"Words are more powerful than fists."
-- Muhammad Ali on "The Mike Douglas Show," July 17, 1974
AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy
The recent backlash over Donovan McNabb's recent comment proves that race still is a factor in sports.
Because Isiah, Donovan and other black athletes do have a public platform, there often are people who expect these athletes to be like Muhammad Ali by using their visibility to comment on racial issues. This charge to be more vocal was most consistently leveled at Michael Jordan, who once famously suggested that "Republicans buy Nikes, too," instead of endorsing the Democratic candidate for the Senate, Harvey Gantt, against the arch conservative Jesse Helms in Jordan's home state of North Carolina in the early '90s.
While quite a bit has changed in terms of race and sports since 1987, as evidenced by the fact that Donovan's comments have not ignited the type of firestorm that Isiah's did, some things have remained constant. For this reason, McNabb now has joined the club of contemporary black athletes, which includes outspoken figures like Gary Sheffield, Warren Sapp, Jermaine O'Neal and Rasheed Wallace, who dare attempt to speak truth to power by mentioning the unmentionable; that in spite of much overt progress, race remains a factor in sports, albeit in ways more subtle and nuanced than ever before.
Yet there are many people, in direct contrast to those cited earlier, who wish black athletes would just shut up; in other words, "be seen and not heard." This desire is compounded by the expectation that the high salaries of many black athletes should, in effect, buy their silence, or at least ensure their complicity with the status quo. The assumption is, "How could you have so much to complain about, when you make so much money?" Black athletes are not paid because someone is doing them a favor, though. They are well paid because they are good at what they do, and what they do can translate into money for themselves and their respective owners. Capitalist Economics 101 tells us the amount of money these black athletes make is a result of the law of supply and demand. Further, Donovan was not complaining; he simply was making a statement based on his experiences and feelings, yet no one wanted to hear it. It is as though any mention of race automatically is heard as complaining, regardless of whether or not this is the case.
When considering these conflicting desires and demands from various sectors of the public, black athletes find themselves in a double bind, a Catch-22 of immense proportions. If ever the cliche´ "damned if you do and damned if you don't" applies, it most certainly applies to the difficulties faced by black athletes and the weight their words carry. Say what you will about a level playing field in sports, white athletes do not have to deal with racial expectations of this sort. No one asks white athletes to speak up for their race. And on the rare occasions white athletes do address racial concerns, the perceptions around the words they speak are not nearly the same.
When Larry Bird said a few years ago that the NBA needed more white superstars to appease what he considered to be a predominately white fan base, there was some mild disagreement, sure, but much of the conversation in the aftermath of his comments was about whether or not Bird had made a valid point. This benefit of the doubt is something that never was extended to Donovan and seldom, if ever, has been extended to black athletes who choose to utter concerns about racial inequities in their respective sports.
In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash mentioned that one of the reasons he wasn't highly touted or heavily recruited out of high school was due to being a "6-foot-1, white point guard." Forgive me if I missed it, but I have yet to hear the public outcry about Nash's playing the race card. Earlier this summer, former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Bogut of the Milwaukee Bucks, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, racially and culturally profiled "80 percent" of his NBA peers when he stated that they often go broke behind excessive spending on cars, jewelry and women. He even went as far as to link this wanton excessiveness to American culture in general. Bogut's comments drew nary a peep, though, in spite of their incendiary, stereotypical nature.Why no outcry in any of these instances? Because when white athletes speak, their comments are thought to reflect their own individual opinions, not those of all white athletes. Yet when one black athlete speaks, all black athletes are assumed guilty by association. This was why so many black quarterbacks and other current and former black football players rushed to distance themselves from Donovan's statements.
