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Both Sides with Jesse Jackson

Do Blacks Dominate Sports Because of Genetics?

Aired July 23, 2000 - 5:30 p.m. ET


JESSE JACKSON, HOST: Welcome to BOTH SIDES. I'm in Chicago this week.

Few would deny that blacks have become very dominant in athletics: football, basketball, track, now dominant in tennis and dominant in golf. But what's happening? Is this about hard work or intellect or is it about genetics? A very controversial subject we're going to talk about today with our three guests.

Joining me from San Francisco is John Entine. He's the author of the new book, "Taboo: Why Blacks Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About it." In Washington is Bryan Burwell, a reporter from HBO Sports, Bryan Burwell. Also in Washington is former NFL defensive end and pro-bowler Ken Harvey. Ken played for several stellar seasons with the Arizona Cardinals and the Washington Redskins. He retired last year and is now writing children's books.

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


JACKSON: We're going to talk about all of this today and more, but first some background from John Bisney.


JOHN BISNEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was in 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier that existed in Major League Baseball since before the turn of the century. Like heavyweight boxer Joe Louis's defeat of German fighter Max Schmeling a decade earlier, the integration of baseball had social repercussions beyond sports. It demonstrated that when given a chance blacks could excel.

In the 50 years since, blacks have become dominant figures, not only in baseball but in basketball, football and track and field. Some, like basketball's Michael Jordan, have transcended their sports to become cultural icons.

And today, African-Americans like golf superstar Tiger Woods and tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams are making their marks on sports that have traditionally been overwhelmingly white.

Still, the dominance of blacks in sports as opposed to other aspects of society has also been the subject of a longtime controversy. The theory that blacks are naturally superior is generally dismissed as racist. Critics say that presumption also infers that athletes of African descent are intellectually and morally inferior and dismissing the hard-work of blacks who excel in sports.

In a new book entitled "Taboo: Why Blacks Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About it," author John Entine explores the monopoly of black athletes. "The decisive factor," Entine writes, "is in our genes." But he also notes economics, culture and hard work also play large roles.

Regardless of the reason, blacks continue to make an indelible mark on sports. And that, both sides agree, has helped transcend racial barriers in other aspects of society.

For BOTH SIDES, I'm John Bisney.


JACKSON: John Entine, you've written a very provocative book. Most blacks will argue that they excel because of hard work, because of intellect, determination, sweat, blood, tears and risk. You say it's not that, it's about the genes. Why did you write this book?

ENTINE: Well actually, Jesse, I do say that the success of the African-American and black athletes is really hard work and creativity and dedication. The genes play a very, very, very tiny role, and all they do is set some basic parameters of body type and physiology that we all see and acknowledge.

The reason I wrote the book is, one, we see this phenomenon of different athletes doing well in different sports, whites dominating in wrestling and weight lifting, East African blacks like Kenyans dominating in long-distance running, people of West African ancestry, African-Americans, dominating in sprinting and sports related to that...

JACKSON: But is this...

ENTINE: ... We need -- we're curious about...

JACKSON: But is this about socialization or is it about genetics?

ENTINE: Well, I think to simplify it to one or the other really does disservice to a very, very complex phenomenon. Clearly, you know, there are hundreds of Michael Jordans out there who didn't have his dedication and drive and intelligence, and they're kicking around their dream somewhere in the backcourts of America. But there's only one Michael Jordan because of his perseverance and intelligence.

On the other hand, you know, the top 200 100-meter times are all held by a person of West African ancestry, and no white, no Asian and no East African blacks -- because this isn't a black-white phenomenon -- but different populations can crack 10 seconds in the hundred meters.

So clearly there are some limits based on biology, but the key factor I think is hard drive and social conditions as well.

JACKSON: Bryan Burwell, you've studied this subject for a long time. Do blacks have a physical, genetic edge over whites in athletics?

BURWELL: Well first of all, so what? You know, who cares? And if they do, I certainly didn't get that lottery ticket because I was one of the most mediocre college athletes they ever produced.

My feeling on this subject is very simple. Sports has always been for, in our society, a way for those on the lower rung to improve themselves. Go back in the history of this country, late 19th century, early 20th century. Irish-Americans dominated boxing. Nobody's writing a book about that. Why did they dominate boxing? Why were Irish -- why were Italian-Americans so dominant in boxing -- in baseball? You know, no one writes a book about that.

