This week, in an interview on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb re-ignited an old, familiar debate. During the interview, McNabb suggested that black quarterbacks get criticized “differently,” meaning more harshly, than do white quarterbacks, and black quarterbacks have to do “a little extra” to earn the same praise that a white quarterback would earn. Donovan McNabb was the latest to take the race bait and, with his words, another counterproductive discussion on race in sports ensued.
Such a discussion is destined to be counterproductive because, predictably, people on each side of the argument have retreated to their long fortified positions rather than engaging in any meaningful dialogue. One side claims that McNabb’s statements are outdated and unfounded. The fact that McNabb is an NFL quarterback when so many his black athletic predecessors were not given that opportunity is in itself proof of progress. McNabb gets criticism because he plays for the most unforgiving fan base, in one of the most unforgiving media markets, at the most scrutinized position in sports.
Proponents of this argument will site examples such as Peyton Manning, the white quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, who endured unrelenting criticism of his game despite posting NFL record statistics because, until last season, he had a zero in the most important statistical column: Super Bowl wins. Peyton bashers would even use his University of Tennessee team’s 0-4 record against the University of Florida to prove their case against his NFL record. Being white did not spare Peyton from any of this criticism. Some will argue that McNabb deserves the criticism he is getting for his play today because his team is 0-2 and he has been mediocre on the field. People who make any of these arguments are correct.
Those on the other side of the race argument will argue that it is an irrefutable fact that Donovan McNabb and other black players face challenges that white players do not. Therefore, the journey to achieve and maintain success is, by definition, more difficult for black players than for white players. Those on this side will cite the fact that in the National Football League, in which the majority of the players are black, the vast majority of the on-field leaders (quarterbacks and head coaches) are white. They will argue this is because of the obvious discrimination of white decision makers who are products of a society that is far from color blind.
Why would the NFL need the so-called Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for any open head coaching position, if decisions were being made based only on merit? Reviewing poll results on any issue in which race is a factor will reveal immediately that racial identification is a strong predictor of opinion and, therefore, of the decisions made based upon those opinions. No matter the field, people will give the benefit of the doubt to those with whom they identify, and tend to fault those with whom they do not. More often than not, blacks still get the short end of that stick. People who make any of these arguments are also correct.
Ultimately, it is an unproductive discussion because there is absolutely no way to achieve the implied goal of removing all influence of race when evaluating, praising, or criticizing the performance of any individual. First, it is impossible to define to what extent this is a problem. How are we supposed to define “more harsh criticism” with the purpose of ensuring that criticism is fair as it pertains to race? We cannot scientifically strip out the factors that are “fair game” (points not scored, passes not completed) from those that are not fair game (biases, false perceptions) which can together make up a scathing review of a quarterback’s performance. The person who offers these less than complementary opinions certainly will not admit that the race of the player helps add bite to his comments or soften the criticism. Inevitably, this type of discussion satisfies only those who profit from discord and controversy and leaves the rest of us chasing our tails.
In the end, this debate simply invites us to shout our pre-established positions without any possibility of arriving at a better solution. Even worse, it prevents us from the discussion of more important topics in the area of race. Donovan McNabb, despite his current protestations to the contrary, has not been substantially damaged by this double standard. He has become unquestionably one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL despite the systematic bias that he undoubtedly faced in his early career and the outright opposition he has faced from even those who should have been supporters. He began his professional career hearing boos by Philadelphia Eagles fans who objected to their favorite team’s decision to draft him. Yet none of this opposition has stopped him from putting together what could become a Hall of Fame career. His example of un-rigging a rigged game is one from which we can all learn.
Unfortunately, rather than focusing on his record of achievement, the discussion around McNabb’s comments today may convince some people that “the system” actively prevents certain individuals from succeeding. The tragedy is that some of those “certain individuals” may take Donovan McNabb’s comments as proof that striving is futile, which is counter to everything for which he stands.
My hope is that the next time the McNabb question is posed to a public figure, he or she simply refuses to take the bait.Powered by Sidelines