The worst of these dissenting comments came from Vince Young, who could be heard admonishing Donovan, saying, in essence, that if the Eagles' field general couldn't stand the heat of being a quarterback, he should indeed get out of the proverbial kitchen. Although Young barely has gotten his feet wet in the league, he felt confident enough to chastise a five-time Pro Bowler who has taken his team to four conference championship games and made a Super Bowl appearance. Perhaps Young was so confused in his thinking that he failed to realize that the snickering and other mean-spirited chatter in response to the leaking of his atrociously low Wonderlic test score last year was itself racial in nature?
The level of denial that emerged in response to Donovan's comments was astonishing, really. Donovan didn't say that white quarterbacks never are criticized, yet many people invoked the name of Rex Grossman as proof of a white quarterback who has been constantly criticized. This is an erroneous comparison if ever there was one. Grossman is a mediocre quarterback on a good day. McNabb is a superstar. Talk about apples and oranges. Grossman has been criticized for being an inconsistent quarterback on a team that managed to make it to the Super Bowl in spite of his poor play. This most certainly is not the case with Donovan, who remains the face of the Eagles franchise and the primary reason this franchise has had success when he has been healthy.
Forget the fact that Donovan's comments were made earlier in the summer, although aired only the day after a less-than-stellar performance on Monday Night Football. As is often the case, people hear what they want to hear, so this fact got lost in the shuffle. It is much easier to depict Donovan as a whiner who is making excuses for his poor play than it is for people to actually consider whether or not his point of view has any merit. Again, the mere mention of race is regarded as a complaint in and of itself. In an environment in which race remains a contested issue like this, it is impossible to ever have an open and honest discussion about the consequences of race on people's perception. The odds are inevitably stacked against such expression, however relevant such an expression might be.
Although there are a fair number of black quarterbacks in the NFL now, this is only a relatively recent development. For years, black quarterbacks in high school and college were told they couldn't play the position and often were forced to change their position if they wanted to continue playing football. For the few black quarterbacks who did make it to the professional ranks, life was far from ideal. Marlon Briscoe, the man considered the first black quarterback of the modern era, started at quarterback for the AFL's Denver Broncos in 1968. The next year, Briscoe was traded to the Buffalo Bills, where he was "converted" into a wide receiver. Guys like "Jefferson Street" Joe Gilliam of the Steelers and the Rams' James Harris were treated less than fairly and ultimately kicked to the curb in the '70s by their teams, in spite of their on-field success.
It was thought at the time that blacks were physical specimen but that they lacked the intelligence and mental comportment to play what was considered such a demanding position. Hall of Famer Warren Moon had to go to Canada before being given a shot at playing quarterback in the NFL. Even though the Redskins' Doug Williams embarrassed Denver's golden boy, John Elway, with an outstanding performance in Super Bowl XXII, it still was a long time after that monumental victory before there was a noticeable change in terms of the racial politics around the quarterback position.
In spite of the fact that we do see more black quarterbacks now, we are not sufficiently far enough away from this troubled racial history for all traces of bias to have completely disappeared. Yes, quarterbacks are routinely criticized more than other players. Yes, the Philadelphia fans are known to be an especially harsh bunch. These issues notwithstanding, the historical dimensions of race as it pertains to the quarterback position and as it functions in American life are too immense to deny.
Considering the flak he knew he would receive for his comments, what Donovan McNabb said was nothing short of courageous. The amount of money athletes make never should force them to abandon who they are simply for the sake of being politically correct. I'm not advocating that we turn media sessions into racial tribunals, but I am saying that there are times when it's necessary to keep it real. Donovan took advantage of such an opportunity and was left to twist in the wind. Such is life. It's real in the field, I know. But maybe there will come a day when black athletes can mention race and not have to have their heads on a swivel in search of an impending attack. Until that fateful day, though, it's probably best to adhere to the inherent contradictions embodied in that old Ice T line, "freedom of speech just watch what you say."
Dr. Todd Boyd, a columnist for Page 2, is an author, media commentator and professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His next book, "The Notorious Ph.D.'s Guide to the Super Fly '70s," is now available.