RG III is More like Donovan McNabb Than He’s Willing to Admit

ImageThis upcoming Thursday, six-time pro-bowler and former Eagles QB Donovan McNabb will have his number retired for the Philadelphia Eagles, recognizing his outstanding contributions to the franchise. Since his departure from wearing green and white, McNabb has made the news for several reasons, most notably his ongoing media beef with Redskins star Robert Griffin III. RGIII’s struggles entering week 3 and Donovan McNabb’s retirement of his jersey makes for an interested comparison between the two. Despite some of their public statements and disagreements, RGIII’s career is certainly shaping up to have a remarkably similar story arc that makes whatever disagreement between the two woefully ironic.

In May 2012, in a feature on ESPN’s first take, McNabb sat beside troll Hall-of-Famer Skip Bayless to speculate on RGIII’s would-be success in the Redskins offense. McNabb, after experiencing a tenuous time in Washington—being benched on the final drive heading versus the Detroit Lions despite entering the game 4-3 because of an “inability to learn the playbook”—implied that coach Mike Shanahan’s pride would get in the way of Baylor standout’s success.

“I say that because a lot of the time ego gets too involved with when you’re playing in Washington.” And McNabb was not off-based with this idea. While the Redskins did change the offense to fit RGIII’s skill sets, leading him to have a rookie season arguably better than Cam Newton’s, pride and an unwillingness to sit RGIII after his injury at the end of the 2012 season did—and is currently—hurting the team.

McNabb continued with advice for the offensive Rookie of the Year. During this past off-season, as RGIII was rehabbing his torn ACL, getting married, and posting pictures of wedding presents his fans have purchased for him, McNabb told him to lay off the theatrics a bit. Griffin responded by saying “right now, it’s probably best we don’t talk.”

Ironically, McNabb’s advice is coming from an honest place. He, more than anyone knows about how it feels to have public favor turned against a player. By 2003, McNabb was Philadelphia’s darling and shining armor. He dazzled viewers by juking linebackers out of their shoes, brushing off would-be lineman trying to take his head off, and running over smaller defensive backs. After losing a few NFC championship games, where a combination of poor performance and pure coaching arrogance led to loses, the perception tide began to change. Then came Rush Limbaugh. Then  J. Whyatt Mondesire. Then Terrell Owens. Finally “vomit-gate” and the sports hernia. McNabb’s message to the young star is simple: stop letting these fans build you up because they will turn on you in a minute.

This will be almost an inevitable occurrence for Griffin. They love him. And without Super-Bowl rings, those honey-moons tend to end really fast. And given how talented and young his counterparts in San Francisco, Indiana, Seattle, Cincinnati, and Carolina are, and how putrid the Redskins defense and receiving corps are, it’s reasonable to believe that a championship is pretty far away.

But similar to Donovan McNabb’s career, everyone wants to analyze Robert Griffin on a level so much more than what is on the field. Griffin and McNabb do not have some of the identifiers we look for in our top black athletes. In the NFL, black men want to root for black quarterbacks. However, we look at black quarterbacks—especially those like Michael Vick and Cam Newton—in a different light. They exude a swagger and demeanor that feels affirmative of “black culture,” whereas the perception goes for McNabb and Griffin—for unfounded reasons—appear to run from them. McNair and Warren Moon went to HBCU’s, Michael Vick’s from the hood in Newport News, Cam’s from Atlanta. When they speak, when they talk—what they go through—allows them to claim access to “blackness” regardless of what they say, however problematic. Cam Newton has been as eager to shirk discussions about race (or altogether miss the point completely) as much as any quarterback before or after—yet no one questions his authenticity.

Griffin’s handling of racially-driven comments about his character has been as unrevealing as McNabb’s response to J Whyatt Mondesire. Mondesire, then-president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the NAACP, criticized McNabb in the Philadelphia Tribune in 2005 for pandering to race because McNabb rejected the notion of being a running quarterback in preference of being labeled a pocket-passer.

Without justifying Mondesire’s statement, it is clear that it ignores McNabb’s abhorrence to being labeled a running quarterback as having its own pathology based in racist assumptions others have made about his ability. Nevertheless, McNabb’s response is summed up by the following passive statement: “I always thought the NAACP supported African Americans and didn’t talk bad about them. Now you learn a little bit more.”

