the population.

But blacks dominate in sports in which the socioeconomic barriers are very, very low. Running, for instance, every major world record at a standard distance -- from 100 meters to the marathon -- is held by person of African decent.

BATTISTA: Let me explore that just a little bit more with you, because are you presupposing that all blacks are of African descent: Is that sort of monolithic?

ENTINE: Well, sure, blacks, by definition, are of African descent. The question is...

BATTISTA: But have they not been watered down over the generations, for lack of a better term?

ENTINE: It's a very good question, because I think a lot -- a lot of people when they talk about the concept of race, they say, hey, African-Americans have anywhere from 5 to 20 percent genes from other cultures, usually from white culture. So hasn't that watered it down?

Well, the reality of it is that genes are generally passed on in whole or not at all. In other words, you don't water your genetic basis down by -- in the way that you would you, say, put chocolate syrup in white milk and make sort of a murky color.

The genes that might be -- contribute to running and jumping are passed down in whole or in part. And we actually believe that it's in whole.

BATTISTA: Maybe a better example -- and let's look at this -- you do in your book about runners from Kenya...

ENTINE: Yes.

BATTISTA: ... they dominate middle- and long-distance running.

ENTINE: Sure. Again, populations each have a different area in which they excel. And whites have more upper body strength, which is one of the reasons you see more white hammer throwers and shot putters. Asians are more flexible, more gymnasts. East Africans, which has a different genetic makeup than West Africans -- Kenyans, Tanzanians -- they have the slighter bodies, they have larger lung capacity. And they dominate in endurance races, but they're terrible at sprinting, just like African-Americans are actually terrible endurance runners.

BATTISTA: But how do you know that it's genetic, because you also bring up in the book that these runners mainly come from -- practically all from the same town where there is high altitude? I mean, there are environmental things to consider...

ENTINE: Sure, absolutely.

BATTISTA: ... also cultural types of things, where there's a lot of pride in running. So how do you -- how do you...

ENTINE: Absolutely. Well, you know, you're posing the nature- nurture question, and the reality of it is that's a -- that's a really a bogus way to look at how humans act in the world, because there really is no divide between nature and nurture. They're really part of the same equation.

We know, for instance, that blacks have a genetic predisposition to get sickle cell anemia, but only one out of 10 blacks who has the genetic predisposition to have the disease gets it because of the way the environment works with genetics. It's the same way in this case.

Sure, people have social, economic, environmental factors that affect things as important as where they go to school, how they learn, but also how they develop in certain sports.

But we do know that over tens of thousands of years of evolution where we grew up has shaped our bodies and helps determine what sports we do well in.

BATTISTA: Let me get a little bit of a reaction from the audience here. They're getting kind of vocal about it before we started the show.

Up here. I'm sorry. I can't see your name tag.

STEVE: Steve.

BATTISTA: Steve.

STEVE: Yes. Just curious, I always thought that genes may have had something, but it had more to do with muscle structure. And if you look at a black person's legs, I mean, it's obviously they're different, and the way they exercise and work those muscles versus genes.

ENTINE: Well, this is a complicated issue. You're actually making the distinction between biology and genetics to a large degree. And in fact, that's a very murky relationship between genetics and biology.

You're right that the differences that we see in athletic performance is linked to a variety of things. It's linked to muscle structure, skeletal structure, how we metabolize energy, for instance: whether someone is lactate -- I mean not lactate intolerant -- but tolerant, you know, for handling exercise and whether they tire easily.

The reality is now we believe -- and there is some preliminary evidence -- that there is a genetic basis for these kinds of differences.

In other words, through culture, environment, training athletes can't dramatically change the limits of what they can be. They can work to the edge of their limits. But no amount of training will turn an East African into a sprinter. There are no West Africans in the world who compete in long distance running at 1,500 meters or longer. There's not one, and I don't expect there will be, because there are genetic limits on what people can do.

BATTISTA: Let me bring another voice into the conversation now. Len Zaichkowski is head of the sports psychology department at Boston University. He is consultant for the Boston Celtics and partner in the Professional Sports Consulting Group.

And, Len, you say that you followed this argument for many years. And is there an argument to be made here? Is there overwhelming scientific evidence?

LEN ZAICHKOWSKI, SPORTS PSYCHOLOGIST: Well, I was interested in Jon's response, and I'm still waiting for Jon to cite a particular study that points specifically to a genetic component in black superiority in sport.

BATTISTA: is there one.

