Fear of the Williams Sisters

Venus and Serena Battle Charges of Arrogance and the Myth of the Superbred Black Athlete

Some people, Entine claims, erroneously cite his book to justify the Williams sisters' dominance: To them, it is as if the blacker you are, the more athletic you are prone to be. "And that's a total distortion of what I understand," Entine emphasizes. "These are two women who have defied incredible odds, who have worked very diligently, who have refined their game, who have an interesting mixture of power and finesse, but who are no more powerful naturally than any white athlete. It's like white America wants to steal from two dogged, very scrappy young women the fruits of their success. They have earned every success that they have gotten, and it has nothing to do with any natural gifts."

Two years ago, ex-Green Bay Packers defensive end Reggie White told Fox News Channel that he agreed with former CBS football analyst Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder, who was fired in 1988 after saying that a black athlete was better than a white athlete because "he's been bred to be that way because of his thigh size and big size." Snyder added that slave owners would breed big black men with big women to produce big black children, leading to superior black athletes today. "I agree with what Jimmy 'the Greek' said . . . that slaves, bigger slaves, were pretty much used as studs. And the comments that he made about that was true. That did happen," White told Fox.

In his book, Entine quotes other black sports greats who agreed with Snyder, such as former Dallas Cowboys running back Calvin Hill; Bernie Casey, a former receiver for the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers; and Tommy Smith, the sprinter who gave the clenched-fist salute from the victory stand during the National Anthem at the 1968 Olympics. "I think Jimmy 'the Greek' Snyder was absolutely wrong in what he said even though some blacks have supported what he said," Entine argues. "The reality is that the body-type differences we see in blacks and whites are really the results of thousands of years of evolution—not 100 or 200 years. And there is almost no evidence to suggest that there was any real breeding going on. That's one of these myths that a lot of blacks and whites have adopted. Jimmy 'the Greek' was right in the sense that he recognized that there were different body types, but he was wrong in ascribing it to slavery."

Venus and Serena just seem out of place in the lily-white world of professional tennis.
illustration: The Dynamic Duo Studio
Venus and Serena just seem out of place in the lily-white world of professional tennis.

While Entine was promoting his book earlier this year, the myth of the super-endowed black athlete surfaced once again. During a debate on Fox with Roy Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality, Entine says, Innis tried to convince him that slave breeding is a historical fact. "I was all but trying to say, 'Roy, you're wrong,' " Entine recalls. "It was very embarrassing. There is no indication that blacks were bred from slavery, because there was no chance for that kind of selective breeding. Most of the time, they were just raped by slovenly white guys; it was whites screwing their women slaves."

Entine contends that selective slave breeding is one of those myths that have cropped up repeatedly to diminish the achievements of black athletes. In Taboo, Entine lauds the African American scholar-athlete tradition. "If you go back to the 19th century," he argues, "all the great African American athletes were scholars. People back then thought just the opposite of what they think today of black athletes. All the great athletes, whether they were bikers, involved in horse racing or baseball or the early days of football, went to American colleges. If anything, that's a tradition that people don't recognize about black athleticism in this country, which is the opposite of the images and the racist sense that people have about this."

The Williams sisters may be faster and stronger than most of their rivals, but they also play smart tennis, a fact that some sports commentators and writers are loath to acknowledge. "After the semifinals game between Venus and Martina Hingis at the U.S. Open, you never heard the announcer say that Hingis broke down mentally—but that's what happened," argues Pee Wee Kirkland. "Whenever Hingis or Lindsay Davenport breaks down mentally, the first thing they say is, 'Well, they're not in the same condition as the Williams sisters. They got tired.' When they break down it's because they're tired, but when we break down it's because we can't think the game of tennis. How can that be?"

Budd Mishkin of NY1, along with Steve Wilstein, is one of the rare exceptions among sports commentators who see it differently. Said Mishkin in one report after Venus had won the U.S. Open: "The talent was always there; now there's a mental toughness. It was on display at Wimbledon this summer; it was on display in that classic match versus Hingis, and once again in [the] final versus Lindsay Davenport, in which Venus Williams came from behind to win. . . . " In praise of Venus and Serena, Wilstein declared that "if their parents didn't teach them every nuance of the game, they encouraged them to think for themselves on the court, to learn as they go." He added: "And that's exactly what Venus and Serena have done. They don't look up in the stands at their parents for help or reassurance during a match, the way Martina Hingis looks toward her mother. Rather, they adjust strokes and strategy on their own, coaching themselves, improving match to match, tournament to tournament."

Additional reporting by Amanda Ward

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