This sub-field of “eugenics” builds on and includes discussions already present from American history such as slavery, women’s reproductive rights, and immigration. That eugenics plays an important role in understanding sports and basketball should not be surprising. Many physical educators in the late 19th and early 20th century believed in eugenics (or “hygiene” as they called it), the theory of humanity “improving” itself through certain reproductive, medical, and social habits.
Eugenics involved cataloging, observing, and measuring human beings in nearly every way possible: race, ethnicity, and gender were used to explain criminality, physical prowess, mental ability, disease, and other medical and social phenomena. In essence, eugenics was quantifying individuals to mass produce a better society. Ideas of “normal” or “standard” human behavior or abilities were, in part, created from this movement.
The Nazis of Germany clearly took this idea to its sinister lengths, but many Americans believed in the ideas and were “leaders” that Nazis looked to for guidance. For instance, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in one famous case, before Hitler ever took power in Germany, declared forced sterilization constitutional arguing:
“It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
In North Carolina (one of over 30 states that had sterilization laws), forced sterilizations were conducted from 1929 to 1974 as society’s supposed “imbeciles” were targeted. Many victims of the practice are still alive and are disproportionately female and black revealing the power dynamic in who was or was not sterilized. Also important is the lexicon employed to relegate certain societal segments to the violent side of eugenics, while other segments of society were lauded as eugenic paragons of excellence.
Therefore to understand basketball’s past, particularly how we have and continue to evaluate players as “optimal” athletes and persons, eugenics and its historical influence need to be understood.
One need only think about draft combines, genetic screenings, and the idea of players wearing “bio-tech” monitors to understand the influence vestigial eugenic thought may and does have on sports. In an apt non-basketball example, black men were seen as “too dumb” to play quarterback and still receive “coded” adjectives to describe their QB skills. Health monitoring is certainly not necessarily bad, but at whose insistence and for what purpose is an issue certainly for the basketball future just as it was for the eugenic past.
Anyways, onward to the eugenics books.
Black, Edwin. War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race. Washington: Dialog Press, 2012.
Dorr, Gregory Michael. Segregation’s Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2008.
Kline, Wendy. Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom. Berkeley: University of California, 2001.
Leonard, Thomas C. Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.
Lombardo, Paul A. A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.
Reilly, Philip. The Surgical Solution: A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.