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Fact Or Fiction

Author Contends Genetics Make Blacks Athletically Superior

March 23, 2000|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AGOURA HILLS — 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.

--Jon Entine in his book "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It."

*

Who is Jon Entine and why is he saying those things?

"It opens the door for people to talk about a very complex subject," Entine said.

The door has been virtually blown off by controversy, with social commentators and scholars on both sides of the issue taking turns defending or attacking Entine's work.

Since "Taboo" was published in January, Entine, an Agoura Hills resident, has been under fire for what some consider borderline racism camouflaged as scientific dogma.

Entine's contention, which he supports in the book with an array of data, is that blacks are superior athletes primarily because of genetics, not social or economic conditions. Thousands of years of evolution, he said, have given blacks physical and physiological advantages that are crucial in athletic competition.

"The patterns that we see are reflections of how genetics limit what we can be," Entine said. "There are exceptions to the rules, but that doesn't mean the pattern doesn't exist."

To sociologist Harry Edwards of the University of California, and others who share his view, the premise is hogwash.

"This is not a serious book on the issue," Edwards said. "There are too many distortions, too many issues that are simply scudded over.

"I've been talking about this since 1963, when it was discussed in an anthropology class I had. It just gets tiring and it's basically silly."

Edwards asserts the reason blacks excel in baseball, basketball, football, boxing and track is because they have been denied opportunities in other areas. Blacks have gravitated to certain sports because of role models and the belief that economic equality can best be achieved in those areas.

Entine partly dismisses that argument, saying Michael Jordan and Grant Hill achieved stardom in the NBA after growing up in middle-class families.

None of this is uncharted territory for Entine. In 1989, he produced and co-wrote with Tom Brokaw for NBC the documentary "Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction." It was labeled everything from racist to inconclusive.

After moving to other projects, particularly as a TV news writer and producer, Entine decided to broach the subject again, this time in "Taboo." It was a gut-wrenching experience.

"I was scared," said Entine, who has a degree in philosophy from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. "I wrote it because I'm a sports fan and you can't avoid thinking about the subject if you are around sports.

"I'll challenge anyone to say I have any ulterior motives. My motives are I'm interested in the subject, I'm curious and I think it's endlessly fascinating."

Entine said he sent copies of the manuscript to numerous scientists, anthropologists and even people who would be vehemently critical. A publisher first bought the rights in 1994, later dropped them and Public Affairs picked them up after Entine had knocked on many other doors.

In the provocative book, Entine uses comparative studies to demonstrate differences even among black athletes, according to their African lineage.

Those of West African ancestry have genetic traits conducive to sprinting and jumping. Among other things, Entine said West Africans possess greater muscle mass, a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscles and a higher center of gravity.

Those of East African extraction have, among other characteristics, smaller muscle fibers, a larger lung capacity and an apparent ability to process oxygen more efficiently. In short, they make better distance runners because of their endurance.

Entine points out that every men's world track record at every commonly run distance belongs to a runner of African descent.

"He's not saying anything that's untrue," said Gary Sailes, an African American associate professor of kinesiology at Indiana. "There's no genetic homogeneity among any groups of the world.

"I cautioned [Entine] people would zero in on the genetics. . . . People are going to interpret it as a genetics book."

Or worse.

Edwards, who first gained prominence as a driving force behind the Black Power demonstration by U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, denounced Entine's NBC documentary as an underhanded way to portray blacks as genetically closer to beasts and animals than to other humans.

He offers a similar assessment of the book.

Edwards contends "Taboo" perpetuates the belief that there is an inverse relationship between athletic ability and intelligence. The more elite the athlete, the dumber he is. That's why, proponents of the theory contend, there have been few black quarterbacks in the NFL.

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