There’s a ton of ground to cover, and I won’t be able to range over nearly all of it, but I thought it worthwhile to sift through some of the more interesting/instructive/infuriating reactions to McNabb’s comments on HBO this past Tuesday night. I may do another post on this, because late last week, some folks started suggesting that McNabb’s comments were essentially the same as Limbaugh’s comments about McNabb a few years ago, and that would require a separate treatment, since this is long already. In any case…
Of course, the comments became a story even before the taped segment aired Tuesday, as portions of the interview were circulated earlier that day. And I don’t have HBO, so I have not seen the conversation between McNabb and James Brown in its entirety. But, among the first segments reported on Tuesday quoted McNabb as saying:
There’s not that many African American quarterbacks, so we have do a little bit extra…Because the perception of us playing this position, which people didn’t want us to play this position, is low so we do a little extra…
Some of the initial reaction I heard, both from Stephen A. and Jim Rome, was quite sympathetic. Appearing on ESPN on Tuesday, Stephen A. said that what was surprising about McNabb’s comments was not the content of what he said but that he made them at all:
There’s hundreds of African American athletes that have articulated that position to me over the years. When you look at Donovan McNabb, you have to understand that he is a Black man, and a proud Black man, not just an NFL quarterback, and who knows what kind of experiences would accentuate and punctuate the positions he has.
On ESPN’s website Friday, Jeffrey Chadiha said much the same thing:
Not only has the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback been one of the most criticized Pro Bowl-level signal-callers in history, he’s also been the one least willing to speak up for himself. He’s turned the other cheek when attacked. He’s remained quiet in the face of controversy. But now, for some strange reason, he’s opting for a different approach to his public relations….McNabb obviously isn’t going to let his silence define him any longer. You could see that in his interview with James Brown of “Real Sports.” Though much already has been made about his racially charged comments — that black quarterbacks have to do more to succeed than white quarterbacks and that black signal-callers also face more criticism than their white counterparts — the more important issue is that McNabb felt comfortable saying those things. In years past, he wouldn’t have come close to airing such provocative thoughts. Now it’s apparent he likes the idea of stirring the pot. A lot.
Rome began his Tuesday Rome is Burning show by repeating McNabb’s remarks about Carson Palmer and Peyton Manning:
Let me start by saying that I love those guys. But, they don’t get criticized as much as we do. They don’t.
Rome started his take by pointing out that Manning took a lot of heat, over many years, “rapped his entire career as a guy who just could not win the big one.” And, Rome said, part of the reason why Palmer may not get the same heat as McNabb “may be the color of his skin and part of that may be that ‘Nati is not nearly as tough a town as Philly is.”
But, Rome continued:
All that said, Mac is right – African American quarterbacks probably do have to deal with certain things that their white counterparts do not have to do deal with. Why would playing QB in the NFL be any different than society as a whole. Look, we’ve come a long way, but the media and fans are not color-blind to the guys who play the position, just as we’re not color blind as a society overall. We’re just not.
And, apparently anticipating some of the cruder distortions of McNabb’s comments still to come, Rome pointed out that:
…nobody’s saying that he gets heat just because he’s African American. But, if what he’s saying is, he just gets a little extra because of the color of his skin, I have no doubt that he does.
And, in the Wednesday press conference at which McNabb was peppered to clarify his remarks, the Eagles’ signal caller made exactly that point – that, yes, of course, all QBs, Black and White get heat. It’s just a little different for Blacks.
One of Rome’s guests on last Tuesday’s show, ESPN the Magazine’s Tom Friend was among those who strongly disagreed with McNabb:
All quarterbacks are held to a high standard. I don’t think this is the right time for him to say this kind of stuff, because really I think this is the time that he’s going to be out of Philly real soon….He’s let Philadelphia down in my mind. He did not have a good Super Bowl.
