He Got Game

Reviews the book 'Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It,' by Jone Entine.

By Michael Levin, published on March 1, 2000 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015

Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports andWhy We Are Afraid to
Talk About It Jon Entine (W.W. Norton & Co., 2000)

It is indisputable that black athletes dominate sports worldwide,
at all competitive levels. But most commentators avoid looking at the
possible genetic factors at work here, lest they contribute to or be
accused of racial stereotyping. But in Taboo, Jon Entine sets aside this
fear to look at the genetic basis for black superiority in sports.

Entine begins with the Kalenjins, a remarkable East African tribe
of three million whose members have in recent decades won three-quarters
of the world's long distance running medals. He goes on to discuss their
West African neighbors, who rule the sprint and high hurdles: Every
finalist in the 100-meter dash of the last four Olympics, for instance,
has been of West African descent. It is no surprise that most football
back-fielders, major league outfielders and members of the National
Basketball Association demonstrate comparably explosive speed, power and
leaping ability. African women athletes display the same standard of
excellence.

After a meander through historical discrimination against black
athletes in America, Entine boldly and brilliantly documents numerous
physiological differences contributing to black athletic superiority.
Compared to Europeans and Asians, East Africans are lighter and more
slender, while West Africans typically have more efficient fast-twitch
muscles, long limbs, shorter trunks, heavier skeletons and less body fat
(but smaller lung capacity). At the same time, muscular exertion in West
African blacks produces fewer lactate toxins than in other populations,
and their skeletal muscles have more anaerobic enzymes, while the muscle
fiber cells of East Africans are hardwired for getting and using oxygen.
These metabolic differences mean that West African bodies function like
rockets, excelling at the rapid use of fuel on hand, and that East
African bodies resemble jets, supremely efficient consumers of air and
stored fuel.

According to Entine, strict environmentalists deny that genes play
any role in athletic prowess; they would insist, in this case, that
African Americans have developed a tradition of physical competence
because racist norms have left them little opportunity outside of sports
to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Entine recognizes that
environment plays a powerful role in molding a person, but, as he
explains, so do genes, especially those that control sports-related
physiology.

This point of view, put forth so lucidly by Entine and quietly
accepted by sports science, will likely whip up a media tornado due to
the volatility and ominous complexity of the issue. But Entine's work
stands to open the conversation on racial differences to a broader range
of topics--even intelligence-because success in sports is so unambiguous,
and the scientific data so unarguable.

Adapted by Ph.D.

Michael Levin is a professor of philosophy at the City University
of New York and author of Why Race Matters (Praeger, 1997).