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Original Issue

Not Too Hot To Handle After All

TABOO: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid
to Talk about It
By Jon Entine, PublicAffairs, $25

If you believe that Ray Rhodes was fired as Green Bay Packers
coach because he is black; if you think O.J. got off only by
playing the race card; if you think Richard Williams wasn't
joking when he called Irina Spirlea a "big, tall, white turkey";
if you view with suspicion the absence in major league baseball
of any black general managers--if you, in other words, think the
worst of the most publicized intersections of race and sports
over the last few years, then you'd find it no great leap to
declare that relations between blacks and whites haven't
progressed much since Jackie Robinson broke major league
baseball's color barrier in 1947. Once the cutting-edge lab of
race relations, American sport has become more like some junior
high school hallway in which real issues of color too often get
lost in moronic slurs and knee-jerk reactions.

Now, into the food fight, Entine has tossed his new book, Taboo.
The title alone is guaranteed to stir controversy; you can be
sure that without reading it, many on both sides of the
black-white divide will ask, "Why stir up this again? Why now?"

But the fact is, the timing has never been better for Entine's
balanced, well-reasoned and--above all--calm examination of the
issue. The black domination of such high-profile sports as
basketball, football and Olympic track is now so complete that
its relatively unexamined state is almost embarrassing. Few
people are comfortable talking about it for fear of becoming the
next Al Campanis or Jimmy the Greek. Yet, as someone who has
done the research, I can tell you that nearly every athlete,
coach, general manager and fan has thought about Entine's
subject. It is the elephantine subtext in almost every locker
room, but in the absence of extensive study, too much myth has
rushed in to fill the void.

In response, Entine, who was the producer for Tom Brokaw's 1989
NBC News special Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction, has
deconstructed every permutation of his subject, ranging from the
ownership of distance running by Kenyans to the tawdry history
of race science to the incomplete but intriguing evidence of
black physical superiority. Entine convincingly argues for the
primacy of the overwhelming on-field evidence, allows for the
determining X factors of environment and depoliticizes the
discussion by attempting to kill the long-held cultural bedtime
story about the link between athletic excellence and low
intelligence. Taboo is not a great book: Entine leaps to the
conclusion that in the genetic lottery, blacks have indeed been
granted more physical gifts, even though the most prominent
scientists he cites have said elsewhere that such a conclusion
still can't be made without extensive testing of top-level
athletes. But the scientists' doubts don't detract from the
book's importance.

It is no small thing to make a bold effort, to discuss,
unflinchingly, what we really talk about when we talk about race
and sports. These days, you can even call it progress.