Sunday, February 15, 2009


They play the NBA All-Star game in Phoenix today (2/15), and some of you might have noticed something about the rosters of the teams that are contesting it. Of the 24 players involved—the best of the world’s best basketball league—20 are African-Americans and four are natives of other countries, specifically China, Germany, Spain and France. No Americans of the Caucasian persuasion are represented.

If you did notice that you probably refrained from mentioning it in any open forum. Public observations on the racial makeup of our more-prominent sports teams and leagues aren’t much circulated these days; at best you can be labeled a racist jerk for making them and at worst you can lose your job, as my late pal Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder did some years back.

Still, something definitely is up, and it deserves comment. I confess that race in sports is a subject I didn’t much tackle in my Wall Street Journal columnizing days, when I had two million readers instead of fewer than 200. I did this both out of caution and for reasons I thought were principled.

I recall particularly my coverage of the 1987 NFL playoffs, when the African-American Doug Williams was leading the Washington Redskins to the Super Bowl title. The strongest story line of the period was the novelty of a black quarterback in a Super Bowl-contending role. I consciously avoided the tack, reasoning that even to mention it would support the belief that such a feat should be considered remarkable at that late date. My editors on the Journal’s op-ed page disagreed and, after the game, ran a contributor’s piece celebrating Williams’ blackness. I considered that to be pandering, but maybe I was wrong.

Anyway, the main reason the subject is avoided is that it inevitably hinges on theories about the “natural” superiority of one race over another in athletics in general and quick-burst sports such as basketball and sprinting in particular. “Bar-room” science is full of these, generally holding that, by virtue of millennia of fighting or fleeing ferocious animals in Africa, and surviving the rigors of slavery on these shores, American blacks have it all over whites genetically in terms of size, speed, strength and other athletically useful traits.

Some black bar-room denizens second these views but don’t often press them publicly for fear of devaluing the dedication and hard work that their racial brethren put into high-level athletic achievement. Still, the idea of the racial “edge” has worked its way into American culture through such as the movie title “White Men Can’t Jump” and the nickname “White Chocolate” that was affixed to ex-NBAer Jason Williams because he had “moves” whites weren’t supposed to possess. Getting beat by an “Opie,” the stereotypical white kid personified by the Ron Howard character in the old TV sitcom “Mayberry RFD,” is said to be a disgrace in black athletic circles.

Trouble is, real evidence to support claims of black athletic superiority is lacking. Many of the older studies in the field were, simply, hokum, while others failed to take into account such obvious factors as diet and the quality of available health care. The few seemingly solid physiological differences that have been uncovered amount to a pinch of testosterone here or a centimeter of muscle or bone there, hardly enough to account for black domination of entire sports. Those wishing to pursue this subject might read the book “Darwin’s Athletes,” by John Hoberman. The title is meant to be ironic.

Further, one needn’t be much of a sports historian to recall white American basketballers like Jerry West, Larry Bird, John Stockton and Bob Cousy, who had both “hops” and “chops.” The growing European presence in the NBA further debunks racial myths. Maybe the “blackest” player ever in terms of on-court flair and showmanship was a white guy, Pete Maravich.

Evolution doesn’t move fast enough to erase whatever DNA produced “Pistol” Pete, but today’s American white kids don’t seem moved to explore their capacities. One only can conclude that the idea of the black “edge” has become a self-fulfilling prophesy that discourages young whites from competing seriously in some sports, to their detriment.

More injurious has been the African-American community’s response. The athletic chauvinism that exists there has encouraged several generations of boys to grow up believing that to show physical prowess is to be “black” while to succeed academically—or even to pay attention in school—is to “act white.” The unrealism of many young blacks’ “hoop dreams” is seen in the statistic that 90 people in this land are killed by lightning in the average year while only 50 or so join the NBA as rookies. One must hope that the “smart is cool” message new-President Obama exudes will resonate.


Mike Levy said...

Hey Fred,

Interesting column, as they always are.

I'm not a BBall fan in the remotest sense, but isn't Nash, (a cauc, though he is a Canadian)playing in this year's All Star game?

Your comment re: today's White ball players being less likely to become dominant in the sport because of the intimidating factor of Black dominance in BBall may also have held true for Black players during the forties and fifties. That was a time when Black players were scarce or non-existant on the court at all. The circumstances were different...Blacks at that time not being given opportunity, versus the dissuaders Whites feel today not being up to the dominance and proficiency of talents that Black players possess. I wond3r how the stars of olden days you mentioned would have fared and been judged had there been a greater number of players representing all races? In any case, in every sport, the talent pool increases, as does the superiority of the game being played with the ability to compete when opportunities are provided to all participants regardless of race.

Mike Levy.

Jenn said...

"One only can conclude that the idea of the black “edge” has become a self-fulfilling prophesy that discourages young whites from competing seriously in some sports, to their detriment."

I think this is very possible.

In an unrelated note, they did a study on racehorses - looking for that 'edge' - they found that the best horses fell soundly into the 'average' category. It's something else that drives the win. (although 'average' assures that millenia of evolution protects against injury. Average is, in horse terms, sound)

Anonymous said...

Fred: the topic has always been in the back of my mind so thanks for bringing it up. I think the preponderance of blacks in the game has more to do with the motivateing vision which creates a greater pool of black bball athletes than anything to do with athletic ability.