ZAICHKOWSKI: In my opinion -- and I followed his literature very closely -- there really is no science that demonstrates that there's genetic component to superiority for a particular race in a particular sport.

BATTISTA: Well, let me ask Jon that. And, Jon, is there one, and is there only one?.

ENTINE: Well actually, let me ask him a question, and that'll determine my response. Is there a genetic component to having five fingers? It's a serious question, and I'd like to get his response to that -- does he believe that there's a genetic component to having five fingers?

BATTISTA: Len.

ZAICHKOWSKI: Well, I think that's kind of getting off the point. Let me address a particular sport like Ice Hockey, Jon. If you look at the sport of ice hockey, no sport requires quickness and explosive power as much as ice hockey. Now I'd like for you to explain to me why that is, that there's only a handful of black athletes in professional hockey?

ENTINE: Len, let me answer my own question first, and since you didn't answer it. Actually we do not know if there's a genetic reason why we have five fingers, because we are not that advanced in our understanding of how genetic works. What we do know is that there's a genetic basis for having five fingers. In fact, we know that there's genetic basis for having blond hair, blue eyes. There's a genetic basis for our skeletal structure. There's a genetic basis for our musculature. We know conclusive scientific information that has been documented in hundreds of thousands of studies, and my book has been endorsed by the editor of "The Journal of Human Biology" as well as "The Journal of the African-American Male," that there is a genetic basis for the physiological differences we see between athletes. That is absolutely a uncontroversial subject.

BATTISTA: Well, one of the things we're getting closer to is getting some of these genetic answers, with the Genome Project and the whole idea of being able to map out the whole system, the whole framework of our human genetic makeup. In fact, the president referred to it last night in the State of the Union Address, where some of the preliminary results, though, are showing, one of the scientists said, that all people of all races are 99.99 percent the same. So is that .01 percent make that much difference?

ENTINE: Well, we're 99.4 percent the same as a chimpanzee. We're about 95 percent the same as a dog. We're about 90 percent the same as certain worms. I mean, these percentages don't really mean very much, because the important thing is, what is the differences, the key differences, and what genes they affect? And the alleles, the collection of genes, is what geneticists look at. Now I've had many discussions with molecular biologist about this, and the book has been reviewed by many scientists from the "Physician and Sports Medicine" to, again, "The Journal of Human Anatomy," and there is overwhelming evidence that in fact, that there are enough genetic differences to determine and create differences among people.

But can I respond to his other question about ice skating? The point I make in the book quite clearly, because obviously, he has not yet had a chance to read the book, is that when there are low socioeconomic bearers -- sports like running, which is a true international sport, basketball, football, which is subsidized by high schools in this country, natural abilities are more important. When you have sports that require money -- ice skating, let's say, or skiing, or boating, or ice hockey, frankly, other factors come into play. There aren't many people who live in Mobile, Alabama, white or black, who are ice skaters. It's a factor of geography.

But you can even look at bobsledding, bobsledding is now being invaded, so to speak, by people of West African descent, who are by far the best runners in the world in bobsledding, and their talent has come to the fore in the United States, Britain, France, Jamaica and elsewhere.

BATTISTA: Len, can you absolutely rule out genetics?

ZAICHKOWSKI: No, you cannot for sure. But I think the single greatest explanation for differences amongst athletes in performance is their ability to, what Anders Ericsson describes, engage in deliberate practice over long periods of time, where an adaptation takes place and results in the excellence that we see. And in the case of basketball and in football -- but I'm going to speak specifically about basketball -- many of the black athletes that are in the NBA came from the inner-city, and that's the sport that they engaged in from a very young age. They started to participate in basketball and developed and finetuned their skills through competition against each other, with good mentoring. And in many cases, they modeled the Michael Jordans of the world and aspire to be like them. So there's probably a stronger sociological -- a psychosocial explanation than there is a genetic explanation for the disproportionate breakdown of blacks in the NBA.

BATTISTA: All right, we have to take a quick break here. We'll continue in a moment. And NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown will join us, as will sports attorney Leigh Steinberg.

Back in a second.

At the start of the NFL season, 65 percent of the players were black, 33 percent were white, and less than 1 percent Latino.

During the same season in Major League Baseball, 59 percent of the players were white, 25 percent Latino, 15 percent black and one percent Asian.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

During the 1998 season, 62 percent of the players in Major League Soccer were white, 16 percent were black, 21 percent Latino and one percent Asian-American.

In the NBA's 97-98 season, 77 percent of the players were black, 23 percent white, Latinos made up less than one percent.