It's clear to me that those on the lower economic rung see sports as the most obvious way to improve their lot in life. And that has a whole lot more to do with why they -- blacks are excelling in sports than anything else.

JACKSON: Ken, when you played football, do you think that your dominance, your excelling was because of genetics or hard work or what combination.

KEN HARVEY, FORMER PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL PLAYER: Definitely hard work. I mean, I believe that if you want to use genetics, maybe a small part, but definitely hard work. When guys would go home or go out and party, I was working out two or three hours a day. I was outside running late at night all the time when other guys were sitting around or sleeping or doing something like that.

So a lot of times -- people look at me and say, Ken, you've got all the natural ability. Yet no one took the time to say, well what do you do? How hard do you work? Why are you the last one in the weight room and the first on in the weight room? Why are you always out on the field running and going a hundred percent. There were so many other reasons other than just genetics.

JACKSON: But John is making the position that you can lift all the weights you want to, you can not decide to run fast. He's saying it's a natural gift. You cannot decide to have your physique just by hard work. There's something...

ENTINE: Reverend Jackson...

JACKSON: ... that's just genetic.

ENTINE: Reverend Jackson, we know that that's true whether you're white or black. There are certain limitations. You know, Pete Rose could have trained and lifted weights all he wanted, but he was never going to be a Mark McGwire home run hitter. There's just genetic limitations by the roulette wheel of genetics. The only controversy, so to speak, is whether some of these traits are -- fall on certain populations more than others. And, you know, you suffer from sickle cell, as we know. And that's a trait very specific to blacks, as is lactose intolerant. Whites are more likely to get cystic fibrosis, Jews are more likely to get Tasac's (ph) disease. These are all diseases...

JACKSON: But you're comparing...

ENTINE: ... as a result of evolution.

JACKSON: But you're comparing Pete Rose to Mark McGwire. By comparison to Mark McGwire, Hank Aaron was slightly build compared to Mark McGwire and didn't use any additives, and he hit the most home runs. What do you say to that.

ENTINE: No, of course, Jesse, we're talking about trends. I mean, men are taller than women, but if you go through the phone book and you point out a man's name, it doesn't mean that he's taller than a woman's name that you point out.

What I'm saying is the success of an individual athlete is that athlete's hard work. Ken is a great example of this. I was a marathon runner. I worked very hard at it, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn't break 3:30 in the marathon, which wouldn't have qualified me for a kids' league. You have certain limitations on who you are, but you've got to do what you can with those kinds of skills.

Ken is...

JACKSON: Bryan...


JACKSON: ... John continues to give individual examples, but the book suggests a racial theory, that blacks are superior as athletes because of genetic advantage. And one could argue, therefore, inferior at something else because of genetics. I mean, how do you weigh in on his book? Do you think blacks are genetically superior athletically?

HARVEY: No, I don't really feel that. And, you know, I'm going to use an example in the sport of golf. I'm going to look at golf and look at Tiger Woods. Some people will use Tiger as an example to prove John's book, the theory is correct. I'm going to look at it and say, you look at Tiger Woods and you look at all the other top golfers in that sport. A lot of guys hit the ball as long as he does. A lot of guys can use their irons as well as he does. But the difference with Tiger Woods is he putts better, his short game is better. And that has nothing to do with physical nature. It has nothing to do with genetics. It has to do with working hard, with being intelligent, with understanding how a ball breaks on the green. That is why he happens to dominate sports.

It is never solely about genetics. And it actually annoys me, because why is this -- who's fascinated by this? I'm not fascinated by this...

JACKSON: But, Bryan...

BURWELL: ... I don't know that many people who are fascinated by the subject.

JACKSON: ... all the sports analysts will suggest when an African-American makes a certain move on the basketball court those natural instincts. Larry Bird would make the same move, they'd say he's thought it through. You know, even the language, instinct versus intellect, keeps coming out over and over again by sports analysts.

BURWELL: And that is a -- that's one of the dangerous things about this. Because we do disservices to both black and white athletes when we get into this little trick bag that we're talking about. Because Larry Bird was a brilliant athlete. Larry Bird did things on the basketball court that I couldn't do, that a lot of black athletes cannot do.

We get into a situation where we're now telling athletes, you can't get into a sport because you're black or you can't get into a sport because you're white. And that is why certain athletes seem to dominate...

ENTINE: Bryan...

BURWELL: ... because they're told not to get into a sport.

ENTINE: Bryan, can I ask you a question? Have you read the book?

