SI on the White Athlete

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In 1997, Sports Illustrated asked “What Ever Happened To The White Athlete?”

Unsure of his place in a sports world dominated by blacks who are hungrier, harder-working and perhaps physiologically superior, the young white male is dropping out of the athletic mainstream to pursue success elsewhere

Read the whole thing. Some excerpts and comments below.

What do you do for a living?” Each time Kevin Little hears the question, he suffers a small crisis. He would love to say straight out, “I run fast. I am a sprinter.” But Little is tired of facing disbelief, tired of the skeptical sputter that always follows such a statement. So he often just mentions his part-time job for U.S. West and moves on. Why bother?

“People do not understand,” Little says. “They look at me like, But you’re white.”

Little is one of the fastest men in the world. His winning time of 20.40 seconds at the world championships in Paris last March tied the American indoor record in the 200 meters. That victory—over a field that lacked world-record holder Michael Johnson but included 1997 outdoor world champ Ato Boldon—made him the first white American since 1956 to win a major international sprint title. At 29, Little is in his prime, but the confidence he displays took too long to earn. Thai’s because, aside from suffering the usual self-doubts, he matured in an age when the white sprinter is about as common as the horse and buggy.

Have any white done as well as Little in international sprinting in the last 13 years? Not that I am aware of. (Pointers welcome.)

The white athlete is getting out. The white athlete—and here we speak of the young men in team sports who ruled the American athletic scene for much of the century—doesn’t want to play anymore. Distracted by other leisure-time pursuits and discouraged by the success of black athletes, who have come to dominate sports in spectacular fashion, the white athlete is now less interested in playing certain mainstream games, most notably basketball and football, than are his black counterparts. He is increasingly drawn to sports that in the U.S. are played primarily by whites, such as soccer, or to alternative athletic pursuits that are overwhelmingly white, such as mountain biking or rock climbing.

This seems wrong, both as a matter of historical fact and as a description of current events. There is huge white participation in sports, including team sports. The young (white) male athletes in my normal suburban town play organized sports all year round. They would do anything to make the elite travel teams in basketball, to be a starter in high school football, to get a college scholarship in baseball. To the extent that the racial balance changes as you move up the competitive ladder, it has nothing to do with a lack of white desire.

What goes on in your town?

The New York Giants’ Jason Sehorn, the only white starting at cornerback in the NFL, runs a 4.4 40 and led his team with five interceptions last season.

There hasn’t been a white starting cornerback since Sehorn. When will there be another? If you believe that, at the elite level, certain athletic-related traits are correlated with race, you would believe that it might be decades before a white cornerback starts for most of an NFL season. If you think that this is more cultural than genetic, you would bet the other way. How would GNXP readers bet?

“I’m told by lots of coaches that you can’t get white kids to go out for basketball teams in urban areas,” says Richard Lapchick, head of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Boston’s Northeastern University. “If you’re fielding a team in Boston, the white kids just aren’t going to go out, whether they can make the team or not. I hear that around the country, too.”

I don’t believe it. Also, Lapchick is a charlatan who refuses to release the underlying data for his studies. (I tried to get it.) But, he tells a story that the US media/people want to hear, so he gets plenty of grant money and exposure.

All of which leads to a question that’s often at the heart of the discussion of race and achievement: Does one group outperform another because of innate ability or outside influences? Is it nature or nurture (page 52)? Cespedes chimes in with those who argue that, in this case, economic forces are responsible—that black males, like some Italians and Irish in the first half of the century, are using sports as a way to a better life. SI’s poll found that young African-American males see sports as a rare opportunity for advancement: Some 51% of them agreed that blacks “care more about sports because sports are one of the few ways in America that blacks can make a lot of money,” and by almost a 3-to-1 margin over whites they said that one of the most important reasons to play is “If I am successful at sports, I can make a lot of money.”

But many people find it hard to believe that economic incentives alone account for black athletic dominance. These observers offer a simple theory: Blacks dominate sports because they are faster, quicker, better. “If you want a gauge, go to the track meets,” says Bowden. “Who’s winning all those track meets?” Certainly there is a chuckling acceptance, among both blacks and whites, of the inability of whites to leap high and run fast. It’s not that whites won’t play anymore, the thinking goes: It’s that they can’t.