BATTISTA: Let me go to the audience while I can here quickly.

Camela had a comment.

CAMELA: Hi. I just wanted to say that it's not a secret that we can tap data, talk to and support any particular perspective as the truth, and I'm being struck by the fact that that's what this feels like. We talk about blacks excelling in basketball and football because of genetic predisposition, and then when we challenge based on some the other sports where running fast and jumping high could be important, than we defer to the economic piece. So it seems like we're kind of talking out of both sides of our mouths.

BATTISTA: All right, Camela, thanks.

Let me bring in another guest. Please welcome Former NFL superstar Jim Brown. He is considered by many to be the greatest running back of all time. He played forward for the Cleveland Brown's from 1957 until 1966. Also joining us here is turner sports analyst and former NBA star Reggie Theus, and Leigh Steinberg, a sports agent attorney who represents more than 150 professional athletes.

Jim Brown, let me start with you. This argument has been around probably as long as athletics. At any point in your career, did you feel that were you less of an athlete or more of an athlete because of your race, ergo, your genetics? JIM BROWN, FORMER CLEVELAND BROWN: Well, let me respectfully avoid that for a second and make a comment. The subject of race as the number-one category is basically used as a weapon by the racists. It has no other meaning. If I would cite three individuals to you, I think I can prove my point. Andre Agassi, the Williams sisters and Tiger Woods. The common denominator of, of course, Tiger and Williams sisters would be race in most people's mind. In my mind, the common denominator between the three of them is that their parents had a vision of excellence and success, and what they did was set out to allow these individual to train, and to study and to be dedicated and to sacrifice to become champions. And Andre Agassi went away from that practice of training, and he became number 50 in the world. When he came back to it, he became number one in the world.

So the common denominator will never be race as a first category. It will be hard work, tenacity. It will be environment. It will be economics. It will be many things, but race is not the prevailing factor.

BATTISTA: Is that your story? Is that your appearance?

BROWN: My experience as an individual was that I was very fortunate to go to a high school that really put emphasis on athletics and academics. I benefited from both of those things. And as I became a professional football player, race was the last thing in my mind when it came to my performance, because I could not call upon my black skin or the genetics that these people are talking about. I had to work hard in the off-season. I had to study. I had to study other athletes. I had to discipline myself. And I had to have a burning desire.

Race only came in my life when people were perpetuating racial stereotypes against me when we had eights players -- and eight players had to room together because they didn't feel we were able to room with white people. In the '50s and '60s racism prevailed over everything else. The only thing that knocked racism down was hard work and perseverance.

BATTISTA: We have to take a quick break again. Forgive me. We'll be back in just a second with Reggie Theus and Leigh Steinberg.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOVAN (ph): My name is Jovan. I'm a black guy out of American University.

I believe that blacks make better athletes than whites because of evolution. Blacks have all types of more manual labor than whites, so our bodies can adjust to (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

BATTISTA: We're back.

And I want to get a quick comment from Reggie and Leigh, and then John will take the floor again. In fact, these two have got a thing going on here without us. But, Reggie, I'm just curious how you feel about this whole thing? Is this something that athletes talk about amongst themselves, or is it taboo there as well?

REGGIE THEUS, FORMER NBA PLAYER: No, I think that this is a very interesting conversation, and it takes so many different path that you have to really focus in on what you're trying to ask. Because my question was, what are we actually trying to ask here? What are we trying to say here? I think that genetics might have something to do with the way a person is built, you know, how tall he's going to be. I don't care what you do, if you're not tall enough to play basketball, there's only been a couple of guys who have been big enough athletes to make it in the NBA.

But you know, one of things that I was asking, is that if you take a West African who is supposed to only be a sprinter, and you grow him up in an atmosphere where, say the long distance guys, that's where their friends are, that's what they try to do, that's the way they grow up, you know, how would that athlete fare in a totally different environment? See, I have a lot of confidence in the athlete, and I believe that so much of what we do comes from when we were children.

I -- in just playing around the house, doing the little things that kids do, the little games that you play in your own environment, in your own neighborhood, that is what teaches you the muscle movement, that is what teaches you the muscle memory. The speed races that we had in my driveway, jumping over trash cans -- well, you know, my driveway was about 60 feet long, and it's a 90-foot basketball court. I was pretty fast. So I think that we are taught things as children, and I think that that has a lot to do with what happens when you grow up to be an athlete.

BATTISTA: Did you answer his question there?

