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Race, Sports Raise Awkward Questions, It’s a Dialogue Many Avoid, Others Can’t Agree On
TEXAS—It may be the most uncomfortable question in sports: Does an athlete’s race make a competitive difference?
The question is avoided for good reason because it goes to the essence of some of our deepest cultural myths and our country’s lingering legacy of racism.
It’s all too painful because science and sports have such an ugly history of taking the wrong side in such debates, often with claims of scientific certainty later proved wrong.
Air Force Academy football coach Fisher DeBerry is only the latest sports figure to find out how inflammatory the subject can be when he explained his Falcons’ 48-10 loss to TCU by citing the Horned Frogs’ superiority in speed and their minority players.
“You don’t see many minority athletes in our program,” he told Colorado sports reporters last Monday.
Then he tried to explain what he’d meant.
“The other team had a lot more Afro-American players than we did, and they ran a lot faster than we did,” he said. “It just seems to be that way, that Afro-American kids can run very, very well. That doesn’t mean that Caucasian kids and other descents can’t run, but it’s very obvious to me they run extremely well.”
Air Force Academy officials called his comments “seriously inappropriate” and on Wednesday, Mr. DeBerry publicly apologized. More than a few colleagues across the country wondered why he hadn’t just kept his mouth shut.
“If the coach wanted to say something, he should say something in regard to his lack of speed, and the need to upgrade his skill and left out race – any comment about it,” said Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association and former head football coach at the University of Rhode Island.
“To draw any kind of inference that blacks were faster and whites were slower, that’s a subject as a coach you don’t go to,” Mr. Keith said. “It should’ve been left alone.”
To Mr. Keith and many others, it was a deeply offensive statement echoing a long, bitter line of generalizations about blacks that discount individual merit, drive and hard work.
“Against the background of the racial history of America, where scholars, clergymen and scientists have been employed in the past to establish so-called rational and moral bases for black subordination, discrimination and in some instances even lynching, anytime anyone approaches that line – doesn’t have to cross it – just approaches a line, people recoil,” said sociologist Harry Edwards, a consultant for the San Francisco 49ers and retired professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Adds Mr. Keith: “All of that is like saying Negroes can dance. It’s a racist statement. I know white players that are fast. Someone is going to have to come up with some kind of scientific or biological study that I’ve never seen nor read that says this is a cause or effect.”
Asking science to resolve the issue isn’t as simple as it sounds. Entire schools of popular thought have been built for centuries on what geneticists and anthropologists say are mistaken assumptions and biases about ethnicity.
Scientists say that problem is basic: People think about race in terms of what they see and personally experience – that people they encounter may or may not look or act differently than them. But science looks at the entire human species and concludes that all its members are fundamentally more alike than different. In that context, race is a social and cultural construct.
A widespread misunderstanding of genetics leads many people to overlook other important influences on human development: how an individual’s ethnicity has been viewed and treated by the culture around them or how his ancestors have been affected by their natural environment.
Ex-network TV news producer Jon Entine argues that black American athletes have inherited traits from their mostly West African ancestors that give them a competitive edge, particularly in speed-dominated sports such as football and track sprints.
“There’s circumstantial evidence. People go to the electric chair on circumstantial evidence,” said Mr. Entine, a scholar in residence at Miami University of Ohio and author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It.
“Four hundred and twenty four of the top 500 100-meter times are held by a person of West African ancestry,” he said. “You look at world records in the 100 meters, 200 meters, 110-meter hurdles, 200-meter relay. They’re all held by a person of West African ancestry. It’s no different than saying that women are shorter than men.”
John Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas who has written extensively on the history of sports and ethnicity, cites similar statistics.
“To the best of my knowledge, no sprinter the modern world would characterize as white has broken 10 seconds in the 100 meter dash. Many dozens of people whose heritage is of West African descent have broken that barrier. The world record is now 9.77 seconds,” he said. “In the case of the 200-meter dash, the data are very similar. There have been three people categorized as white who’ve ever broken 20 seconds in the 200 meters.”
Such events have been electronically timed since 1977, Dr. Hoberman adds, “so what you have is almost 30 years of evidence that one group – the most gifted representatives of one group of people – are running somewhat faster than the most gifted representatives of another group of people.”
A search of the Internet finds many studies that appear to bolster such views. The National Institutes of Health’s online research library contains research papers stating that African-American infants have more advanced motor development than whites and that African-American men have greater bone density and lower body-fat ratios than their non-African-American counterparts.
In one 2002 study, Japanese researchers observed that athletes of African extraction had stiffer muscles than whites, a trait they conclude “could contribute to greater sprint/jump performance among black athletes.”
But no scientific study, geneticists and anthropologists say, shows that one ethnic group is profoundly different overall – for better or worse – than another.
Richard Lapchick, a sports management professor at the University of Central Florida and a leading expert on sports issues says African-Americans and others of African descent may be winning sprints these days, but no meaningful genetic conclusion can be drawn.
He and others note that European and Native American or other aboriginal bloodlines have substantially diluted the West African ancestry of any recent sprint champions from the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean.