Though open discussion of inherent black athletic superiority remains taboo, few deem it offensive to joke about “white man’s disease” or to make a movie called White Men Can’t Jump.

One way to settle the dispute would be to make some competing forecasts. Consider the future of the European soccer leagues. There is lots of money and lots of competition. So, if it is true that black athletes have an advantage in soccer (and certainly speed is the single most important talent for soccer), you would expect these leagues to become much blacker over time, especially via an influx of players from Africa. That has happened to some extent already. If you believe in HBD, you would expect starting players to be of majority African descent in the next decade or so. Would anyone take the other side of that bet?


  1. “Have any white done as well as Little in international sprinting in the last 13 years? “

    That Greek sprinter won the 200m at the Sydney Olympics. He was almost certainly a drug cheat though.

  2. This is a real effect. Started in HS team sports. Not fun and very violent racially charged. So I ski and climb, fun and no fat chicks. No brainer really.

  3. Jeremy Wariner is one of the two best 400m runners in the world. Also, the women’s events usually feature at least one European in the final, one of whom won the 100m in Athens.


    What do you think of the articles on this website? The author seems to be a sociology professor operating under a pseudonym. He delves into the issues of racial differences with absolutely zero regard for political correctness. Thus the pseudonym.

    Here is an article that might especially incite ideological upset and is relevant to this post:

    The article begins, “Only the most committed egalitarian ideologue can deny the black edge in basketball, football and sprinting. Tune in an NBA game and there is a fair chance you will find ten black players on the court. Try an NFL game. Most of the faces on the field will be black as well. Then measure this against the fact that blacks comprise about 13 percent of all Americans. But nowhere is black superiority more dramatically illustrated than in sprinting. No white has ever run a 100m in less than 10 seconds. At least 30 blacks have.

    The simplest explanation (usually the best) for black dominance in these sports is innate talent. Measurable anatomical and physiological differences support this conclusion. However, this interpretation being offensive to multicultural sensibilities, remains unpopular. We will avoid the issue. Our aim is to make the black-white ability gap precise, not to ponder its origins. ”

    I will let you read the rest.

  5. As noted above, if you count the 400m as a Sprint, Jeremy Wariner is far more accomplished (Golds in 2004 Olympics and 2005 and 2007 World Championships and Silvers in 2008 and 2009).

    There appears to be little doubt that blacks are better athletes in sports where speed, jumping ability and/or explosive athletecism are crucial, however I don’t think it’s a far fetched hypothesis that cultural factors and discrimination/bias also play a role in keeping white representation down. Perhaps coaches assume that because few whites are likely to be successful none will be and don’t give white athletes a chance (this looks like it might happen to Stanford RB Toby Gerhardt). Also, I know a white fellow from highschool who was a (fringe) NBA player and he said it was a very difficult environment because of black hostility. He thought black players saw a white playing professional basketball as “encroaching on their turf.”

    Given the differences in skeletal maturation rates between whites and blacks, I’ve often wondered if some white athletes weren’t discouraged from continuing early on (middle and early high school) when they might have been more competitive when they were a little older.

    Also, I’m not sure speed is the single most important talent for all soccer positions. Coordination and ball skills mean a lot (in general psychomotor skills are often overlooked in sports because they’re harder to measure and express in a way that people easily understand than are speed or strength).

  6. If you have the time and want to test for any possible bias against white athletes at positions like, say, NFL wide receiver who get significant playing time, you could probably do it with data available on line. If you assume that receiving talent is roughly normally distributed and that the black distribution of talent is well to the right of the white distribution, one would expect to find the few whites that make the NFL to cluster more towards the minimum proficiency level (lowest receiving statistics) than black receivers. If white receivers have better than average statistics on average (I have no idea if this is the case), it is likely that they’re being discriminated against/held to a higher standard than black players. (There was a paper in an economics journal I remember stumbling across in the late 90s (publication date was early 90s at the latest), the name of whose author escapes me, which did this type of analysis for white and black attainment and possible discrimination in professional jobs and taking into account differences in the IQ distributions.

