Some thoughts about race and sports

These guys are Navajos, not Nazis

The three original Thunderlads- Acilius, LeFalcon, and VThunderlad- have exchanged some emails in recent days in which we’ve been talking about race and sports.  The discussion has gotten on to some pretty interesting questions, I think, about politics, economics, culture, etc.

This started when blog founder VThunderlad sent us a link to a news item about “The All-American Basketball Association,” a proposed professional basketball league that will be restricted to players who were born in the USA to two parents “of the Caucasian race.”  I blogged about that story a few days ago, explaining my suspicions as to what the promoters are really up to.

In response to VThunderlad’s email, LeFalcon mocked the AABA’s promoters’ claim that African-American players had corrupted the NBA:

There actually is something interesting about
the reasons they give for forming the league:
They’re suggesting that African-Americans have corrupted the sport.
How so?

The white players are grounded in “fundamentals”
(= honest, hard-working).
Black players violate these “fundamentals,” supposedly gaining an unfair advantage from doing so.
It seems to be implied that black players, in a seeming paradox, are both superior players
AND intrinsically lazy.

Question:  If opportunism wins the day,
can’t white players similarly “cheat”?

“Both superior players AND intrinsically lazy”- that’s exactly the kind of logical absurdity racism makes it possible for people to accept blithely.  VThunderlad expressed surprise about one point:

“”natural born citizens of TWO (2) Caucasian parents” (they seem to have left out a definition of parents being a man and a woman, as one might expect, but perhaps they don’t mind homo-ball, just negro-ball.”

I responded with the theory I laid out in my “Gametime for Hitler” post.  Then the conversation started to turn away from the sarcastic tone above (“riddim,” “negro-ball,” etc) and toward a more serious discussion of the underlying issues of race and sport.  From LeFalcon:

Yeah the idea that black guys who are good at basketball … ARE good,
simply *because* they are black … is just being silly.  If a little kid said something like that,
that would be an unfortunate but fairly typical thing for kid-level discourses to come up with;
and actually somewhat understandable, given all of the implicit (if not explicit)
racist messages floating around our society and media … but it’s hard to understand adult people
that would actually believe in that.

LeFalcon continued:

Seems like there was some research where they concluded that people from
some genetic pools in Africa tended to have higher proportions of so-called
“fast twitch” muscles.  And a higher propor. of FT muscles in an individual
is supposed to contribute to enhanced prowess in certain sports.

But even if that’s true, it couldn’t be the lone explanatory factor.
Basketball in the USA is a bit like soccer is to the rest of the globe:
all you need to play is a ball and some sort of goal … so the situation of
growing up poor could actually contribute to the formation of good b-ball players …
since they differ from their bourgeois counterparts, i.e. kids who have other sports
options because they have tennis courts in their neighborhood, parents who have
the “dough” / “cabbage” / “gelt” / “wampum” to buy them a racquet,
a daddy that will take them golfing on the weekend …
Obviously kids in the so-called “ghetto” or “barrio” or “favela” might never even touch
tennis or golf equipment…

And once some hypothetical guy from a poor background does get good at b-ball,
professional sports is one of his best, if not essentially his only, career option
outside of so-called “blue collar” or “working class” jobs.

In response to this, VThunderlad pointed out that “you can find any kind of specialization in Africa if you look long enough by virtue of it containing the widest spread of genetic variability.”  That may mean that some groups have characteristics that give advantages in some situations, but that isn’t all it means.  And the situations we find in elite sports are highly contrived and dependent on lots of conditions in society at large.  So that the “athletes we see performing well aren’t there after a long, scientific sifting of all human genetic types.”

This led LeFalcon to put a question:

Question:  if “computer nerd” is a specific type,
then what have these com-nerds been doing
historically .. prior to the rise of computers?
It’s a serious question.

At this point, I brought up something I’ve been thinking about for a while:

something i’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how competition magnifies small differences.  specifically, in a fierce competition, small differences in input correspond to big differences in output.  so the difference in running ability between the guy who finishes first in the 400m at the olympics and the guy who finishes last in that same event is a tiny fraction of the difference in running ability between either one of them and me.  in most of life you’d never notice the difference between the two olympians.  even if they both had jobs that involved running, say as shepherds, all you’d be able to say is that they were both really fast.  but when you construct an institution like the olympic games, with all of the training programs and lesser competitions that feed into it, that little difference has huge consequences.  one runner wins a gold medal, becomes a national hero in his country, gets endorsement deals, etc.  the other gets to go back to his day job, if he’s lucky.  the more intense the competition, the bigger the disparity between input and output.  so in something like the olympics or the NBA, the system becomes so sensitive that any of an enormous number of variables, some of them quite subtle, can have dramatic effects.  maybe a slight difference in average fast twitch muscle response rates between west africans on the one hand and europeans on the other could account for the ethnic makeup of the upper echelons of the NBA, but so could any of the other factors you’ve listed.  it makes intuitive sense that the full explanation would find a place for all the factors of nature and nurture, but when the system is so finely balanced i don’t know if it’s certain that science won’t find a single, perhaps rather subtle factor that dominates the whole process that generates the top-level rankings.  in any case, because competition in elite athletics is such a sensitive system it’s extremely easy to find possible explanations for who stands where in the rankings and extremely difficult to choose among those explanations.

