Donovan McNabb struck a nerve when he admitted to Bryant Gumbel that he believes black quarterbacks face greater scrutiny than their white counterparts. The story broke before Tuesday’s broadcast of HBO’s Real Sport with Bryant Gumbel was aired but the full context of the interview won’t soften the blow. McNabb’s revelation is polarizing.
Not too long ago Rush Limbaugh took a shot at McNabb’s popularity asserting that the Eagles QB got more credit than he deserved. In what can only be described as an opiate-induced haze Limbaugh stated that the media was “desirous” that a black quarterback do well. Never mind the fact that Warren Moon had already done that. Rush was rightfully sent packing by ESPN and narrowly missed a thorough ass-kicking by NFL Primetime co commentator Tommy Jackson.
McNabb deftly avoided the issue. He chose to take the high road and play football which won the respect of many. He showed the same poise when the infectious Terrell Owens decided to take personal shots at his quarterback. Now people will see McNabb as a whiner who wants to blame racism for his recent on-field struggles.
But lost in the controversy is the fact that what McNabb is saying is true. Even if it’s not a conscientious disparity, there is no question that black quarterbacks have a much tougher row to hoe in the NFL. Gone are the days when teams overtly denied black quarterbacks an opportunity to play, but that window of opportunity seems much smaller. White quarterbacks appear to have a much greater margin of error and teams seem more willing to identify themselves with a white quarterback.
McNabb sees a league dominated by black athletes but only six teams have black starting quarterbacks. McNabb sees a league that celebrates aging white quarterbacks as warriors while black quarterbacks who lose a step are cut without a second thought. Steve McNair was unceremoniously let go by Tennessee because the Titans had questions about his durability, which had been compromised by the team’s refusal to build a quality offense around the former MVP.
McNabb is in a similar position. Like McNair he’s a true pocket passer who can extend plays with his remarkable athletic ability. Instead of scampering downfield at the first sign of pressure, McNabb moves around behind the line of scrimmage looking for an open receiver. The result can be remarkable and his ability has allowed Philadelphia to eschew traditional concerns such as shoring up the offensive line and developing a consistent rushing attack. Unfortunately this strategy results in the QB taking more punishment. McNabb has had two seasons derailed by injuries. He tried to play through a hernia in 2005 and in 2006 he sustained a severe knee injury that will haunt him throughout the 2007 season.
In spite of all he has done, the Eagles drafted a quarterback in the 2007 draft. Instead of acquiring a quality receiver, a power running back or a few solid offensive linemen the Eagles opted to send McNabb a message: his days are numbered. Unfortunately with the talent around him McNabb’s chances to succeed are limited.
McNabb knows this. He sees his white counterparts around the league getting help. A few hundred miles up the road Tom Brady threw a tantrum over the quality of his offense and Bob Kraft went out and found receivers for him. Instead of getting blamed for his teams struggles, people gave Brady a pass and agreed that his productivity was compromised by mediocre receivers. Now the Patriots look unbeatable.
McNabb is taking the blame for the failures of his team. If he complained about the talent around him people would label him a whiner and the Eagles would be eager to cut him loose. When Tom Brady goes to management and complains about the state of his team, he’s being a leader but if a black man does the same thing he’s selfish.
Nothing typifies the disparity like Brett Favre. People adore him but the Packers are terrible and Favre’s “gunslinger” antics don’t help. As likeable as he is, Favre is reckless and he’s lost more games with his questionable sense of judgment than he has won with his rocket arm. When asked if he plans to take it down a notch and play more conservatively Favre bristles at the notion and insists that he’s always going to be a gunslinger. It makes for a great story but the reality is that Favre is a mediocre quarterback who puts himself above the team. Sure he’s tough but he’s also rather stupid at times.
Imagine if Favre was black. Would the Packers have played his game in the off season? Would he still be a media darling after capitulating about retirement for an entire off season? The answer is no. The Packers would have replaced him as the starter five years ago if Favre was black.
You can’t compare McNabb to Peyton Manning but a couple of years ago Manning lambasted his offensive line after a dismal playoff performance. Even though people felt his public rant was out of line the criticism wasn’t as severe as it would have been if Manning was black. His brother Eli wasn’t characterized as a petulant prima donna when he refused to sign with the Chargers but if Eli was a few shades darker you can bet it would still be an issue and you can bet the Giants would be less inclined to work through his growing pains.
A great example of this double standard occurred during the 2007 draft. Throughout the process scouts thoroughly examined Brady Quinn and Troy Smith. Quinn was criticized for not playing exceptionally well against top-ranked teams. Smith was haunted by a humiliating performance in the BCS Championship game. Both players skipped portions of the scouting combine and dictated the audition process by holding private workouts.
Smith was often questioned about his height and reportedly got testy about the subject causing many to speculate that his attitude was the reason for his slide in the draft. Still, Brady Quinn was bigger news because he slipped from the top five to the 22nd pick. If Troy Smith had been white would he have fallen so far? Drew Brees struggled with many of the same issues but he was drafted in the second round. Smith waited until the second day.
The problem is that you can’t prove that race is involved. It could simply be coincidence but when it comes to these matters perception is reality. A white fan looks around the league and sees a different situation than a black fan. A white fans sees six black head coaches and thinks it’s a fair representation of our country’s racial balance. A black fan sees all of the black players in the league and wonders why so many are denied coaching opportunities.
Donovan McNabb stepped on a lot of toes when he spoke from the heart but if you look at it from his perspective he makes a valid point. He has been harshly criticized over the years. He led the Eagles to the Super Bowl only to have credit for that feat stolen by Terrell Owens who didn’t even suit up during the playoffs. It was McNabb who led the team to the Super Bowl and McNabb who threw for more than 300 yards but as a team the Eagles fell short. Instead of questioning Andy Reid’s game plan, mistake prone receivers and a confused defense, people focused on McNabb. They questioned his competitive spirit.
Peyton Manning endured similar questions but not to that degree. The focus on McNabb has always seemed malicious. Part of that is the idiotic nature of Philadelphia sports fans. Part of it is because for every legitimate critic there’s a racially biased moron rubbing salt on the wounds. Also, many people are racists without even knowing it. Much of the criticism might be the manifestation of latent racism. Nevertheless, the Colts didn’t demonstrate a lack of faith in Peyton Manning by spending their first pick in the draft on a promising young quarterback, the Colts went out and found people to help Manning get over that championship hump.
McNabb’s right, race is a big factor in the NFL and now that he’s gone out on a limb and said so, we’ll see just how awful it is.