Sports: classicism, lucre, genetics; BOOKS ON GAMES PEOPLE PLAY


Sport is life.

How else to explain our fascination? Like other great allegoric vehicles -- religion, theater, literature -- sport is a window unto ourselves, individually and collectively.

Consider three recently published books that address, through the games we play, urgent matters of history, money and race:

"The Best American Sports Writing of the Century," edited by David Halberstam and Glenn Stout (Houghton Mifflin, 512 pages, $30 cloth, 776 pages, $18 paper) vividly illustrates how sporting events express the context of their times.

Here is the 1947 account in the New York Herald Tribune of an aborted player strike to protest Jackie Robinson's hire, a 1936 Chicago Tribune description of the Hitler-worshiping "armed camp" that was Germany during the Olympic games, and Hunter S. Thompson's iconoclastic coverage of the 1970 Kentucky Derby -- a delightfully blurry-eyed look at America's modern age of Bohemianism.

Legendary sports writer Grantland Rice wrote upon the death of Babe Ruth: "I was present when he drove 60 miles one night before a World Series game in Chicago to see a sick boy. 'And if you write anything about it,' he said, 'I'll knock your brains out.' He meant it that way."

Heywood Broun's 1921 account of Jack Dempsey's defeat of Jacques Carpentier recalls a time when sports writing was poetry and a championship bout was a rematch of Sparta and Athens.

There is baseness, here, too, in the worst tradition of sportswriting. The same Tribune account that poked Hitler also took a jingoistic swipe at the German people, asserting that their "favorite sport is to be shoved around by men in uniform."

For a primer on the corruption of sports, see Andrew Zimbalist's excellent "Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports" (Princeton University Press, 256 pages, $24.95).

Zimbalist, who single-handedly elevated the debate over the last baseball strike with his well-timed, and well-penned, "Baseball and Billions," this time pulls back the covers of college sports. It's an ugly scene.

The chief theme of the book is the absurdity of the "student-athlete" myth. In reality, Zimbalist explains, the NCAA is nothing more than a very successful cartel feasting on the twin privileges of taxpayer subsidy and unpaid laborers.

Zimbalist, a Smith College economist who has consulted for players unions and others, figures that an athlete in a top-rated program earns, despite prohibitions against pay-for-play, anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 a year in the form of tuition waivers, booster gifts and other goodies. For this, he may generate more than $1 million in revenue for his school from television contracts, sweatshirt sales and alumni giving.

Where does the difference go? To coaches, athletic directors, conference commissioners, other collegiate sports. "In effect, college sports is an elaborate form of cross-subsidy," the author writes, as he dismantles, brick-by-brick, the illusions about college athletics.

Zimbalist forcefully dispels the prevailing beliefs that big-time sports programs necessarily make money for their colleges, or enhance their ability to raise money from alumni or raise the academic standards of applicants. And he shows convincingly that past efforts at reform have made matters worse.

Unlike some who have argued that we should simply pay college athletes as the free agents they really are, Zimbalist proposes a sensible 10-part reform plan that would preserve a place on college rosters for genuine student-athletes.

Step No. 1 is the exceedingly logical idea that the National Football League and National Basketball Association should pick up some of the costs of this de facto minor league system.

Zimbalist also suggests convincingly that the NCAA should take seriously its rule enforcement. Currently, the organization, which takes in about $300 million a year, spends less than $2 million to enforce 1,000 pages of rules at 964 colleges.

The book is readable, solidly researched, and adds great clarity to a muddy debate.

In "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It" (Public Affairs, 400 pages, $25), author Jon Entine sparks an athletic version of the debate that ensued from the publication a few years back of "The Bell Curve," which alleged the intellectual inferiority of blacks.

Entine, a white journalist, appeals to some of the same instincts, though his thesis is that blacks are athletically superior, due to evolutionary migration, an abundance of fast-twitch muscle fiber and other biological and cultural factors. This, he says, explains why America's football fields and basketball courts, but not baseball diamonds, are overwhelmingly black.

Entine attempts to distance himself from "The Bell Curve," even taking a few swipes at that controversial book. Moreover, Entine argues that athletic and intellectual excellence are not mutually exclusive.

Given the state of American race relations, just about any thoughtful discussion is better than none. But is replacing one set of canards with a new one -- that white boys can't jump -- progress?

Entine asserts, wrongly, that resistance to his thesis is rooted in "political correctness." Actually, there is good reason to be skeptical of broad-brush racial grouping. It has been used to justify everything from the Holocaust and slavery to separate whites-only water fountains.

The burden, then, is on Entine to make his case, which he attempts through a review of scientific literature and anecdote. Happily, he dismisses the Jimmy the Greek argument about selective breeding of slaves (a notion that doesn't hold up to historical or biological scrutiny).

At some key junctures, however, Entine jumps ahead of the research, noting that more work needs to be done on, say, the overwhelming overlap of genes among humans.

He notes research showing humans share 99.8 percent of genes. But, he says, humans and chimps share 98.4 percent. Scientists are now sifting through the gene pool, sorting meaningful elements from evolutionary dead ends. The matter is vital to understanding the contention of many scientists that racial differences are such a small part of the human genome as to be biologically insigificant. Race, they say, is a sociological, not genetic, construct.

One would need to be blind not to find some tug in the notion that the Kenyan domination of running may have a biological root. At the elite level, even tiny differences in biology can separate winners from losers.

But then what? Human bloodlines are hopelessly and blessedly crossed. Variations among individuals are far greater even than the most ardent "race scientist" would argue they are between racial groups.

What, then, does it matter to a black kid in Pittsburgh -- whose lineage may contain strains from Mozambique, Monticello or Nairobi -- that West Africans dominate middle-distance running? Is that any more significant than the domination of ice hockey, for rather obvious reasons of geography and climatology, by Canadians and Russians? Or the French of baking?

Jon Morgan covers the news and business of sports for The Sun. He is the author of two books: "Glory for Sale: Fans, Dollars and the New NFL" and "Gaining a Yard: The Building of Baltimore's Football Stadium."

Pub Date: 02/27/00

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