Donovan McNabb, Race and the Redskins


In DC, it's not the elections garnering the lion's share of discussion. It's the late-game benching of Washington Redskins quarterbackDonovan McNabb. 

The always classy McNabb has spent a career avoiding controversy like it was plague. He may never seek controversy, but controversy always seems to seek him.  It's hard to imagine an athlete who has been more milquetoast and manicured, and yet always finds himself as our sports generation’s unwilling lightning rod.

McNabb spent 11 years wrestling for the affections of Philadelphia’s uniquely surly fans. During that time, he had to deal with Rush Limbaugh bleating that he was getting a free ride because of his skin color, former teammate Terrell Owens questioning his leadership, and firestorms when he speculated in 2007 that black quarterbacks just might have a tougher time with fans than their white counterparts. Then McNabb became the first pro bowl quarterback in history to be traded inside his own division when he was sent from the Eagles to the Redskins. He has then had to watch as the city of Brotherly love that never loved him, embrace the far more controversial and far less polished Michael Vick. Through it all, McNabb has remained classy, always classy. This is just the McNabb way.      

As he once said, "I try to handle myself with class. I try to handle myself with dignity. I think sometimes people look to players to act out, speak loudly, pretty much be an idiot. But that's not me."

The latest saga involves McNabb's bizarre benching against the Detroit Lions with 1:48 to go and his team down six points. Coach Mike Shanahan, who looks like George W. Bush with the John Boehner tan (seriously, it's as if his years as head coach of the Denver Broncos died his skin orange.) took that moment of all moments to call on McNabb’s utterly incompetent backup Rex Grossman to win the game. True to form, Grossman coughed it up on his first play, his fumble returned for a touchdown, sealing the game.

The entire scenario, to put it mildly, was bizarre. With the game on the line, Shanahan sat his future Hall of Fame quarterback who had already equaled the team's win total of last year for a backup bust who couldn’t hit the earth if he fell from a plane. Other than Sports Illustrated’s Peter King praising Shanahan’s “stones”, most thought he was just stone crazy.

In the bars, barbershops, and other circles I frequent, there was bewilderment over the move, but that was as far as it went. That shifted when Shanahan actually explained the method of his madness. In several rambling explanations, he first questioned McNabb’s conditioning. Then the next day Shanahan made clear that he felt McNabb just didn’t know the plays. In other words, McNabb isn’t just a bad option with the . He’s also fat and stupid. Well now. Whether intentional or not, the race card had officially, been dealt. Speaking for the bars, barber shops, chat rooms, and radio stations, it was clear Shanahan had however subconsciously or unintentionally crossed a line. Fox Sports' Jason Whitlock spoke for many when he wrote, “Before the week is over, I fully expect Shanahan to suggest that fried-chicken grease prevented McNabb from properly gripping the football.”

Clearly, we’ve come far enough in the NFL that it's no longer a big deal if your quarterback happens to be black. But we haven’t come so far that a true trailblazer among black quarterbacks, can be called fat, lazy and stupid by his head coach, and not have people start to talk.

For many, the coach going out of his way to embarrass Donovan McNabb is simply unacceptable.  If only it was unacceptable for McNabb. Throughout the week, he’s been as calm and collected as he has been throughout his career.  The media has once again been praising this “classy” demeanor.  Former teammates, the talented but petulant Terrell Owens, and the simply petulant Freddie Mitchell piled on, saying that Shanahan must have had a point. Once again, Donovan stayed classy.

Donovan McNabb is like Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree. He constantly smiles while coaches, teammates, and the occasional shock-jock strip him down. He will always be the stump where even a heavyweight like Limbaugh, can safely sit. He gave 5 NFC Championship Games in 11 seasons and a trip to the Super Bowl to Philadelphia, and was run out of town. He gave the Redskins four wins in seven games and a leader who while at times erratic was better than any we’ve had in this town in 20 years, and was benched for his trouble. He just gives and smiles tightly, controlling his emotions like a German innkeeper. Maybe that’s why he’s such a lightning rod for the Limbaughs of the world. Maybe that’s why coaches like Shanahan feel like they can disrespect him without repercussion.  He’s let himself be an easy target. This is bad for the team, the city, and himself.  After the benching, teammate DeAngelo Hall said, "For us as players, we're employees. We're players. We have coaches. We do what the coaches say. If that means come out of the game, we come out of the game. If that's go in the game, we go in the game. So for us to not, I guess, rally behind what's being coached, that's not going to happen.”

Employees don’t get anywhere by just listening to the boss. You don’t build unity that way, just a culture of division, mistrust, and fear. This is a team that cries for leadership. Donovan McNabb could stand to be a lot less classy and tell Mike Shanahan that he has his head up his ass. The team and the city, would love it because Donovan McNabb would finally be announcing to the world, that he's nobody's stump.

[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing Contact him at]


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