That intense competition magnifies the consequences of small differences has been preying on my mind not only in regard to sport, but in regard to market economics, academic elites, and other meritocratic systems.  Anyway, that elicited this response from LeFalcon:



I’m enjoying the conversation all around.
Allow me to put in my 77 cents…
I do seem to recall we had a whole conversation on race some time back.
So at risk of repeating stuff,
here r some additional ruminations…
But first:
Found this passage floating around on the Internet.
It seems to provide a good summary of the prevailing
PC view on race:
“…it has become clear that race as a biological entity is a meaningless concept. Today, physical anthropologists and geneticists believe that there is as much genetic variability within what were once traditionally believed to be racial groups, as between them. Divergence of what once may have been more homogeneous grouping came about as a result of migrations and interbreeding of populations over thousands of years. Consequently, the concept of race has become meaningful only as a broad sociological concept. This is not to say that genetic makeup is unimportant as a basis for athletic excellence. This also does not infer that groups of people distributed around the world do not have advantages in certain athletic endeavors, as environment, culture, and heredity may be advantageous, in certain instances, for producing individuals with optimal height, weight, muscle structure, and temperament for excelling in a particular activity (e.g., Kenyans and distance running or Norwegians and cross-country skiing). The point, however, is that such groupings do not represent what is traditionally believed to be racial groups.”
Sometimes I start thinking that the basic problem lies with the word “race”:
it sounds bad.  But I think people are being silly when they go so far
with PC-ness, they skirt of edge of insinuating that gene-pools among humans
don’t even exist.  As if you could switch a Gabonese baby and a Ukrainian baby,
and their respective sets of parents would never notice.

We’ve gone so far with the PC attitude on race, just the simple statement,
“People in Gabon tend to have a darker skin-tone than people in Ukraine,”
causes us to cringe in discomfort.  The simple recognition that different
populations tend to have different physical characteristics…makes us nervous.

“Race” as classically understood does not exist on the biological plane.
The classical view of race was highly rigid, ludicrously so.
E.g. “Jew” was a racial type, containing distinctive “subtypes”
like “the Vilnius Jew” or “the Wroclaw Jew.”
The underlying notion being you could take e.g. measurements of the
size / shape of the cranium of a “Vilnius Jew” … and these measurements
would fall within a range demonstrably at variance from the range for “Wroclaw Jews.”

The fast-twitch thing:  I really have no idea.  As I said before, there’s no way
that a possible tendency among African-Americans to have more of these
muscles could be the *sole* factor explaining why the percent of NBA players
who are black is so radically higher than the percent of US citizens who are black.
But that it *could* be one of various factors strikes me as possible.
Or maybe the fast twitch thing is bull crap.  Based on what little I know,
I couldn’t really offer a view pro or con.

VThunderlad replied:

Good discussion as always. It comes down, again, to what is really unsettling behind the concept of race: who is asking, and why?

Race is infuriating because it is an unfair, ignorant, intangible and untrue concept that nevertheless is a potent construct…

People believe and act based on things they consider “race-based,” therefore those things start to matter. Or at least the actions of people, informed by race, matter. I know that there is no “black race” anymore than there’s a “computer nerd race.” But people have treated black-skinned people as a category, and I have to deal with that. I can be unprejudiced, hopefully, but I can’t ignore the social construct of “black race” entirely because lots of other people do give it creedence. Similarly, even if I’m an atheist to the core, I can’t simply make “religion” meaningless.

We look at the current NBA rosters. Why do we care what color the players are? I don’t care. I’m not interested in basketball. For the sake of argument or science, or betting (let’s say I’ve decided to bet on sports as my job), perhaps I’d have a need to know “why are a lot of NBA players dark-skinned?” Fast-twitch muscles might be something they have in common. So what? What does group membership in the NBA players’ club tell us?

Usually people don’t just want to know if race is involved for the sake of knowing.They crave the satisfaction of judgment in some way. They are trying to validate a worldview where the construction “race” has meaning.