BURWELL: Have I read the book?


BURWELL: Yes, I have, John...


BURWELL: ... I would not have come on this show without reading the book.

ENTINE: OK, I don't mean it in a negative -- the book is really, you know, I think 90 percent of the book is about the issues that concern both you and I, which is the racist way this issue has been historically talked about.

I think the reason the book has gotten such positive responses in the African-American community, in "Emerge," in and so forth, is because it destroys the racist notion that there's some kind of inverse relationship between success in sports and intellectual success.

If anything, the African-American tradition in sports is we are intellectuals. That's the 19th century scholar-athlete tradition which is represented by Paul Robeson more than anyone else. People aren't aware of those kinds of racist notions that have fueled this issue. JACKSON: We're going to come right back and keep talking about this very provocative subject, the taboo, are blacks superior in athletics because of genetics, because of hard work, because of work ethic.

We'll be right back.


JACKSON: Welcome back.

There's a certain dominance by African-Americans in athletics -- football, basketball, baseball, now in track and tennis. Is this because of hard work or is it because of the intellect? Is it because of genetic advantage?

Today, our special guest is Bryan Burwell, analyst for HBO; Ken Harvey, former pro footballer; as well as John Entine, who's written this book.

John, does this suggest that before 1947 that people like Joe DiMaggio and people like Ted Williams were superior because they had an advantage?

ENTINE: no. Again, the book is not about black advantages or white advantages. This is just a matter of natural human diversity in body types that we see. Clearly blacks were excluded from many sports, and I think the dominance you see of, let's say, Irish boxers was only in a brief period of time when, frankly, blacks were banned from the sport and for a time Jews were banned from the sport. And when Jews had an opportunity to participate in boxing, they did quite well and were among the best boxers.

So, you know, we have to look at these things in the complexity that these issues present themselves. There's many social and cultural factors involved...

JACKSON: Bryan...

ENTINE: ... and not just genetics.

BURWELL: But why the...

JACKSON: Bryan, would you rather that John made the case that whenever the playing field is even and the rules are public and the goals are clear that blacks and whites who pay the price all do exceptionally well?

BURWELL: I would have rathered he not even done this. Because why the fascination? We do not do all these genetic studies about domination of other cultures, no matter what the domination may be in. I don't understand the fascination.

I have a question for John.

ENTINE: OK, but that's a great question, Bryan, I want to answer that as well.

BURWELL: I have a question for you.


BURWELL: Usually when publishers do books, there is a financial incentive in their minds. They figure, I can make some money off this book. How well is this book doing?

ENTINE: Let's say I averaged out how much I would have made over three years with the sales. It's sold about 19,000 copies, so I've made about $3,000 a year after expenses.

BURWELL: So then this is a very interesting thing.


BURWELL: There aren't that too many people out there that are fascinated by this topic, are there?

ENTINE: No, that's not true. You're talking more about book publishing. It's a best-seller, actually, in the sports world, and it's probably the most heavily reviewed book of the year.

The point is, Bryan, no one's studying the sports issue. I think you missed the point that I try to bring out, hopefully, in the book, obviously not well enough, which is what's being studied is scientific, medical differences between populations. All the book tries to say is can we go into the human genome revolution as we're facing right now, can we debate the scientific differences of human populations and physiologies in a non-racist way?

We're looking for cured to cystic fibrosis, to sickle cell, to lactose intolerance. That's what the book is really about. All sports provides is a way to debate this issue in a non-racist, thoughtful way. That's where the research is being done...

JACKSON: But, John...

ENTINE: ... not in sports.

JACKSON: ... but you've come up with a theory that is essentially race-based. That is that some...

ENTINE: No, and I don't believe in the concept of race, Reverend Jackson. I don't think blacks can be lumped into one population because of skin color. East and West Africans have a different evolutionary history, there's a tribe in southern Africa called the Lemba (ph), who are Jewish who are all black, and they're more Jewish by their genetics than they are black. They just happen to have black skin by their intermarriage and effects of the environment.

This is not a race-based theory.

JACKSON: But you're weaving in and out of race, then you say, but it's not about race. You're suggesting that some groups have advantages and this others disadvantages because of race.

ENTINE: Well, some groups have -- look, we know -- Reverend Jackson, I have to say this is not controversial in the science world. we know that Innuit (ph) Indians are small. We know that Asians have more natural body fat. We know that Scandanavins have blonde hair and blue eyes. These are facts of populations evolving in different parts of the world under different environmental pressures.