ENTINE: Yes, I did. Actually, I mean, nothing that's been said on this program, to try to put more context to this issue, do I disagree with. There's no question that cultural factors, social factors, how you're brought up is absolutely essential to understanding whether you can be a great athlete or not. But you made a statement here which I want to take up, because there have been some challenges to the very idea that you said: Take a West African, put him in East Africa and see how they will -- and see how they will fare.

In fact, we know that Kenyans are among the best endurance runners in the world. In fact, at difficulties from 1,500 meters to the marathon there are no West Africans who compete at those distances because they don't have the body type for it.

Now, East Africans, who are great long-distance runners, Kenya tried to pour millions of dollars into developing champion sprinters to match their success in long-distance running. It was a total disaster. They do not have the body type for it.

In the same way, East Germany and other Soviet bloc countries pumped athletes filled with steroids. They put kids from the very earliest ages into schools to develop 100 meter runners. And in fact, all 200 -- the best 200 meter times are all held by blacks of West African descent.

East Africans are terrible at it. East Germans couldn't compete. I mean, these are genetic athletes on what we can...

(CROSSTALK)

THEUS: Maybe the right athlete hasn't come along yet.

BATTISTA: Let me jump in here.

ENTINE: You can say that, but genetics don't bear that out.

BATTISTA: But I mean, one of the reasons that this is so uncomfortable for people to talk about it is it does raise a lot of stereotypes, that people don't want to go there.

You know, for example, if you represent a black quarterback, it wasn't too long ago that people would say, you know, I don't know if this is going to happen.

STEINBERG: Yes. When I started in football, the quarterback, the center and middle linebacker and the safety all tended to be white. And there seems to have been some racism behind that and some way of looking.

Warren Moon has to go play football in Canada back in 1984 and today we have a number of successful black quarterbacks.

I don't think athletes are also embarrassed or shy about talking about this concept. Sports is one of the few areas in this whole society where black and white people actually live together, room together, bleed together, and they know each other in strong ways. But I've got to tell you, having represented athletes all these years, it's desire, it's desire to make it that really makes the real difference, because you can take two equally talented athletes -- whatever their ethnic background is -- and the one who's got heart and drive is going to get it done.

BATTISTA: Let me just ask a theoretical question here.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, you know, I mean, I hate...

(APPLAUSE)

That's not always true. I know guys who worked a lot harder than me who couldn't score on me at all.

BATTISTA: Right.

(LAUGHTER) THEUS: So you know, that's -- that's true to a point. You know? And a lot of guys in high school that played great defense, had great defensive stands, have great desire to play defense, and when you blow buy them, they're still in that defensive position. OK?

ENTINE: And -- and on the other -- from another perspective, you can say that there are, you know, hundreds of people with Reggie Theus talent but without your, you know, drive, ambition, intelligence, whatever it takes. The key factor for success in sports is the x factor. It's the individual.

All I'm talking about are the patterns that we see when we collect all these individuals together.

BATTISTA: Jim Brown, let me ask you this: If there is -- if we do get a definitive answer to this question one way or the other, do you think that we're ready to deal with it, with the answer?

BROWN: Well, I think really that it's irrelevant. I think inclusion and opportunity have to be there to prove any point. And right now we don't have inclusion on a level that we should have it, and those factors seem to be the prevailing factor in race.

THEUS: ... Jim Brown would agree with me on this, I think a lot of what a kid sees when he's growing up, it's all about heroes. It's all about who you want to emulate when you get to be a professional athlete or just to play ball or whatever.

I think that you'll see in the next few years, in the next 10 years or so, there will be a lot more black golfers because of Tiger Woods. You know, I think it's all about what we see and who we pattern ourselves behind. And that's why you -- you talk about hockey. Well, you know, they didn't have a hockey rink in my neighborhood.

(LAUGHTER)

(AUDIO GA)

BROWN: Reggie, if I might -- Reggie, if I might interject.

THEUS: Yes, absolutely.

BROWN: All of these factors are irrelevant. I mean, all of them. But I guess the question is, is that are blacks superior in sports. And I say that that category should never be the first category. That's a social category that we try to prove things by. When you deal with desire and championship attitudes and your childhood conditioning and you deal with all these things, that is what's going to prove the superiority of an athlete.

And also racism and discussion of race is too often based upon inferiority and superiority, and it shouldn't be that way.

BATTISTA: Got to take a break. We'll be back.

The National Hockey League consisted of 632 players during its '97-'98 season. Seven of the players were black; three, Asian.

