Black sports stars have collectively achieved what they have because society presents them with few other options
Not to toot my own horn, but growing up I was quite the athlete. When the time came to select teams for dodgeball or relay races, I was often among those picked first – myself, and many of my other Black friends. In most of the schools I attended throughout my childhood, my classmates tended to be a healthy mix of all races – but at every stop, I found that Black students consistently dominated the playground.
It didn’t take long for our young, naïve minds to hypothesize – it must be in the genes, right? There were clear patterns, and the most obvious explanation for our athletic success, at least to our adolescent reasoning, was that the Black kids were simply built for it. The white kids believed it, the Black kids believed it, hell I even bought it for a while. I was young and dumb – fortunately, I have since matured.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of everyone. These groundless theories have transcended the schoolhouse, making their way to the mainstream. This week, as some of the most gifted college basketball players compete in the latter stages of the NCAA Tournament, we’re likely to hear many of the same tired old tropes from analysts and announcers, referencing the inherent physicality of some of America’s best Black athletes. Many people ascribe to the same sort of logic that my peers and I possessed in elementary school, but on a much larger scale – if Black people so heavily dominate football and basketball, then they must be built differently than the rest of us, right?
In 2000 journalist Jon Entine wrote on the concept, publishing his infamous book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It. Over more than 300 pages, Entine defended the same idea that my classmates and I had devised: Black people simply possess an inherent physical advantage for athletic competition.
“Check the NBA statistics,” Entine wrote, “not one white player has finished among the top scorers or rebounders in recent years. White running backs, cornerbacks, or wide receivers in the NFL? Count them on one hand.”
To call this flimsy logic would be an understatement – this is an egregiously, laughably, irresponsibly asinine line of thinking.
However, it isn’t uncommon. While everyone is not as willing to be as openly ignorant as Entine was, if one listens to the manner in which Black athletes are discussed today, they will find traces of the same prejudiced ideology. Many studies have been conducted on the topic, including University of Georgia professor Daniel Buffington’s, which found that observers of basketball are likely to recognize a Black player’s strength, speed and athleticism before other traits such as leadership and IQ. From LeBron James to Lamar Jackson to Serena Williams, Black athletes are lauded for their perceived natural physical abilities far more than their intellect and diligence – a recurring theme in the perception of the Black body. Elite Black athletes are “freaks of nature” and “athletic specimens,” rather than the products of years and years of blood, sweat and tears put into their respective crafts.
Some will even go so far as to attribute the dominance of Black athletes to the atrocities of slavery. If your schooling was anything like most in the US, you were taught about the evils of America’s original sin for about 30 seconds. If you got the notes down quick enough, you learned that plantation owners would force the biggest, tallest and strongest of the enslaved to have sex, in an effort to produce future generations of free labor. One of the most despicable transgressions of a deplorable period in American history, the genetic manipulation of Black bodies by white slaveholders is wrongfully understood by many to be a major contributing factor in the athletic dominance by African Americans today – Chris Rock even had a pretty funny bit about it in his 2004 stand-up comedy special, Never Scared.
Jokes aside, this is also a ridiculous notion. Beyond the fact that it feels like a blatant injustice to even attempt to grasp at any sort of positive consequence from this brutal infringement upon human rights, the claim that ancestral breeding is the primary source of Black athletic superiority is unsubstantiated by both history and science. According to a study conducted by Oregon State zoologist Josef Uyeda, lasting evolutionary changes in a population require around a million years to occur. Even if we assume that the forced reproduction of the enslaved was rampant in America long before the 1808 closing of the transatlantic slave trade (which significantly increased the demand for a self-sustaining enslaved population) the 400 years in which slavery existed in the United States is nowhere near enough time to produce drastic results in today’s African American population.
So, if it is not inherent, what is the reason for perceived Black athletic superiority?
Athletes such as Serena Williams build their success on hours of training and practice
Athletes such as Serena Williams build their success on hours of training and practice. Photograph: Andy Cheung/Getty Images
Firstly, it is important not to overstate the presence of Black people in sports as a whole, this perceived dominance – Black athletes make up roughly 41% of the rosters in the five major American sports leagues. While it is true that Black athletes make up the majority of more popular professional sports such as football and basketball, when one takes into account the demographics of baseball, hockey, soccer, golf, tennis, gymnastics and other professional sports, it becomes increasingly evident that what Black people actually dominate are the sports that they have access to. Often understated in the world of youth sports are the financial barriers to access that prevent people from participating: things like baseball equipment, golf clubs and soccer camps aren’t cheap. Given the collective economic state of the African American community, football and basketball are simply more realistic extracurricular options for many Black families and their children.
Even beyond dollars and cents, however, this idea of opportunity is the true explanation for the preeminence of the Black athlete.
At this point, it should be no secret that Black people in this country have limited access to the so-called “American Dream” – that is, the idea that any person from any background can make it to the top. Through daily microaggressions, through popular media, even through our education system, Black people are conditioned to temper our aspirations, to expect less out of life than our white counterparts. Black kids in this country are taught by society to believe that they, simply because of the color of their skin, have limited options.
As J. Cole expressed in his 2016 song, Immortal: Black people are told to, “sell dope, rap or go to [the] NBA”.
The fact is that, because of centuries of injustice towards African American communities, many Black kids grow up believing that their means of real upward ascension are significantly narrower than that of white kids. Therefore, it only makes sense that we would see such a large population of Black children with a burning desire to become professional athletes – many see sports as the only way out, the only road to making something of themselves.
Of course, millions of white kids grew up wanting nothing more than to play sports at the professional level too. However, their fervor simply is no match for one of the defining characteristics of the Black experience: desperation. Obviously, race doesn’t operate in a monolith, but many a Black kid knows the feeling of having to put all of their eggs into the basket of sports. That desperation to escape the realities of Blackness in America, the harrowing feeling of being backed into a corner with no other way out, will produce a drive and fight unlike no other. It is this resolve that produces wave after wave after wave of talented Black athletes.
As Dr Harry Edwards aptly put it in his 1971 piece, The Sources of the Black Athlete’s Superiority, “whites, being the dominant group in the society, have access to all means toward achieving desirable valuables defined by the society. Blacks on the other hand are channeled into the one or two endeavors open to them – sports, and to a lesser degree – entertainment.”
In essence, there is a significant difference between the desire of a kid who really wants to be a professional athlete, and the will of a kid who feels like he or she doesn’t have any other alternative.
Ask Cris Carter. Ask Caron Butler. Ask Shannon Sharpe. It’s just a different type of fire.
Ultimately, we can place the idea that Black people are naturally more inclined for sports right alongside all the other tired stereotypes thrown at us – like our inclination towards aggression and our advanced affinity for watermelons. There is no excuse for explicitly championing this notion of inherent Black athletic supremacy, or complicitly perpetuating it by discussing Black athletes as though their success is an inevitability. The fact of the matter is, Black athletes have collectively achieved what they have because society presented them with few other options.
To believe anything else is foolish. It is the stuff of schoolchildren.