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September 24, 2007

Race, Football and Donovan McNabb


There’s a major racial controversy involving Donovan McNabb, based on comments he made on a cable sports show, with the team 0-2 and the quarterback himself struggling mightily (although their decisive victory over the Lions on Sunday improved their record to 1-2). But no, Rush Limbaugh is not involved this time.


In 2003, Rush, the legendary loudmouth – during a gig as an ESPN commentator – opined that Eagles quarterback McNabb had long been overrated by a media that was “very desirous that a black quarterback do well.” As racial, political and media commentary, it was dubious. As sports analysis, it was flat-out laughable. Limbaugh had stepped down within days.


Here we go again. Last week, McNabb sat for an interview on HBO’s “Real Sports” show, and when asked by interviewer James Brown if he believes black quarterbacks feel more pressure than their white counterparts, McNabb agreed, telling Brown that “there's not that many African-American quarterbacks, so we have to do a little bit extra . . . because the percentage of us playing this position, which people didn't want us to play . . . is low, so we do a little extra."


The comments were controversial, to be sure. These days, everything that touches the subject of race can’t help but be. But I don’t begrudge him for making them, because he’s demonstrably, undeniably right.


McNabb has become an extremely controversial athlete, though it’s really hard to see why. He is by all accounts a class act on and off the field, a quality teammate, one who works hard, plays hurt and has fought back from numerous injuries.


He’s active with numerous charities, gets along with (most of) his teammates, coaches and the press, and has never experienced even a hint of off-the-field trouble. And most notably of all, since being drafted in 1999, McNabb has led a team that spent a decade in the doldrums back to glory, winning five NFC East division crowns, reaching four NFC championship games and Super Bowl XXXIX after the 2004 season.


But throughout all this, a large minority of Eagles fans has been militantly, single-mindedly opposed to McNabb. Why is this? It’s partially because it’s Philadelphia, America’s most hypercritical sports city, one whose fans have a long record of turning viciously against superstar athletes and running them out of town. The first knock on the quarterback is that he’s not a “Philly guy,” a description whose meaning remains elusive. The result is that virtual non-stop criticism is hurled onto a player who in no way deserves it.


Does this have to do with race? Not primarily, but on some level, yes. Living and working in Philadelphia, I talk sports with people all the time, and I’m shocked at how often I hear slams at McNabb couched in racial terms. It’s certainly not everyone who feels this way, but it’s way more people than it should be. The fan reaction to McNabb’s comments has seemed to back this hypothesis. One sports talk caller last week stated that blacks such as McNabb should stop complaining about racism, because after all, “the Irish were slaves, too.”


Meanwhile, there’s also a faction within the city’s black community that doesn’t trust McNabb either, with the city’s NAACP chief going so far as to write a bizarre, mean-spirited attack on the quarterback last year in a local African-American newspaper.


Boxing champion Bernard Hopkins, a Philly native, also takes this view in frequent talk show appearances. The reasoning has something to do with McNabb’s having come from middle-class origins, and thus lacking “street cred,” on top of being a “company man.”


This problem is also shared by Barack Obama, as well as Philly’s presumptive next mayor, Michael Nutter. Consequently, McNabb finds himself mistrusted equally by racist whites and suspicious blacks.  


Whatever the reason, it’s clear nothing McNabb does will ever be enough for Philadelphia’s fans. The Onion brilliantly satirized this last week, with the headline, “Eagles Fans Give McNabb Three-Week Deadline To Win Super Bowl.”


New York Times columnist William Rhoden wrote a wonderful book earlier this year called “Third and a Mile,” an oral history of the NFL’s African-American signal-callers. The book spoke of a time, which continued well into the 1980s, when promising black players who had succeeded as quarterbacks in the college game were instantly shifted to other positions by uniformly white coaches. More recently, things have gotten better at the league-wide level, but fan reaction is another matter entirely.


The Eagles, like they were at the time of Limbaugh’s comments, were 0-2 when McNabb made his statements. After Limbaugh’s departure, McNabb and the Eagles went out and won five straight games, eventually reaching the NFC Championship. Does the win over the Lions mean it is about to happen again? No one knows. But we do know that the divide over how we perceive race through the prism of sports has never been wider.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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