If a Black male athlete has a 1 chance in 6000 of playing in the NBA, than a Tamil male athlete has a 1 in 100,000 shot. The concept of race and athletic performance has been a controversial topic, especially after CBS Sports commentator Jimmy Snyder said in a televised interview that blacks are better athletes than whites because they have been “bred to be that way”, and that “the only thing left for the whites is a couple of coaching jobs”. While his remarks could be offensive, there’s some truth in that. And there’s also truth in claiming that Blacks are better athletes than Tamils. This is not merely a derogatory insistence on the perpetuation of stereotypes, for if it is then it hijacks my integrity with a meaningless reason to write this article. It’s rather a claim predicated on general research that reveals the biological, anatomical and genetic differences between Blacks and Tamils. You don’t need to be an expert to realize that on average, a black athlete can jump higher than a Tamil athlete. Or that on average, a Black athlete is faster than a Tamil athlete.
The anatomical differences between Blacks and Tamils is documented in generally accepted research that shows African-American children tend to have denser bones, narrower hips, bigger thighs, lower percentages of body fat, and longer legs. Specific sports, such as basketball, football and track and field rely heavily on these genetic characteristics to determine success because it proves to be significant. Consider Kawhi Leonard, his hands measuring 11.25 inches from thumb to pinkie when fully stretched, 52 percent wider than the average man`s hands. He holds a ball like a tennis ball, giving him the ability to gain more control on both ends of the floor. And so, it’s with reason why we see Black players usually finishing at the top in scoring and rebounding, Black players breaking Olympic short and long-distance records, and Black players usually finishing at the top in home-runs and RBIs.
What does that mean for Tamil people aspiring to be professional athletes? We know that just like in any other profession, there can’t be a univariate analysis to determine elite performance because it makes the analysis extremely deceptive. If we were to do a multivariate analysis, it would show that training, environment, and so on are critical variables which oscillate non-black athletes from average to great. Think about Larry Bird, one of the greatest NBA shooters who made it a priority to improve his shooting with an insane practice schedule. I’m pretty sure if we (Tamils) are determined to train and make sacrifices like Larry Bird, we can debunk the premise that genes are a better indicator of athletic performance than training. David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, thinks otherwise.
In his book, he explains that just like no two people respond to a drug the same way because of differences in their genes, we’re finding the same thing for sports. No two people respond to the same training regimen the same way. Imagine the following scenario.
Arun, a Tamil, who is 8 years old shows a remarkable aptitude for basketball. His parents, however, aren’t athletes nor do they know anything about the game. With the help of their friend, Satheesh, they slowly start to realize that Arun has the preconditions to make a great basketball player: commitment, work ethic, skill and passion. His parents hire elite coaches and trainers to model the training schedule of Lebron James. Arun is now 16 years old and his sheer dominance among his peers have captured the eyes of scouts from West Virginia. Excited for this opportunity, Arun moves to the States to begin a new life at Huntington Prep School. It has only been 10 games into the season and the disappointment from his fans is like how the Toronto fans cringed after seeing Anthony Bennett play in the NBA. Arun can’t match up with the other players in the league, their advantages in anatomical structure and physical characteristics is too large. In addition, their skill set, Basketball IQ, endurance level makes Arun look like a chowder-head.
One of many reasons why Arun might have a difficult time competing with top prospects from a reputable prep school goes back to what David Epstien found in his research. Though this Tamil kid who was privileged followed a similar training schedule as Lebron James, it would be premature to say that he will become an elite athlete solely because of his training. The way his body reacted to this intense level training can’t be considered tantamount to that of Lebron James. Arun’s body and Lebron James’ body respond differently to the same training, and it’s for this reason why we see a preponderance of elite Black athletes compared to any other race. This shouldn’t discourage Tamil people aspiring to be professional athletes, however.
The Tamil community has been patiently waiting to see one of their children play at an elite level in professional sports. We are slowly starting to see parents put their children in hyper specialization training, a type of training that’s usually defined as limiting participation to a single sport on a year-round basis, as was the case with Arun in the above scenario. You may take it as a provocation, but I think this approach does more harm than good. There is no evidence to show that intense training and specialization before puberty lead to achieve elite status. Research shows that hyper specialization has some risks, such as higher rates of injury, increased psychological stress and quitting sports at a young age. My advice would be to get your child involved in different types of sports because this will provide them with valuable physical, cognitive, and psychosocial environments and promote motivation. It makes sense to wait and see which sports they show most potential in (with consultation from the coach) before engaging in hyper specialization. This is best practice for world-class athletes. Steve Nash, for example, played many sports when he was young. He was really committed to play professional soccer but started playing basketball at the age of 13 and took off from there.
Even with early diversification, the research on biological, anatomical and genetic characteristics critical for success in sports (particularly in basketball, football, track and field) produces a narrative that works against the Tamil community. If all we ever believed in was scientific research, then living a life of hope erodes into fear and doubt. Fear and doubt is not what Steve Nash, Jeremy Lin, Ichiro Suzuki and Christophe Lemaitre (all of these athletes defy possessing superior genetic traits) subscribed to. I’m hopeful that one of our Tamil athletes will make it to the professional level. But we just don’t want to see them make it, for that goal devalues the potential of our Tamil athletes. We want to see them become elite athletes and when that day comes, the seeds will be planted to inspire a generation.
By Vinu Selvaratnam