Griffin was subject to racially-driven ridicule by ESPN analyst Rob Parker. After being dooped into an awfully leading and loaded question by Bayless about Parker’s opinion of Griffin III’s braids, Parker responds: “My question, which is just a straight honest question: is he a brother, or is he a cornball brother?.. That he’s black, he kind of does his thing, but he’s not really down with the cause, he’s not one of us…” Griffin responds with the predictable and oft-repeated tagline about race. “You want to be defined by your work ethic, the person that you are, your character, your personality. That’s what I’ve tried to go out and do.”

In fairness, most athletes wound respond in the politically-correct way Griffin and McNabb had to help dismiss the statement and push it under the rug. The more-telling issue is that people feel comfortable to raise those questions. However ignorant, it is relevant because they relate to how the athlete is being watched, and how we read into their actions.

There are a group of black male viewers of football that hate “company men.” Just as some white viewers impose their fantasies and subconscious onto black players on the field, so do some black viewers. There are a sect of viewers who want to see black quarterbacks who are down for the cause—players who use their status as quarterback to call out and subvert the system all while defeating the stereotypes. They are expected to be quarterback Ray Lewis’s–light fire under their teammates, yell at receivers who drop balls, and to be genuine. Black viewers want to watch their black quarterback be a symbol of freedom and not a reminder of their own lives, where political correct-ness, corporate responses and detached communications rule the day. Being quarterback is equated to some organizational power, something we want them to wield without pandering to coaches or general managers.

Someone—the right type of people—has to hate what you stand for in order for us to love you. And if the wrong people love you it is a sign for us to be weary of our allegiances. And that extends beyond the realm of sports.

Robert Griffin III’s career is looking to take a very McNabb-ian arc. Because he doesn’t look and act a certain way he will be subject to unwarranted criticism about his manhood, toughness, authenticity, and black pride that the media will force him to waste time on. And in the end, if he doesn’t win, he’ll be defined by everything he wasn’t.

And very little of that will have to do with his play on the field. And as McNabb retires his jersey Thursday night, he can’t help but wonder if his career is being reincarnated unto Griffin.

McNabb is just trying to give him a heads-up. They’d probably learn a lot from each other. Instead, their common experiences will be too personal to assuage the wedge between them.

For This Young Philadelphian, Allen Iverson’s Retirement Bitter Sweet

Reports have surfaced indicating one-time NBA MVP and perennial All-Pro Allen Iverson will announce his retirement. Bouncing around the NBA after being traded from the Denver Nuggets for Chauncey Billups, the polarizing personality nicknamed ‘The Answer’ left the NBA, played overseas, contemplated several times coming back, finally refusing an offer to play in the developmental league. The depressing end of Iverson’s career should be celebrated, but it should also shame us all; the fans who longed to see him hit rock bottom and the league he helped build but tried to wash their hands of him, pretending as if Iverson never existed.

As a twenty-three year-old young man born and raised in Philadelphia, my peers and I literally grew up watching Iverson cross up futilely-stout defenders, crash the lane, endlessly run around screens, dive after and intercept passes.  He defined how my generation played basketball. Play basketball at a local rec center in Philly, and you’ll see that everyone can put the ball on the ground. Men five-foot-nine, 220 pounds full of tone-less body fat and muscle can put the ball on the floor and can cross you up and down as good as any. Everyone’s hands are lightning-quick. They can rip the ball very quickly, drive with dexterity and have great anticipation skills. Think of the this generations’ influx of players from Philadelphia—the Morris Twins, Tyreke Evans, Dion Waiters, Kyle Lowry- all players with a unique and vast array of skills– an ability to handle the ball and little guys with an edge, toughness and grace to them that defines the city. Philly loves A.I. (pronounced tightly as ‘Ayah’ ) he gave courage to a lot of guys much smaller to him on the court. And for as long I live I will always be reminded of the legacy of Allen Iverson every time I step on a local playground.

First-hand experience can testify to how A.I. had an entire city of basketball players in the palm of his hands.

Iverson had cities full of young boys walking around proudly with braids, a hairstyle bound to develop in communities deprived of male-presence and poverty, where mothers use their hair-braiding skills to their son’s hair for free in lieu of paying up to $40 per month for haircuts. Iverson’s popularity took it out of that context and made it a overwhelmingly embraced hairstyle in the culture. While he was certainly not the first, Iverson put his culture on display and did so unapologetically. Filled with tattoo’s from his toe to his chin, Iverson was an individual. But within his unabashed individualism, he also was as every bit as human as we can imagine. He was filled with insecurities and emotion, cried in front of audiences and was a great interviewee. Behind Iverson’s boisterous demeanor was also treads of vulnerability that seemed so aligned with the communities that Iverson and I come from. Iverson grew up in a town that became racially divided because of his talent and the controversy surrounding a spar between his friends and a group of white kids, He grew up in a single-parent household that struggled to provide for him. Almost every step of the way was chastised for things that may have or may not have been any fault of his own. Iverson just wanted to play basketball. And you saw that tension on the court.

