Black Athletic Prowess: Nature or Nurture?

While there is little denying black dominance in sports such as track, basketball, and boxing, for example, conflicting theories have been proposed to explain it.

For Carl Lewis, the gold-winning sprinter, the reason seems clear. "Blacks -- physically in many cases -- are made better," he once said. "We generally carry less fat, the athletes.  I can look at [our bodies] and tell that.  We have long levers.  And those are the two things that help us sprint better."

While some prominent black athletes have not hesitated to refer to their race to explain their excellence, historically the subject of black athletic aptitude has been a prickly issue that has gotten sportscasters fired and academics branded bigots.    Throughout American slavery and the Jim Crow era, the idea of black physical superiority has been tethered to a belief in black intellectual inferiority -- a stereotype that still exists in American racial folklore.

This attitude has found ample expression in the American media. In January 1988, CBS's famed football broadcaster, Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder, told a television crew that a highly selective breeding process accounted for black success in sports.  "The black is a better athlete because he's bred to be that way," he said. "During slave trading, the slave master would breed his big woman so that he would have a big black kid, see.  That's where it all started."  Snyder's remarks, made on Martin Luther King Day, caused an uproar and he was subsequently fired.

Snyder was essentially subscribing to what academics have called the "breeder theory," articulated most eloquently by black anthropologist William Montagne Cobb in 1939.  "No other group of Americans in such large numbers has had to pass such rigorous tests of survival as has the Negro," wrote Cobb. "From this standpoint he is the most highly selected stock in America... physically strong, showing great endurance at strenuous labor under severe climactic and nutritional hardships and producing a disproportionately large number of champions in representative fields of athletics. The debate over black athleticism has historically pitted proponents of this "genetic/breeding" argument against those who underline cultural and socio-economic factors.

Berkeley sociologist Harry Edwards, a scholar and Black Power activist, is one notable proponent of the "socio-economic factors" argument. "By asserting that blacks are physically superior, whites, at best, reinforce some old stereotype long held about African Americans -- to wit, that they are little removed from the apes in their evolutionary development," Edwards wrote. "It opens the door for at least an informal acceptance of the idea that whites are intellectually superior to blacks."

While few have dared to openly discuss this explosive topic in recent years, of late the gag order seems to be lifting, partly due to the publication of a well-researched and powerfully-argued book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It.  The author, John Entine, claims to have written the book "for those intrigued by one of the more remarkable phenomenon of our times -- the monumental success of the black athlete in defiance of considerable odds" -- a record of achievement, he argues, that cannot simply be explained by "a dearth of opportunities elsewhere."  Instead, argues Entine, "The decisive variable is in our genes," and it is due to more than "cultural serendipity" that "Brazilians are time and time again the best soccer players, the Chinese among the best divers, black Dominicans among the best baseball players, and African Americans the top basketball and football players."

Entine also calls "Africa is the mother-lode of the running world," and writes that "athletes from each region tend to excel in specific athletic events as a result of both cultural and genetic factors: West Africa is the ancestral home of the world's top sprinters and jumpers; North Africa turns out top middle distance runners; and East Africa is the world distance running capital…Whereas only one in every eight of the people in the world are black, more than 70 percent of the top times are held by runners of African origin."

Although Entine rejects the idea of black intellectual inferiority, Harry Edwards is unswayed by his argument.  In a roundtable with Entine on BET Tonight, Edwards rejected the notion that blackness is an athletic advantage.

"Blacks do not dominate most sports," he said emphatically. "Blacks are concentrated in four or five sports -- literally, baseball, football, boxing and track -- and not even field, the hammer throw, the distance throw and so forth.  The overwhelming majority of sports, over 95 percent, are dominated by whites.  Why are we not talking about white athletic superiority in winter sports…or in swimming, or automobile racing, or horseracing, or golf, or tennis and so forth?"

"Sports," explained Edwards, "is a very complicated social phenomenon...genetics [may matter] at the individual level, but collectively it [black over-representation in certain sports] has to do with a lack of alternative high prestige occupation opportunities which are comparably visible to sports."

Bryan Burwell of HBO Sports and sees a genetic explanation for black athletic achievement as a gross oversimplification. "I don't recall anybody trying to figure out why Albert Einstein was brilliant," he says.  "You fall into a dangerous trap when you play this game…There are no absolutes in figuring out athletic performance.  There were a billion people before Michael Jordan who had his athletic ability.  There's something at the level of personality. Tiger Woods destroys Entine's theory.  He's not 'black' -- he's ‘Cablasian.' He's good not just because he hits the ball far, but because he has worked hard to perfect his swing.  He beats people on the green, that's not physical -- that's mental. Broad sweeping statements are usually wrong…and if there was a grand genetic lottery that we won, I must not have won the lottery ticket, because I was one of the most mediocre college athletes."

Michael Blakey, professor of anatomy and anthropology at Howard University and curator of the university's Cobb Biological Anthropology Laboratory, also fundamentally disagrees with Entine's thesis. "The idea fostered by Taboo denies that blacks used discipline and hard work even to achieve in the sports arena," he wrote in response to written questions. "Entine cites studies as supporting a racial basis for sports ability when in fact those studies show that fast twitch muscle fibers he associates with people of African descent increase through training and that early motor skills associated with blacks are the result of the necessary independence of young children in low income households, not racial biology."

And so, the debate rages on.  Pushed by political winds and scientific evidence, the intellectual pendulum will continue to swing back and forth from "genetic" arguments to cultural and socio-economic explanations.

adapted from an article located at