Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Summer 2012 [Print without images]

Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Race to the swift

By Jeff MacGregor
ESPN.com

Two big failures of explanation last week from your worldwide press corps. Sorry. First we failed to make clear the purpose and importance of the Higgs boson, a tiny, not-quite invisible indicator of the stuff upon which the whole universe depends; "the God Particle," to oversimplify further, without which there would be only hyper-energetic nothingness -- like an episode of "The Newsroom." Second, we failed to make clear why Michael Johnson and commercial television are probably wrong about race and history, and why that should or shouldn't really matter. We regret the oversight.

Jimmy the Greek
Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder parlayed his time in Las Vegas into a stint on television.

I'll note here that just in time for the Olympics, junk science and TV and our zombie sports media have very briefly exhumed and reanimated the long-gone corpus of Jimmy the Greek. Jimmy was more widely available in reruns Sunday than he was when he was still alive and shilling football picks and point spreads for CBS all those years ago.

The Greek was fired in 1988 for some on-camera off-the-cuff remarks he made in a restaurant about the breeding of slaves and the possible effect of such practice on modern sports. He was sacked as much for his blithe tone of racial condescension as he was for the content of his theory, which was itself widely held and simple enough: the contemporary black athlete benefited from plantation eugenics. Faster, bigger, stronger, etc.

He also worried that "the blacks" might soon take over coaching and managing from "whites."

We were indignant. Outraged. For a month or so, there was even an awkward national debate over biological determinism and environmental determinism in sports, nature versus nurture -- then we all went back to waiting for the '80s and Wang Chung to end.

When Johnson, the former sprinter, raised the same issue in more detail last week in a British television program, the American sporting press responded with a yawn. Then it rose, stretched, yawned again, and curled up in a sunbeam on the loveseat.

The central premise of the show was that American and Caribbean athletes of West African heritage are made of genetically superior athletic stuff because of the horrors endured by their ancestors in slavery. There isn't much laboratory science to prove this, nor is there much social science to bear it out. In fact, it isn't so much science as it is storytelling.

And while storytelling is important, storytelling masquerading as science is a bad habit of humanity. Our need to explain ourselves and discern patterns in the world leads us to junk science as often as it does to the real thing. Ask your local phrenologist or palmist for more details.

Johnson
Former sprinter Michael Johnson is now commenting on the Olympics.

Pointing out the success of certain black athletes while ignoring the much larger population of successful athletes black and white -- and the widely varying cultural conditions and opportunities that produce them -- is provocative storytelling. But it's not science. It's a television show.

Which is why I was pleased the donkey sports press wasn't led last week into another hot, shallow argument over racial determinism. However well-meant (or cynical), it misdirects our national discussion on race and equality. Abridged into sound bites and ratings bait, it distracts us from the real work of being better to one another. And to say that black athletes succeed primarily as a matter of genetics rearms racialists and racists with more junk science reductionism.

Michael Johnson articulated a complex question. Not "Who am I?" but "Why am I?" This is the essential question of the species, the answer to which is to be found hidden somewhere in the cracks between science and art and evidence and faith.

And while there's always an argument to be made on behalf of real science and its demonstrable, repeatable truths objectively arrived at, maybe there's another equal case to be made on behalf of passion and confusion and inefficiency too, for imprecision and poetry and heroism. For ambition. Hard work. For not guessing at how a man came to be, but taking him as he is. For judging only the content of his character.

Maybe this is where the universe can deliver on the promise of its mysteries. By reminding us that we are only as we are -- Higgs boson and Michael Johnson and you and me, all flying apart forever, even as something we'll never see binds us in constant return.