JACKSON: Ken Harvey, taking this...


JACKSON: ... to another conclusion, is this, on this type theory, is this why for so long blacks were not allowed to play quarterback in the NFL, to be head coaches?

HARVEY: Well I'm sure that that type of thinking, that if you're more physical you can't think. And because you have such narrow mindedness and because you try to lump it in one area, then of course there are certain rules or certain things that people are going to say.

You can't -- you're a quarterback, you can't think on your feet, all you can do is the more physical stuff. Now that's not true, and it's been proven time and time again. Now I...

ENTINE: And my book proves it as well.

HARVEY: I think that -- the big thing is for what I feel is that God has given everyone individual talents. And what happens is that we all have to choose, we all have to work to reach that maximum talent.

Now if you have a field and you say you have choices, you have a thousand choices -- as a white American, you have a thousand different choices to go to, then you might not focus on just sports. But if you're in a certain area and you focus and you say, well, we only have one or two choices, this is the only way we see us getting out, then everyone's going to focus in the same direction. There you get the best of the best of the best.

JACKSON: Bryan, how do you think sports writers perpetuate the "white man can't jump" mentality or theory?

BURWELL: Well, see, the interesting thing here is that if that is true that whites can't jump, why this week in the Olympic trials were all three women who qualified for our Olympic team in the high jump white Americans? I can't answer that one. You tell me. Why is it that they -- when you look at the Olympic medal situation in the high jump, guys from Sweden are winning the high jump?

JACKSON: We're going to come right back. Now that we're establishing that blacks can run, whites can jump, let's find out what's going on. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) JACKSON: Bryan, just one quick question. Now that the Williams sisters are becoming very dominate in tennis and Tiger Woods in golf, do you think that's going to devote more race theories and more race- based analysis?

BURWELL: I hope not, but I know it will. We won't give enough credit to the fact that those Williams girls, how hard they work, the kinds of cross training that they did to enhance their abilities, the fact that they were running -- doing track and field drills to improve their speed and lateral movement, the fact that Tiger Woods, when you sit and talk to him about putting, he's saying things that just blow your mind because he's talking about the rotation of the ball when he's putting. I've never heard any professional golfers talk about that.

So let's deal with those kind of issues. Talk about how intelligent and the work ethic that these people provide in their fields rather than going on this trick bag of trying to break it all down matters of race.

JACKSON: We'll come right back and do a kind of wrap-around with each of the three of you on in light of this book and its impact where does the sports dialogue go next?

We'll be right back.


JACKSON: Just a kind of basic question, for you, Ken, and then Bryan and then to you, John. Do you think that this book can contribute to racism in any way?

HARVEY: Well, I think it does in a way because in the end it becomes, why, you know? If a person runs faster, if a person jumps further and if a person's a better athlete, no one's found a cure for cancer. No one's done anything to really help the world. So in the end, you have something that could potentially cause problems, yet why? What purpose does it serve?

JACKSON: So you think it contributes to racism in some way.

Bryan, do you think this contributes to racism or just the race dialogue?

BURWELL: I think it does a little of both. I don't question John's intentions, but I do think that this will provide fuel for those who want to walk on either side of the road.

I enjoy the fact that it has opened up a dialogue and allows us to knock down some of these idiotic theories. But the reality is that no matter what we say, those who want to believe in the genetic superiority and the intellectual inferiority are going to take this and run with it and say, See, I told you.

JACKSON: But, John, isn't that victory for you that what Bryan is saying, that he welcomes a dialogue and the debate and it's no longer taboo? Is that not your point?

ENTINE: Well that was my goal in this was, in fact, the reason that there has been a taboo on this issue is because people harbor racist notions. They're afraid to talk about it because it almost legitimizes the racist notion that blacks are intellectually inferior. History suggests that that's not accurate, that's not part of African- American sports history and it's definitely not part of science.

JACKSON: Well let me say, this...

ENTINE: So we have to talk about this book in a constructive way. That's what the book was intended to do.

JACKSON: This dialogue has been with us for a long time, debate, dialogue, sometimes even the fight.

I want to thank you for being my very special guest. One thing I'm convinced of, whenever the playing field is even, the rules are public, the goals are clear, and there's a work ethic, we all do exceptionally well.

Thank you and see you again for BOTH SIDES next Sunday at 5:30 p.m. Eastern.

Until then, keep hope alive.



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