This 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.