  7. There are a few wide receivers in the NFL who are white. Notably the Patriots played Wes Welker for the last three years with great success. He is a niche player – small, agile, smart, reads defenses well, with good hands – but he complements Brady and Moss quite well. When Welker got hurt at the end of the season, he was replaced with Julian Edelman who is slightly bigger, but also smart and a very good runner.

    There also seems to be a decrease in the number of black QBs, especially as passing schemes get more complicated and timing based. One thing about Blind Side is that in addition to the Michael Oher story, there is a significant analysis of the economic and on field themes you expect from the author of Money Ball. It appears that good decision making and passing well trumps quarterback running skills under the current systems.

    Offensive lines also are relatively pale. It will be interesting to see how Oher works out when they move him to left tackle. He obviously has the physical tools and that may be enough, but if getting to the QB is essential, somebody may work really hard to find schemes he hasn’t seen.

  8. RT,

    You may be onto something with the differential maturation rates, favoring Blacks early on in their running careers to continue in the sport.

    Interestingly, the “The Fastest White Man in the World” (aka Paul Hession) is a med student from the West of Ireland – an area where he would have no Black competition growing up – and most likely never even saw a non-Irish person.

  9. PConroy,

    To further this line of discussion, notice how many of the top white NBA players are foreign and would have had little black competition growing up. Larry Bird is another example of this. I doubt when he was 12 to 14 years old he played against many black players in French Lick, Indiana.

  10. “I’m told by lots of coaches that you can’t get white kids to go out for basketball teams in urban areas,”

    My daughter played on an undefeated basketball team in 8th grade. (all-white Methodist school)

    She was 5′ 11″ already then, but she was viewed skeptically and didn’t make the team when she tried out at her Catholic high school. Private schools reserve their charity scholarships for team sports. The school was about 10% black in a 40% black city, but guess the make-up of the football & basketball teams…

  11. There was a study done in 2009 or 2010 by, interestingly enough, a black and white scientist. They looked at the sprinting record in the last century and the swimming records too. They also did physiology studies on the average African and no African. What they came up with was that the position of the belly button was critical. Blacks generally have smaller torsos and a higher belly buttons indicating a higher center of gravity making them slightly more top heavy. Since running is essentially a state of constantly falling forward this gives them a physiological advantage against whites in sprinting. Asians and whites though have a clear advantage in swimming due to there proportionally larger torsos, since swimming is about constantly displacing water and larger torsos mean more displacement. Blacks aren’t genetically more skilled than whites, that I believe is where cultural effects come into play. Black people are more into sports. My data is personal experience. Growing up around blacks and not being shy I converse all the time. Never have I met a black man that didn’t like sports. Never. I’ve met a few that were pretty clumsy, but as far as not being interested. NEVER. I meet white men on a regular basis that don’t like sports. Black dominance has driven many white kids from sports. Not all, not most, but a significant number. I only say that due to my extensive reading in American history. I have sat in conversations where I have actually heard white parents tell there kids to focus on school more than sports because there chances of going pro are slim. With the nba being over 80 % black and the nfl being almost 70 % black and blacks making up a much smaller part of the population it is obvious that if youre black you a MUCH higher shot at the pros. So I believe black kids hear that speech less than white kids. The Olympic USA hoops team. Definitely challenged more but still clearly the best is a good look at what whites in America could be if the weren’t do lazy and discouraged. We’re the fattest nation and whites in athletically competitive ages do tend to be fatter on average. No scientific study to back it up but I know enough blacks from living in a mixed town and being in the military to say that with confidence. Even still though the European game is more about team work and good shooting which are lost arts in America evidenced by the pre- Coach K teams that don’t win gold. That’s why they got him in the first place. Be aide SURPRISE ! he coaches at a school with a lot of white kids do he has to emphasize teamwork and recruit great shooters. Sorry man, whites ( except for the exceptionally few gifted athletes among us ) are going to stick to swimming and sports blacks don’t care about like hockey, baseball, and soccer.

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