Kirkus Reviews QR Code
DARWIN'S ATHLETES by John Hoberman


How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race

by John Hoberman

Pub Date: Feb. 17th, 1997
ISBN: 0-395-82291-0
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

A white scholar's righteous (at times even self-righteous) debunking of the racial folklore of American sports, which made complex legends of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali, and a contemporary icon and media commodity of Michael Jordan. Hoberman is a professor of Germanic languages (Univ. of Texas, Austin) with a longtime research interest in the role of sports in culture and history (Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport, 1992). He is justifiably outraged that America's sports obsession, driven by its huge commercial sports, media, and entertainment complex, has focused many black youths on athletic achievement, to the detriment of academic and intellectual accomplishment. He goes on to debunk the myth of color-blindness and racial harmony in today's sports world. He also criticizes the black middle class for its complacence about all these debilitating influences. But few African-Americans have much impact on the sports star-making machinery, and many are as distressed as Hoberman about the culture's oversteering black youth toward sports and entertainment as the path to success. (The late Arthur Ashe founded an organization of sports professionals to mentor talented young black athletes and broaden their sense of options beyond a big pro sports payday and celebrity, a fact of which Hoberman seems to be unaware.) Hoberman is most compelling, however, in his wide-ranging survey of 19th-century anthropological and ethnological literature, and he exhaustively shows how old racist notions of black physique have been oddly recycled in contemporary commentary on athletic competition. Hoberman means this to be an antidote to confusing media hype about black sports heroes, and at its best, it provides the fascinating intellectual and social history behind the modern sports contest. Unfortunately, the author belabors his points, and some of his hyperbolic social arguments run away with him. (b&w line drawings)