Notably, in response to Friend, Rome took pains to re-emphasize what he believed was the proper nuance for understanding McNabb’s comments. After noting that he’d like to see the “whole interview in its context,” Rome reiterated that “I don’t think he’s saying that he gets criticized exclusively based on the color of his skin, I think what he’s saying is that ‘when I get that criticism, I get a little extra.” And, Friend’s comments might be a good example of that, which we’ll come back to.
That evening on ESPNews and ESPN’s NFL live (or NFL now, or whatever it is), former Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ QB Shawn King was asked the question. King said, first, that McNabb had earned a lot of respect around the league because of his accomplishments, including his several trips to the pro bowl (he’s had five), his four NFC title game appearances and his Super Bowl apperance and pointed out that “he’s a guy who, after all those accomplishments, still isn’t listed among the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and he should be.”
It’s worth mentioning here that one of the common rejoinders to McNabb this past week has been not only the comment that all quarterbacks get criticized, as Friend said above, but that particular quarterbacks have gotten at least as much criticism as McNabb. The two most common examples I’ve heard, including from Colin Cowherd, in this line of thinking have been Joey Harrington and, especially, Rex Grossman. But using those two as arguments against Mcbabb’s remarks are really making his case for him. Including the first two games of this season, McNabb’s career passer rating has been about 85 and, in addition, he’s been an excellent runner. He’s had two seasons over 95, a mark of an outstanding season, including his terrific 2004 campaign, when he threw 31 touchdowns against 8 interceptions, completed 64% of his passes and averaged over eight yards an attempt, for a QB rating of 104.7. For his career, McNabb has thrown more than two touchdowns for every interception. Grossman and Harrington have been in the league for much briefer periods, but how have they done so far? Grossman has played in 26 games so far, with a career passer rating of 71.1. He’s completed 54% of his passes and thrown one more interception than touchdown.
Of course he’s still young and might still develop – but doesn’t this prove King and McNabb’s point – that critics of McNabb’s comments think that he’s wrong because, after all, Rex Grossman’s endured a lot of criticism, too, notwithstanding the fact that McNabb has played at a very high level throughout his NFL career, with an already impressive body of work, and Rex Grossman has been, so far, an undeniably below average player?
And, lumping Harrington in this discussion is, frankly, even more insulting. In 71 career games, Harrington’s rating is below 70, he’s thrown more touchdowns than interceptions and has averaged fewer than six yards per attempt, a pathetic total.
Being criticized for sucking is to be expected in sports. Being criticized for not being good enough, or for being disappointed, even when one is already very good is not the exclusive province of black athletes of course. But, as I mentioned last week in connection with Darryl Strawberry, this sort of complaint seems especially to trail African American players. One of McNabb’s points was precisely this – that even if he has a big game, people say he could have done more than he did. McNabb’s statements are hard to quantify, and maybe he’s wrong. But, he’s was fairly specific and quite careful about what he said, and many of the responses to him failed to confront the things he actually said, opting instead for gross oversimplifications of his remarks and responding in ways that clearly missed his main points.
Returning to King for a moment, he made another observation that very closely paralleled remarks that I quoted Jimmy Rollins on in the same post in which I mentioned Strawberry. King said that black quarterbacks had made great strides in the NFL thanks to pioneers like Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham and Doug Williams, which has made it “alot easier for African Americans players to play this position.”
However, King continued:
If he’s the right height, the right arm strength and the right mental make-up he gets the opportunity. But, I think when you move beyond the starting quarterback position and you look at the second and third string jobs in the National Football League, there’s still a huge disparity as far as African Americans holding those positions.
Later that night, with Trey Wingo and Mark Schlereth, King put the point a little more forcefully:
Are we (black quarterbacks) viewed in a different light? I think our whole body of work is viewed in a different light. If you’re an African American quarterback and you’ve got perfect height, perfect size, perfect arm strength, unbelievable athletic ability, you’re given an opportunity…but, there’s not a lot of African American quarterbacks who are allowed to wait and develop and become the players they could become if given time.
