Why Black Athletes Over-Index In Football, Basketball, And Track
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Why Black Athletes Over-Index In Football, Basketball, And Track

Why Black Athletes Over-Index In Football, Basketball, And Track

The question of why black men and women over-index in sports like Track, Football and Basketball is steeped in controversy. It is the elephant in the room when an NBA game is on in a white suburban home. While there are a bevy of possible reason for this phenomena, it can be primarily attributed to certain acute biological factors as well as marketing trends that have interwoven culture and sport. The difference, contrary to popular opinion, has nothing to do with slavery ‘training’ black people to elite physical status.

First we look at whether there are physiological differences between athletes based on race. The seminal text of this biological field is David Epstein’s "The Sport Gene." A book that delves into the complexity of greatness, and how to cope with the fact that two distinct athletes who do the exact same workouts for the same amount of time, will emerge two very different athletes.

There are several physical phenomena that distinguish white and black athletes -like longer limbs, higher concentration of fast-twitch muscles, and narrower pelvises- that may enable athletes with roots stemming from Africa to outperform their counterparts: thus partially accounting for the over-indexation in sports like basketball football and track.

In 2009, Dr. Sarah Tishkoff, renowned geneticist hailing from University of Pennsylvania, published a study that deduced that adults who identify as African American are extremely genetically diverse, and have one of the most diverse phenotype (the physical manifestation of genes).

In addition, alpha-actinin-3, a structural protein discovered by Dr. Kathryn North that is found to be a ‘speed’ protein, is abundant in African populations. This gene is found in almost every nation’s Olympic sprinters, and it is a scientific concurrence that it is nigh on impossible to reach elite sprinter status without it. Consequently, this gene is found in over 90 percent of black people around the world, making the respective pools that much greater in proportion. In essence, there are several physical reasons, from genetic components, to longer limbs, that help account for why there are so many black people in power sports like track, football, and basketball.

The Slave Narrative Myth:

Promulgated by Jimmy Snyder, the slave concept dictates that the reason black people over-index so much in professional sports is due to slavery and the selection process that stemmed from it. This idea declares that due to the various stages in which slaves were ‘naturally selected’ (i.e. on the slave ship traveling to the market) attribute to a refined population tailored to physical activity. Additionally, slave masters then ‘bred’ their slaves to produce the strongest, largest possible progenies.

At first glance, this theory might seem viable, but it is not true for several reasons. Firstly, slaves on the journey from Africa to wherever they were being sold, were not selected based on genetic traits but rather health when captured, and exposure to diseases. Secondly, the eugenics that occurred back then were extremely basic and lacked many of controlling aspects to have a lasting effect. Thus, the slave narrative myth is debunked, and we have to look deeper to find the cause for indexation.


While ‘culture’ is an abstract term, it has long been embodied through different mediums in society. For black people in the 1920’s, jazz was the paragon of culture, names like Langston Hughes and Louis Armstrong were the black heroes of the time.

In this day and age, black youth are increasingly looking towards black athletes as their idols, making icons like Kobe Bryant, Usain Bolt, and Lebron James nearly god-like. Marketing has picked up on this trend, and advertises them as superhuman, raising the allure for these kids.

In a famous advertisement in the wake of sports programs being cut in the 90’s, Nike released an ad featuring Michael Jordan preaching the importance of sports, “What if there were no sports? Would I still be your hero?” Subsequently, black kids aspire to be like them, and so a gifted black athlete is naturally going to be inclined to choose a sport played by their idol. Just within the last couple weeks, the Lebron James Family Foundation announced its plan to send 1,100 to the University of Akron. These icons are integral to the black communities, whether it's charity or the camp they hold every year, making black culture interwoven with sports like football and basketball.

The stark over-indexation of black people in track, football, and basketball, is due to a medley of physiological factors, like blood oxygen efficiency, the ACTN-3 gene, the ACE gene, and phenotype difference. In addition, sports marketing has evolved to target black youth by idolizing black athletes.




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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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