Basketball is an amazing sport because a player’s skills are usually never an extension of a persona, like wrestling. They tend to be extensions of who the person actually is. While in football, players need celebrations and antics to display their personalities and are overshadowed by a 55-man roster, basketball players can display their character organically within the game. The NBA is a player-driven league, driven by personalities, observable through how aggressively they attack the rim, when and how (or if)  they pass to teammates, complain to referees, or even facial expressions through the course of the game. Everything Iverson did felt organic and genuine because that character seemed to extend onto the court. He was candid during interviews and was adamant about letting his play on the court speak for him. Iverson wanted what every person arguably wants—to be himself and to be allowed to be that way because that is how he was made.

Though Kobe was the hometown dude, we adored and adopted A.I. 

Iverson’s most iconic moment—his step over Tyronn Lue—is usually taken out of context. The image, along with context illuminates his greatness. People forget that Lue did a great job shutting down Iverson in that second half up until those waning moments of the second half and Overtime, all this after scoring 30 points in the first half. Iverson finished the game with 48 points in what had been his third consecutive game of 44+ points. Iverson dominated those playoffs, having two 50+ performances in one series against a Toronto Raptors team one shot away from winning the series. Iverson barely sat on the bench in any of those series for the exception of one missed game against the Bucks. The 2001 playoffs was owned by a great Lakers team that only lost one playoff game, but it was dominated by the smallest man on the court.  He was small but lanky looking, lacking the muscle and build that the best point guards today have. Fans liked watching this mini miracle.

Iverson’s second most-iconic moment as a player, his infamous tirade about practice, is also taken out of context. And while it is argued that Iverson’s tirade is proof of the fact that, in that moment, he was overlooking the importance of team cohesion and performance, people overlooked what was hidden behind Iverson’s larger point: his team did not have any talent.

Currently the reigning Eastern Conference champs but a significantly worse team during the 2001-2002 season, the Sixers experienced a first-round loss in a five-game series against a young and talented Celtics team. Talks had surfaced about his practicing habits, as then-Coach Larry Brown had discussed it the day following the series’ conclusion. When asked about Coach Brown’s comments, Iverson’s larger point about practice was that it was a non-factor in losing the series. This is best seen in his simple explanation as to why his team lost. “We lost man. It ain’t a whole bunch to that. Simple as that, we lost.”

How the hell am I gonna make my teammates better by practicing? 

The Sixers were demolished in game 5 by 33 points. When asked by a reporter “Is it possible that if you practiced, not you but you would make your teammates better?”,  Iverson emphatically asks “How the hell am I gonna make my teammates better by practicing?”  Iverson knows it is a team game, but he also acknowledging there is a major individual component. It was clear to Iverson, the Sixers lacked individual talent across the board. After watching a series where all-stars Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker gashed the Sixers game after game while Iverson scored an average of 30 points per, he needed players who were better. Iverson needed players with more individual talent that team practice would not solve for. It is a simple, unaudacious point made by Iverson that he has received much condemnation for.

What is often forgotten is how intense the rest of the interview gets. If you read the transcript of the interview, you can hear Iverson growing frustrated with lingering rumors of him being traded and having to address his daughter telling him about people approaching her about the fate of the iconic star. Throughout the interview, Iverson points out his frustration with it all— how confounded he is at the idea of why reporters are talking about trading Iverson if it is clear he’s the best player on the team, the Franchise player and the MVP. Iverson is perplexed at why people are focusing on him and why they are not asking questions about the people who comprise the rest of the roster—the non-MVP’s, the less-talented players. Iverson was tired of taking blame and being the called the source of the problem when he was the only solution the Sixers had, especially when the team lacked any play of consequence.