King’s partners Wingo and Schlereth seemed uninterested in responding directly to King’s comments. Wingo said the interesting thing about McNabb was that he always seemed to be around controversy, recounting the Rush Limbaugh episode and the business with T.O. and now this, implying that McNabb’s statements are suspect because he’s been such a controversial guy. As an aside, Dwil’s remarks Friday about McNabb are well born out here – McNabb’s been very careful to say the right thing and project the right image throughout his career (until now), and it appears to have bought him little to no latitude or credibility with the mainstream media.
Like Wingo, Schlereth pointed out that even Peyton Manning was criticized for not being able to win the big one until this past season, despite an incredible “body of work”, and I’d say there’s little denying that. Manning has already put together a history making career and, nevertheless, had a cloud hanging over all of his accomplishments until February. But, both Schlereth and Wingo concluded the segment without directly addressing King’s comments, instead opting for the banal observation that the quarterback position is a high profile one that comes with a lot of praise and a lot of criticism.
One of the striking aspects of the discussion that has followed McNabb’s remarks is that they generated as much commentary as they did. Anytime race is raised in sports media, it tends to be an issue, so it shouldn’t be surprising that McNabb’s comments prompted plenty of commentary. But, the remarks themselves, as well as McNabb’s subsequent clarifications are not exactly the stuff of social revolution, as Dwil pointed out last week. Obviously not everyone agrees with him, but it seems to me that the responses to McNabb, including many heated and angry ones (a couple of which I’ll get to in a minute) demonstrate what a tight rope African Americans walk when they actually say what many of them clearly experience every day of their lives – that they’re “playing the race card” anytime they suggest that race might be a factor in any but the most obvious and overtly racist incidents.
In the Philadelphia Inquirer last week, David Aldridge (himself not typically a firebrand) spoke to this issue:
Donovan McNabb is not the one obsessed with race.
Your reaction to two minutes of an interview he gave to HBO on Aug. 31 – and which aired Tuesday – proves his point.
Most black folks, save the careerists who make a living fanning racial flames, don’t spend their days and nights thinking about their color and how their lives are different because of it. It’s a fact of life, like “the sun rises in the east” or “the Phillies have no bullpen.”
But if they’re asked about it, they don’t lie, either. Then they move on.
For some reason, you are compelled to call the radio station, e-mail the newspaper and vote in the online poll, expressing your outrage that someone, as you so often put it, played the race card.
Like Rome, King Kaufman at Salon.com sees McNabb’s comments in the light of broader biases, and offers a little cross-border perspective to make the point:
If it sounds like McNabb is crying just because things haven’t been going well lately, listen to Damon Allen, Marcus’ brother, who’s been playing quarterback in the CFL since 1985 for Edmonton, Ottawa, Hamilton, Memphis — don’t ask — British Columbia and, most recently, the Toronto Argonauts. He’s the CFL’s all-time leading passer and its third-leading rusher. Before the 1993 Grey Cup game, he made comments similar to McNabb’s about how black quarterbacks were judged by a harsher standard.
In Wednesday’s Toronto Sun, Adam Rita, the Argos’ general manager, laid into the team following a 40-7 loss to the B.C. Lions in Vancouver, and he said that Allen might not return when he becomes eligible to play in the last two weeks of the year.
“The jury is still out,” Rita said. “We have to move on. We as an organization have been stunted because of him being our No. 1 quarterback (for so long).”
In other words, even though Allen’s been injured, it’s his fault that the Argos are struggling because he’s been too good to replace for too long, and that’s somehow kept the team from moving forward. Or something.
Nah, black quarterbacks don’t come in for any extra criticism.
Play the way McNabb’s played so far this year, and you’re going to get hammered, and rightly so. Ask any number of white quarterbacks over the years who have gotten an earhole full. But that doesn’t mean that assessment of NFL quarterbacks is the one corner of American life where society is colorblind. It isn’t.
As noted, Kaufman wrote this before McNabb’s huge game yesterday, but he’s got this about right in my estimation.