By looking at small groups of humans I think we can always come to false conclusions about group membership and/or human variation.

I like pondering the computer nerd “race.” What were they doing before? Are we asking “is there a genetic similarity between those who are com-nerds?” and what roles did people with those genes play in a time without computers? My concept of a com-nerd is pretty different from someone who hasn’t worked in my industry at all, I think. I don’t consider myself nearly close to the actual elite, those who advance the disciplines of computer science and/or create and extend the technologies. I’m a technician, an applied engineer at best. The elite figures I’ve read about (Bill Gates, for example, of John von Neumann, etc.) are a fairly diverse group of people. Certainly most of them share social factors like class, citizens of wealthy nations with large groups of professionals–factors that I think are much closer to explaining the membership of that group than genetics.

Sure, they might be “more intelligent” overall than the average. Do we go with the assumption that com-nerds are unsociable or introverted, or does that matter? Are there genes identifiable for those things? There might indeed be.

Does the fact that jobs in advanced symbol-processing and complex computation are now available mean that people in those jobs were previously all doing something else that suited there genetic makeup? It seems such a complex and far-reaching question. I’m interested in stabs at it, but holy crap.

A hundred years ago most of those com-nerd namby-pambys would’ve died as children from disease or misfortune, regardless of class. So would lots of other kids with all kinds of genes.

In a later message, VThunderlad expanded on some of these points:

I’ve been pondering competition for a story idea in other ways, and what you bring up about the way it magnifies differences is interesting. The process of maximizing some aspect of built-in potential definitely heightens any small difference. Small percentage differences in speed are hugely difficult to overcome in cycling, for example. If a rider has a seemingly tiny aerodynamic advantage for whatever reason, that advantage (perhaps 1 second per mile) over a 30 mile (or 60 mile) course adds up to something very significant.

I think you’re also probably right that the disparity between input (of quite a few variables) and output is non-linear: I would bet that someone with a built-in athletic advantage gets more, proportionally, out of intense training than someone normal. What trade-offs come into play, though? It’s certainly possible that some advantages might come with disadvantages: muscles more capable in one trait may lack something else, or may be advantaged only in certain activities.

Bicyclists need both fast and slow twitch muscles, and definitely there are genetic implications for what kind of elite cyclist someone can become. People have a mix of muscle fibers that will develop to some genetic limit – but training enforces which one takes relative primacy. A fast-twitch ‘sprinter’ type, maximized, will be far faster than other riders over short distances, if they maximize that trait. They give up all hope of being good mountain climbers if they do so, however, compared with other riders who have maximized their own lightweight frames and hardy, long-performing muscles. And a “sprinter type” may never match the best climbers even if they specialize in climbing. Life ain’t fair, you know, and neither is athletics. Interestingly, I know of zero elite cyclists who are obviously dark-skinned, of any type. I don’t believe that this is a genetic issue at all, that “only white man can ride.”

Ex: “curling” – are white cheese-eaters especially suited to that sport? Because every time I see curling on TV I see a bunch of white folks from a limited geographic area competing at the highest level.

Ex: the incredibly outsize number of Olympic medals Australia wins, consistently, per capita. It’s really kind of ridiculous that a tiny nation does so well in so many types of events, but it’s true. Are Australians a “race?” Is it that the place is full of the descendants of criminals, who are apparently physically advantaged compared to everyone else? Australian friends make it clear that there is simply a rabid culture of competition and participation in sports at work, and that seems far more important an answer than genetically analyzing a bunch of Australians.

These factors lead to a situation where it’s hard to have a full explanation, and I think it’s even harder to conclude genetic makeup is primary. I’m only hammering “DOWN ON” this point because I think genetic primacy is what racists are really aiming for. They may claim to be interested in race/genetics as minor factors, but really they want “scientific” excuses as fuel for oppression. Anyone doing real science about human variation has no such goal.

 At that point I started asking if I could put up a blog post like this one, and LeFalcon started talking about some comic strips he’s been working on.  So that was the last word.


  1. vthunderlad

     /  January 25, 2010

    I think “These guys are Navajos, not Nazis” is LOL funny!

  2. acilius

     /  January 25, 2010

    Thanks! I know they were Navajo. I assume they weren’t Nazis, but since the picture was taken in 1909 it may be unfair of me to prejudge what their views would have been on Nazism. I’m just guessing the whole thing about murdering non-Germans would have been a turn-off.

  3. muscle maxxl

     /  February 3, 2010

    I just started reading your site � thanks for writing. I wanted to inform you that it�s not displaying correctly on the BlackBerry Browser (I have a Tour). Anyway, I am now subscribed to the RSS feed on my PC, so thanks again!

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