Donovan McNabb benching opens old wounds concerning Redskins and race

By Mike Wise
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 12:05 AM

Mike Shanahan's benching of Donovan McNabb for the final two minutes in Detroit permeates everything inside and outside the franchise 11 days later, so let's get right to the elephant in the room they wish would go away in Ashburn: race.

The decision, and Shanahan's awkward explanations for it afterward, continues to reverberate in part because this was a white coach and a black quarterback and especially because of the history of the organization they now belong to.

Shanahan's decision most likely wasn't about anything other than a coach frustrated with the most important player on his team, but the strong reactions to it are rooted in Washington's past, baggage the Redskins acquired long before Shanahan came aboard.

Old wounds were opened in and around Washington, wounds that Shanahan probably needs to know of for future sensibility's sake - if he doesn't already.

Shanahan understandably wants this all to go away, preferring to focus on Philadelphia Monday night at FedEx Field, where McNabb gets his second crack at the team that traded him away after 11 seasons. But it's hard to ignore the warnings of former Redskins and current Washington sports journalists in the past week.

It started with raised eyebrows when backup Rex Grossman trotted onto the field and grew into open grumbles after Shanahan attempted to justify the move, first with questions about McNabb's understanding of the two-minute offense and then later with issues about his physical well-being.

Brian Mitchell, one of the team's most beloved players by fans, who now works primarily as an analyst for Comcast, understands the sources of the ensuing furor.

"Do I think there is a racial aspect to what Shanahan did?" Mitchell asked rhetorically. "No. I think it's just a coach trying to protect his son," he said, alluding to Kyle Shanahan, the team's offensive coordinator under his father. "But I can see where people might feel that way in D.C. When you look back at the history here, what happens is you start to wonder - especially with quarterbacks.

"Doug Williams is sent packing a season after he wins the Super Bowl. No one sticks up for Jason Campbell in management while he's getting killed behind his offensive line - not Dan Snyder, not Vinny Cerrato, no one. And now Donovan McNabb is suddenly bad at understanding the playbook. Look, I played with Donovan. He understood our playbook very well."

Whether Shanahan had any understanding of the history of the organization and the city and the feelings that linger, he is clearly finding out that, as Washington native and AOL Fanhouse columnist Kevin Blackistone so aptly put it, "this ain't Colorado."

Indeed, after the NFL color barrier was broken in 1946, it inexplicably took George Preston Marshall 16 more years - amid legal threats and community pressure - to bring Bobby Mitchell to the Redskins. Former quarterback Eddie LeBaron, who knew the team's first owner well, told me last year he never believed Marshall was a racist. But LeBaron said Marshall did cater to at least a portion of that warped fan base for business reasons, not wanting to alienate a team's southern legions in an NFL that at the time didn't include franchises in New Orleans, Atlanta or Carolina.

"One of the reasons there's so many damn Cowboy fans in Washington is because many black fans in this area refused to support a team that would not employ an African American player for so many years," says Rick "Doc" Walker, the former Redskins tight end and a Washington media personality the past 20 years. "So they became fans of the team's arch rival. They had kids and they became Cowboy fans - and so on and so on. Hell, some of 'em have never even been to Dallas.

"The history of why African Americans are so sensitive is not made up. They were the last team to integrate with Bobby Mitchell. Then Bobby was never given a shot to be the general manager. You throw in Doug Williams being out of here a year after he was the Super Bowl MVP, and Art Monk and Brian Mitchell unceremoniously going to Philadelphia, and it goes on.

"How many great African American players have come out of this organization? Now who's still regarded as 1-2 for the most part around here by fans? Sonny and Riggo. Riggo and Sonny. That's fine. I have no problem with that. But people notice those things in this city."

Blackistone certainly does, with good reason. In 1965, his father, James Sr., wrote a letter to the acting president of the Redskins, Edward Bennett Williams. Like most African American fans at the time, James Blackistone was offended by the Confederate flags in the stands and the band's playing of "Dixie" during games. Less than a month later, Williams wrote back to Blackistone, saying he agreed. After 1965, the Redskins band did not play "Dixie" at another game.

"When Mike Shanahan questions the intelligence of Donovan McNabb, black fans around here naturally say to themselves, 'Well, what is he really saying?' " Kevin Blackistone said. "I'm not saying that was Shanahan's intention, to make Donovan sound dumb. But it's like the Albert Haynesworth situation where he insults the player. When it keeps happening, there is a fine line between coaching and hegemony."

My colleague Michael Wilbon called Shanahan knocking McNabb's intellect "an ominous characterization he'd better be careful about, lest he run into some cultural trouble in greater Washington, D.C." David Aldridge, the TNT NBA sideline reporter who hosts the Donovan McNabb Show on TBD, went further on radio: "You are balancing on the edge of a knife right now if you're Mike Shanahan, in this city. You better be careful."

All this from a two-minute quarterback change? In this town, Walker says, that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

"Whenever anything happens involving a player of color in Washington, the bottom line is the old wounds are opened," Walker said. "The last two minutes of that game brought back 30 years or more of undertones. You don't necessarily say, 'That's what it is,' but you do pause and think about it. Like, 'Was that about race?' Given what's happened here, it's only natural."

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