One other guy I wanted to cover was Colin Cowherd. On Friday morning, Cowherd attacked McNabb’s comments, claiming that McNabb had built up years of credibility but thrown it all away by making the remarks he did last week. This is an extraordinary statement – that for eight years, in Cowherd’s view, McNabb’s been an exemplary, don’t-stir-the-pot guy, and he makes one set of remarks about race (and, as I’ve been discussing throughout this post, quite careful ones at that), and he’s blown ALL of his credibility. Are there white athletes who walk that kind of tight rope?
Cowherd was especially intent on debunking statements McNabb made about Black quarterbacks getting certain kinds of reputations , particularly as running QBs. In this connection, at the Wednesday press conference, McNabb mentioned Steve Young and Jake Plummer. Cowherd slammed McNabb by comparing Young to Michael Vick in order to prove the point that McNabb was wrong to characterize Young as a running quarterback.
Cowhered’s key evidence – that in the prime of Young’s career (not defined) – Young averaged 3500 yards a year passing and 320 yards rushing. By contrast, Vick has averaged 2300 yards passing and 850 rushing. This proved, Cowherd argued, that Young was a passer and Vick was a runner and that Vick did not show the judgment that Young did as a field general.
What’s wrong with this argument as a rejoinder to McNabb? Let me count the ways:
1) no one on the planet would deny that Vick was a running QB. He’s historic in that regard. Saying Young is not a runner because he runs less than Vick is roughly akin to saying that if you’re not as much of a home run hitter as Babe Ruth, you’re not a homerun hitter.
2) Cowherd’s use of data is deeply flawed. If the heart of evaluating a running QB is his decision-making process, the real question is – how often does a QB pass, compared to how often he runs? We know Young was a great passer and that Vick is not. We also know, though Cowherd completely ignores this point, that in Young’s prime, he was throwing to the greatest receiver of all-time. Is there any doubt that Vick’s stats, and propensity to throw, would be different if he were throwing to the likes of Rice, rather than the likes of Peerless Price? But, more to the point, what do the data tell us about the decision of the two men to pass or run?
I looked at Young’s first six years since that’s how many years Vick spent in the league. It’s true that Young was only a part-time player in those years, the first two of which were with Tampa Bay. But, if part of the point Cowherd was making was decision-making, I think we can assume that quarterbacks will change how often they run over the course of their careers, become more pass-oriented and less run-oriented as they grow older. Comparing a 12th year Steve Young to a fifth year Michael Vick misses this important point. Furthermore, McNabb’s point was not to say that it’s wrong to call blacks running QBs. Rather it was to note that white QBs are less likely to get that label even when they are runners.
In Young’s first six seasons, he threw 825 passes and ran 220 times, meaning he ran once for about every 3.7 times he threw. Cowherd argued that Young passed 10 times as much as he ran, but this is bullshit, because he used yardage rather than attempts, and the latter is the obvious measure of judgment and propensity. In Vick’s six seasons in the NFL, he threw 1730 passes and ran 527 times. So, for every rushing attempt by Vick, he threw about 3.3 times.
In other words, in their first six seasons, Steve Young and Michael Vick were almost identical in their inclination to put the ball down and run with it, notwithstanding the fact that Young, once he arrived in Frisco, was throwing to some of the great weapons of all time.
Again, there is no denying what a prolific and run-inclined QB Vick has been. But, given that Vick was not a great passer, and had crappy receivers, and has been a historically good runner (and has averaged well over seven yards an attempt, good for a passer, let alone a runner), this does not obviously qualify as bad or impulsive decision-making. But, more significantly, Young was almost as inclined as Vick to run at a similar point in his career. If Cowherd was trying to prove that McNabb’s was right, he couldn’t have done a better job than to have made the comparison he did – his attempt to fudge the numbers notwithstanding.
Cowherd closed that segment with a classic, arguing that “every NFL quarterback has exactly the reputation he deserves.”
You know, like arguing that Steve Young was not a running quarterback.