“In this country, the average African-American is a mixture,” Dr. Edwards said. “When you begin to talk about West Africans and talk about the African-American, you’re talking about two different people.”
Assuming the superiority of West African sprinters or Kenyan marathoners also fails to take into account the broad diversity within ethnic groups, said Dr. Edwards, noting that a quick perusal of the 49ers roster will turn up swift black running backs and slower black offensive linemen as well as white wide receivers faster than their white counterparts on the defensive line. And of course, some white players are faster than their black teammates.
He and others say the entire argument is like trying to use grade-school math to explain quantum physics and fails to take into account the vast complexities of heredity, cultural and environmental influences over generations.
There may be few great basketball players among the Aleut natives of Alaska, Dr. Edwards adds, “but you’ve never seen a great seal fisherman on the playgrounds of Compton.”
For Dr. Edwards and others, the issue is less about race and genetics and more about cultural realities that steer black kids toward sports while offering their white counterparts a wider array of role models and career goals.
“They see the possibilities that they can have a good life, be famous if they work really hard and work to develop in a good game,” said Dr. Lapchick. “So they stake everything. They put all their eggs into this basket.”
And too, the elite athletes that people see on television represent only a tiny fraction of any given ethnic group – one skewed by coaching, personal decisions and cultural influences.
Geneticists and anthropologists reject the idea that different races are significantly different biologically.
“There is no such thing as race in [modern] homo sapiens,” geneticist Kenneth Kidd of Yale University told Science magazine in a 1998 article exploring how DNA studies are challenging the common conception of race.
Over millennia, scattered groups developed distinct, adaptive traits such as skin color and facial characteristics and even inherited maladies such as sickle-cell anemia. But even sickle-cell anemia crosses more ethnic lines than is generally assumed, scientists note, affecting Greek islanders and other Mediterranean populations as well as people of African descent.
Scientists say biological diversity does not adhere to racial lines. In fact most biological variation among humans lies within and not between ethnic groups.
For instance, scientists say, people from East Africa and West Africa may share such traits as skin color and hair types. But East Africans actually have more in common genetically with people of European ancestry than with their West African neighbors.
So scientists contend that it is hopelessly simplistic to assume that a phenomenon as complex as African-American success at speed-oriented sports can be explained by racial identity.
“Questions of speed don’t have anything to do with race,” said Hampshire College anthropology professor Alan Goodman, president-elect of the American Anthropological Association.
“People variously would call that genetic reductionism or genetic essentialism, to look at any complex trait and assume that because there are differences that it’s genetic. That goes from anything like running to intelligence to ability to play the violin to learning music as a child or getting heart disease,” he said. “Of course, there may be something inherited. That’s part of the story. To say it’s all of the story is ridiculous.”
In 1998, the American Anthropological Association issued a formal declaration that humans are more similar than different and that there is no “unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct” separation between groups.
“Physical variations in any given trait tend to occur gradually rather than abruptly over geographic areas. And because physical traits are inherited independently of one another, knowing the range of one trait does not predict the presence of others,” the statement said.
“For example, skin color varies largely from light in the temperate areas in the north to dark in the tropical areas in the south; its intensity is not related to nose shape or hair texture. Dark skin may be associated with frizzy or kinky hair or curly or wavy or straight hair, all of which are found among different indigenous peoples in tropical regions. ”
The group said such arbitrary divisions are ideological constructs used historically to justify social, political and economic inequalities such as slavery, mistreatment of American Indians and the Holocaust.
“This is not an easy thing to unlearn. Our culture teaches us one thing. We learn to cue in socially on race,” Dr. Goodman said. “It’s not unexpected that we should also think of race in terms of genetics. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.”
Only a few decades ago, said Dr. Lapchick, there was wide certainty that Africans weren’t suited for long-distance running – a sport now dominated by Kenyans and others of East African descent.
In the 1920s, it was assumed that Nordic people had a sprinting edge because there were so many Finnish champions. In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler claimed Aryan athletic superiority, only to be humiliated when black runner Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the current discussion of race and sports is what is often, but not always, left unsaid.
Mr. DeBerry did not elaborate on why he has difficulty recruiting black students, but other sports figures have waded into trouble by contending that they would need to lower their academic standards to get the black players they think they need.
And it’s only a short leap from there “to the idea that there is a corollary about intelligence based on race,” Dr. Lapchick said.
The bottom line, he adds, is that issues involving race are among the hardest and most explosive discussions for people in sports.
Dr. Lapchick has done diversity management training since the 1970s and has worked with every team in the NBA and 100 college athletic departments. In every place he’s done the training, he said, “somebody said this is the first time that race had been talked about as an organization.”
He and others say promoting diversity is what is needed – ensuring that high school and college athletes get their degrees, blacks get a fairer shot at management and coaching jobs and that players, coaches and fans engage in franker discussions of race.
“We’re afraid to talk about it, afraid to be misinterpreted, called a racist,” he said. “White people in particular don’t know what to say.”
Just ask coach Fisher DeBerry.