His talent, while definitely filled with high-volume scoring, made for some of the most memorable Sixers teams to memory. Perhaps if you gave Iverson, in his prime, a 3-and-D wing athlete that every team seems to have today, the Sixers could have reasonably stole a championship during those years. Instead the Sixers signed players like Matt Harpring, Keith Van Horn, volume shooter Glenn Robinson, and a past-his-prime Chris Webber. The best complimentary players the Sixers drafted were a young Larry Hughes and Andre Iguodala, both players who needed time to develop. The best low-post presences in Iverson’s time were all players the Sixers picked up while on the tail end of their careers. Perhaps Iverson was difficult to play with other talented players. Volume-shooting comrade Kobe Bryant will tell you that complimentary players are necessary to win games. If Iverson was given the Lakers teams from 2008-2010, minus Kobe Bryant, then he likely wins just as many championships as Kobe had during that period. Iverson did many things really well. For the exception of a post-game, Iverson could create his own shot, ran around screens perfectly, and could run an offense. And the increase in shooting percentage he experienced in Denver indicated a serious personel and scheme problem in Philadelphia.

Iverson’s inability to win a championship will likely be the same reason many talented players like him never win them. They run into dominant teams and players that are difficult to defeat. But people seem to blame Iverson for the Sixers’ failure. They how awful the Sixers were. There was no reliable offensive weapon other than Iverson.  Name a legitimate offensive threats the Sixers had on their teams other than Iverson , compared to the other championship-winning teams during his era and that should answer the question as to why Iverson never “won” anything. We demanded a lot of Iverson. And we should re-assess if that burden was fair.

But outside of reassessing our personal expectations for Iverson, we should also reexamine whether things would have turned out differently had the league embraced him more. The NBA should be ashamed as to how they have treated Iverson. He was never truly embraced by the league, never hailed or advertised by the NBA.  Though, they have reaped the benefit of a gamut of Iverson-ites in the NBA. Since Iverson, the league has recently seen an influx of small guards who play with tons of heart. They slash to the rim, some dunk, some use flashy layups, some take bad shots. Many break ankles. In fact, Iverson perfected a crossover that hadn’t been seen in the NBA yet. The ability to put the ball on a string, using a mix of body motion and ball gestures as a form of misdirection to keep your defender off balance, while making him pay for ever planting his feet is something that Iverson famously mastered. It is almost a prerequisite for any novice ball handler in the NBA who has any ambitions on getting to the lane to possess now. We’ve even seen players as lanky as Kevin Durant use the crossover in his array of moves. Once again, while Iverson is not the first but he’s mostly the reason why kids were experimenting with those moves on the playground during my upbringing. I certainly tried. Now the NBA is getting populated with young talent my age.

Embracing the “Thug”

Even the dreaded tattoos Iverson has helped foster in almost every sport. Players proudly dress their bodies in ink. Iverson was featured on magazine after magazine, brazenly showing off his tats from head to toe. The NBA wants to pretend these things do not exist. The NBA wants to disassociate itself from elements of threatening components of an American sub-culture, even if it has almost everything to do with the fascination of the sport from the perspective of those that populate—and will continue to populate—the league. Part of that required a barring of Iverson from the NBA. The NBA initiated a dress code, and they required the jerseys be tighter on the skin, and forbade wearing leg or arm sleeves for the purposes of fashion. They could not be more pleased with Iverson’s immediate fade from the NBA. Instead of looking at menacing 5X white tees and gold chains that slide down to his navel, we can now discuss Dwayne Wade’s ankles, Russell Westbrook’s next-best Prince impersonation, or Amare Stoudemire’s fedora’s. We can even feature fashion experts op-eds about NBA fashion trends on the NBA.com website (as if none of this could be done without a dress code). The NBA has worked hard to eliminate the things Iverson unapologetically fostered.

Iverson’s fade to black will be a product of many factors. One of which is his own arrogance in his own ability (which I find we are frustratingly inconsistent in how we admire or demean that quality). But could any league MVP ever subject himself to the D-League? Not likely. Another will be a bad image and reputation, some of which is earned and some of which is not. His (mis)fortune post-NBA has created justification for some that hold negative views toward him. You’re not likely to see him on NBA TV or ESPN, despite his magnetic personality and charisma. He was built for basketball. And while that definitely had to come to an end, I am not sure if we—or even Iverson himself—could imagine what that end would look like. As ESPN personality Bomani Jones indicated in an article last year, it will probably be best if we never hear from him.

Undeniable Legacy

In the meantime, I will think of Chris Paul, Steve Francis, Dwayne Wade, Brandon Jennings, Juan Dixon, Dion Waiters, Louis Williams, and Rodney Stuckey. These are players who don the #3 jersey proudly. I am confident it is derived from them watching Iverson during their adolescence, probably mastering crossovers and developing their touch around the rim after seeing highlights of the superstar. Iverson contributed to the sport in ways that some of the best players will never be able to claim, and his popularity and iconoclasm has left a mark on the NBA for better or worse. But we should always acknowledge when we’re in a presence of a legend. This is fact; meaning that it is exists whether we’re comfortable about it or not. Pay your due respect.