There were 139 international players from countries ranging from Poland to Nigeria.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BATTISTA: Let me get Len Zaichkowski back into the conversation here. I asked a few moments ago if we could get a definitive answer to this, which we are sure to get, considering the genetic research that's going on. But if we do and when we do, how do you keep this from dehumanizing one race over another? I mean, when you start isolating and ranking racial attributes, when does it stop?

LEN ZAICHKOWSKI, SPORTS PSYCHOLOGIST: Well, to answer that question, Bobbie, I think -- I'm pretty optimistic and confident that it's going to be difficult to find that evidence. Nobody has found it to date. I know that Jon talks about very general kinds of evidence that anatomists and physiologists and biologists find. But in no case have they looked at in particular specific athletes.

And I just loved Jim Brown's response that really explains differences between athletes.

And certainly our research at Boston University -- David Hamre's (ph) study -- pointed to the factors that Jim Brown talked about as being the most influential in determining athletic excellence.

And also I'm familiar with the work of Ben Bloom, who studied this particular area on development of talent in young kids and teenagers. And Anders Ericsson's most recent work I think is very convincing.

And I'm also familiar -- and again, that's part of my job as a professor at Boston University, to inform my students about the current research in this area. And certainly, John Hoberman's book, which was thoroughly researched in 1997, really indicates the issue of race is simply a myth. And it's unfortunate (UNINTELLIGIBLE) perpetuated.

BATTISTA: Why do we need an answer to this, Jon? What are you going to do? Why do we need to know this? What do you do with it?

ENTINE: Well, first of all, with all due respect to Len, he's not at all current with any of the literature on this and he's absolutely wrong in saying there aren't genetic bases for these things. And I find it curious that he would make that statement and actually praise John Hoberman's work when John Hoberman has been decried in the African-American press as being a racist because he's so patronizing about black athletic success while the very same people who are criticizing Hoberman have been praising my work because for the first time we can separate the issues of black athletic with the inference that they are somehow intellectually inferior.

In fact, we know that those things aren't related. We know that you can -- that actually athletes tend to much smarter than the average person in the population. And we have to look at these things in a more nuanced way.

You ask, "Why is this important?" No one is studying these issues per se in sports. What we are studying is medicine. We are studying differences in how people respond to diseases and treatment.

This is only an offshoot of that kind of research.

BATTISTA: I've got -- hold on, Reggie. I've got to take another break. We'll be back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BATTISTA: We're back and the conversation is going crazy in here, and I wish we had time to get to it real quick. But Len wanted to respond to Jon. Go ahead. Len?

ZAICHKOWSKI: Well, again, I want to conclude with saying that really, in my opinion, there is no evidence whatsoever -- I'm still searching for Jon's specific citation, the documents, genetic base for race is a factor in athletic performance. The overwhelming evidence is in support of an environmental explanation where the environment, the kind of practice a youngster receives in the early stages of development, the support they get from family, the coaching they get, the -- and the kind of their motivation, the desire, tenacity to be the best in the world.

BATTISTA: Forgive me for interrupting. Let me get a final comment from Jim Brown.

BROWN: I would like to say to Jon there is no scientific definition that holds up about race. Race has changed its definition in this country to the benefit of those who wanted to define it differently. And there is no scientific place to start from so you have no basis for your work.

ENTINE: Actually, Jim, I would agree with you on that. There is no scientific definition of race. Geneticists don't use that term. They use the term "population" and they see it as a much more nuanced concept. And in fact, no geneticists would deny that there are different populations and different populations have biological factors that correlate with those populations.

So again, the issue of race carries with it the history of slavery, colonialism, racism, and geneticists have abandoned that word because skin color does not determine race. In fact, I have a story in the book about the Lumba (ph) tribe of Africa. And for decades they would tell stories about their Jewish heritage. They would have circumcision rites. They would have Jewish rituals. And people thought that they had just adopted British colonialist ideas about being Jewish.

In fact, they've done testing on them and found out that they are Jewish.

BATTISTA: Well, on that note we could do a whole other show, and we're out of time. But I would like to thank everyone for joining us today. We appreciate all of you.

Jim Brown, thanks again so much. Len Zaichkowski, thank you for joining us. And Reggie, Lee, thank you. I know you guys are busy -- appreciate it. And Jon Entine, thank you.

We'll see you again tomorrow for more TALKBACK LIVE. Enjoy your weekend. Or no Monday.

(APPLAUSE)

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