By Michael Wilbon
Friday, September 21, 2007
Thankfully, Donovan McNabb had the guts to stand tall in the pocket with critics trying to knock his head off. Thankfully, McNabb, at 30, has some sense of the NFL beyond his own participation. Most celebrity athletes talk only when paid to talk, and usually about something benign if not downright useless.
McNabb, however, had something very real to say in a conversation with James Brown of HBO. He said black quarterbacks are under more scrutiny and criticized more harshly than white quarterbacks. Why this has become a hot-button topic I have no idea. It's not like McNabb called anybody a racist or a bigot. He said that black quarterbacks face more criticism than white quarterbacks, than Peyton Manning or Carson Palmer, just to name two. And he's right, just as black politicians or entertainers or writers are scrutinized more closely, whether it's professionally or driving home in the middle of the night from work.
Anybody who doubts McNabb needs only to walk around one of the upper-concourse areas of Lincoln Financial Field late in a game when, as several white friends have told me, the frequent use of the word "nigger" preceding McNabb's name during a losing performance is so casual it sickens them. Rex Grossman, just to name one white quarterback who has to deal with daily criticism, doesn't have to be on the wrong end of that kind of hateful venom, even though he'll never be half the quarterback McNabb has been.
All quarterbacks are criticized; it's the nature of the business. Joe Montana, John Elway, Brett Favre . . . they've all faced it, especially in this age of nonstop talk and analysis. Quarterback is the most important position, the most high-profile position in American sports, and nothing else comes close. The praise and criticism are both extreme to the point of absurdity.
McNabb has a $100 million contract and those Chunky Soup commercials for one reason: he's a quarterback. Most NFL players are completely unrecognizable out of their jerseys, but McNabb is so well known his mother has her own commercial success.
Undeniably, this is progress. It was unimaginable 20 years ago when Doug Williams led the Redskins to a Super Bowl victory. Williams might as well have been a Martian that Super Bowl week, as reporters crowded around him to ask how he felt about making history. Remember, Warren Moon is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but no NFL team would draft him out of the University of Washington in 1978, even though he led his team to the Rose Bowl. It wasn't enough. Scouts tried to talk him into changing positions so that some team would draft him, but he wouldn't and went to Canada. He had to leave this country to play quarterback professionally.
Black quarterbacks have come a long, long way. Just seeing James Harris and Williams play in the 1970s brought black folks to tears. I'm elated that I can't even name all the black players who play quarterback these days. The Jacksonville Jaguars ended last season with three. Vince Young, two years ago, was drafted ahead of Matt Leinart, and JaMarcus Russell, this spring, was drafted ahead of Brady Quinn. Leinart and Quinn are prototypical, perhaps even stereotypical, white, in-the-pocket, Golden Boy quarterbacks.
So the days of owners being afraid to draft black quarterbacks or coaches being afraid to play them seems long gone.
But that doesn't mean the criticism or scrutiny is the same on the outside. For the most part, people younger than 30 could not care less, largely because they don't know the history of any sport beyond last week, and sadly this includes sportswriters and players. But there are plenty of people older than 30, people who don't even examine what they're saying.
Is this a huge deal? No, probably not. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist, and McNabb simply stated that. He didn't say it angrily, he didn't say he wanted to take up arms and attack The Man. He just said black quarterbacks are scrutinized and criticized more than their white frat QB brothers -- in other ways, too. As my friend Tony Kornheiser points out, black franchise quarterbacks also have been criticized by black fans and players for not being "black enough" and being too close to white ownership.
What really annoys me is that some young black quarterbacks don't seem to have any idea of the context of the issue. Don't get me wrong, it was great to hear Tennessee's Young and the Redskins' Jason Campbell (two kids who played quarterback in the South) say they hadn't faced any particularly stinging criticism. It's yet another sign of great progress. But there also was a naivete about their comments, especially Young's, when he said the notion of black quarterbacks dealing with unfair criticism is "not my fight to fight."
Of course, it isn't. Harris, Joe Gilliam, Marlin Briscoe, Moon and Williams, among others, fought it so that Young wouldn't have to. They changed positions and missed out on playing time and left the country so that this wouldn't be an issue in 2007. And for Young to say something that self-absorbed, that ignorant of the history of the men who made it possible for him, is disappointing to the extreme. Young is obliged to those men, the same way Tiger Woods is obliged to Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder and Calvin Peete. Difference is, Tiger says so every chance he gets. Tiger knows who fought the fight for him. Young, sadly, doesn't. Somebody should get in his ear and make sure he understands . . . before he takes the field again.
Vince Young hasn't heard the boos, hasn't heard the ugly and vicious catcalls that address his heritage and color . . . not yet anyway. He led the University of Texas to a national championship and presented himself as everything the position of quarterback demands. He got to the NFL and at Tennessee has in short order been exactly what a team wants in a young franchise quarterback.
But it's not always going to be kisses and candy. It wouldn't be if Young were white, either. Very likely one day, he's going to read something, see something, hear something that lets him know that there's a gap between progress and conditions being the same. And his instinct will be, quite naturally, to pick up the phone and call somebody who's been through what he's going through, somebody like McNabb, whose words might make a little more sense to him then.