Riley Cooper, Devoid of Real Talent, Will Be Just Another ‘Nigger-Guy’

This should be good.

It is said that in our anger and angst is when our true colors show. In the midst of adversity, no matter how great or small, we notice what we are truly made of for better or worse.

This is one way to interpret Riley Cooper’s angry tirade at a Kenny Chesney concert, where the Eagles wide receiver dropped one maddening ‘N-Bomb’. The former roommate of Tim Tebow is the new ‘Nigger Guy’, and he will be forced to walk the plank all his other predecessors have. This situation has a different twist to it, as Cooper’s profession places him in the same locker room as men who have the same racial identifier as the racial slur he damn-near unconsciously threw at the security guard.

Yet, his apology mostly seemed like he was just a man who knows his career is ending, but desperately trying to do the most to show he cares. Like a man futilely trying to buy his woman who’s completely over him flowers, Cooper’s apology was mostly Tiger-esque—an apology that’s mostly derived from the trauma of our embarrassment of the aftermath than from the action itself, where self-loathing for the destruction of one’s image is mistakenly contrived as contrition. The Eagles have excused him from the team so he can see “professionals” to help him “deal with” what he said. I have a simpler solution to the problem; just cut him.

Unlike Michael Richards (Kramer), a past-his-prime actor who at worst may have had to answer to the rest of his scrawny, skinny, or out-of-shape African American comedic colleagues, Cooper’s counterparts are men who are, arguably, in the best shape of all pro sports and are given license permission to hit him with hard helmets at blitzing speed. Unfortunately—or fortunately– the Philadelphia Eagles have to release him.

It seems justified to allow him to at least continue auditioning to make the team. To allow men desperately trying to make a name for themselves to throw their bodies at him, and to have him run curl and slant routes in front of some beefy black middle linebacker from Texas seemed to be the best way to have this story end for those that now want his helmet on a pike.

Whether Riley Cooper is racist does not matter. Besides, when these things happen, people close to the matter tend to want to speak positively. We’re not going to meet anyone who knows Cooper to publicly state they are not surprised at his outburst. What we do know, however, is that instead of referring to security guards in the epithets we uniformly tend to call them—rent-a-cops, asshole, pig, jerk, dickhead, etc.—Cooper took disdain for a singular security guard who happened to be black as an opportunity to make a declaration of how he’d beat “EVERY nigger” at the venue. He may not be racist, but what he said is definitely something racist people say, and said it with the visceral tenacity that accompanies such racists.

Even more interesting is the variety of responses it drew from those with him. One telling, and discomforting detail, though, is the humor to which the epithet is received by those that are in his crew. More than his ease in saying the word is the fact that some found it amusing—not appalling—to hear him use the word. One woman exclaims laughingly “ahhh, he said nigga.” But a redeeming one comes from the gentlemen—one noticeably Eagles Guard Jason Kelce—beside him who’s smiley quickly turns into a shaming “whoa, whoa, whoa” after Cooper says the word. This why assessing who he is as an individual is difficult; even if you don’t believe him when he says he has never said that word before. (Because we all know that when you’re drunk and upset you develop new vocabulary and slang.)

As with everything, though, context is paramount. If Riley cooper says the word while at a Rick Ross concert while reciting the chorus this becomes a different conversation. He doesn’t have to (as) shamefully stand in front of a mic feigning depression. But Cooper will not be released because of what he said more than he will be because you want your team focused on the task of winning a Super Bowl and not news headlines. On basic economics alone, Cooper is too much of a liability. Cooper spent a long time on the Eagles roster and never got a starting spot. If Peyton Manning made this mistake, it’d be much more consequential. And because Cooper is not Peyton Manning—or even Carson Palmer—we only learn what we already knew: being a team distraction will probably get you released, especially if you suck. Thus, the Eagles are taking a greater stance on team focus than they are about the use of the word itself.

A better player would have given us a better idea about how we actually feel about it. And until that happens, we’ll keep beating the dead horse.

Two more weeks of Cooper in the NFL should be entertaining. But Cooper’s career is over. But do NOT get it twisted, it will be because of his talent (or lack thereof). Not what he said. And I hope he remembers that.

And like every player cut because he can’t make the grade, we can go back to forgetting him. He does not have the talent to be known as anything else. He’ll just always be known as another ‘Nigger-Guy’.