"[Basketball] is a black man's game, and it will be forever. I mean, the greatest athletes in the world are African-American." --- Larry Bird, June 2004
Joseph Graves, Jr. might as well be talking to the wall. For years, the professor of biology and African-American Studies at Arizona State and Embry-Riddle University has dismissed claims such as Bird's because he says there is no scientific evidence that race exists.
Graves, a would-be African-American, just finished writing The Race Myth.He says race is purely a man-made concept, "social constructions based on the history of racism and slavery in the New World." He adds that there is more genetic variation within "races" than between them. So if the human species features fewer differences than its subgroups, there is no genuine distinction within the species. We're all the same.
Yet, just as Bird professes, there is a general belief that African-Americans are athletically superior. Graves rejects that, using the 1988 Seoul Olympics 100-meter dash as an example. He averaged the times of every heat among athletes from different regions and found that western Africans ranked behind East Asians, Europeans, and Americans.
"If there was a black gene for running then how come the African runners didn't do better than the Europeans?" he asks during our interview. Here's more of what Graves had to say.
City: You admit genetics has much to do with athletic performance. If African-Americans dominate American sports, and genetics are naturally involved, isn't it logical to conclude that African-Americans are genetically superior?
Graves: It's really important to understand the difference [in genetics of] individuals vs. genetics of groups. The mistake that people make is that they look at individuals and think they're representative of the genetics of a group. That's the real error.
City: So why do African-Americans appear to dominate American athletics?
Graves: Environment is indispensable. My older son won four medals out of five events in a swim meet. I live in a reasonably upscale community and therefore he can swim on the country club team, SunWest Swimming, which has a coach who was a Canadian Olympian.
Now in swimming, there is absolutely no way that you're ever going to achieve an international level of competition unless excellent coaches coach you beginning at a very young age. The techniques are very difficult. So if you don't get that kind of coaching very early on, you're not going to reach the Olympics. Now, given who has access to country clubs and those kinds of Olympic-quality coaches, well, it's not surprising that certain ethnic groups aren't well represented in US swimming.
City: So it's entirely environment?
Graves: It's always both the genetics of a person and their environment. I could have trained as hard as I possibly could and I would have never been as good a basketball player as Michael Jordan. It was probably the genetics of Jordan's family. It wasn't just because he had great coaching. It was that he had great coaching, great training, and he was an athletic phenomenon.
City: Some people think your ideas are ridiculous, based on what they've observed through watching American sports.
Graves: Those are just observations... If you were to take sports as a whole, you would not get that impression.
I know the neighborhood I grew up in, Westfield, New Jersey. We didn't have many options for sports. There was a public playground with a basketball hoop and 10 guys could play and so that's all we did. You don't have to be a genius to figure out why African-Americans made it in basketball.
If you look where basketball is being played now, you got people playing in the Balkans, China, Spain, France... People look at [the Spurs'] Tony Parker and say he's black. He clearly has European ancestry... As the game becomes more popular, it will become international. And there are plenty of different populations that have the characteristics [that make them] capable of playing basketball, not just African-Americans.
City: Why right now are there more African-Americans in the major pro and college sports?
Graves: The most oppressed social groups have greater representation in sports because it's the one avenue where they're allowed to excel. That's really a result of American social changes in the '50s and '60s, which allowed African-Americans to get into [football and basketball] and be successful, become role models that people would want to emulate, whereas in other areas of life they would have been cut off... We have a society that, on one hand, wants to recognize and even laud the African-American in sports, but gives us no credit for doing anything else.
But look at all sports and you don't see an African-American domination of sports... Why aren't African-Americans playing soccer? Why aren't they playing pro volleyball? There are, like, two in professional volleyball. What about swimming, where there are virtually none?
Social factors have a lot to do with that. Until recently, you didn't see blacks in tennis until Arthur Ashe comes along. Now the Williams sisters. Now golf. People call Tiger Woods black. Again, Tiger's ancestry is as much Asian as it is African. The color of skin: They call him black.
Here's the point: Opportunities for people of African descent to play golf aren't that good and if there were more opportunities, there would be more African-American golfers.