In his 13 seasons in the Washington Redskins, Donovan McNabb learned firsthand what it’s like to be put into a box labeled “Black Quarterback” in the NFL.
From deciphering coded language to challenging preconceived assumptions that narrowly shape recruiting charts, the 7-time Pro Bowler has fought the battle against the subtle racially tinged anecdotes used by scouts, coaches and commentators.
yeahstub.com caught up with Donovan at the premiere of the new Epix documentary ‘Forgotten Four’ (of which McNabb was one of the producers) to talk about the current state of race relations in the NFL, why it’s important for today’s athletes to know about the history of integration in pro sports to know and his thoughts on Michael Sam’s role as the league’s first openly Gay player.
Examiner: ‘Forgotten Four’ is about the deconstruction of cultural barriers in the NFL. Do you think down the line Michael Sam will be looked upon the same way by football fans.
Donovan: As far as Michael Sam is concerned it’s a progression for him. What happens now? You know, Michael Sam is a historian. He’s a trendsetter and he’s taking full advantage of it. but he’s a football player first and that’s what people need to focus on. It’s not just that he’s the first openly gay player. He’s a football player. And he’s trying to make a team and I think people are increasingly starting to see it that way.
E: In the time you were in the NFL talk about how you feel the league progressed when it came to dealing with race and what you would still like to see.
Donovan: I would like to see an equal playing field when it comes to recognizing talent, when it comes to guys in key roles on football teams, head coaches. I’d like to see African American owners. We have the African American [General Managers] but I would like to expand, and see them not just in the key roles on the field but also owning teams and being decision makers and leaders of men. With that door now being open, we look at where it’s at now with the quarterback position. Even at the high school and grammar school levels we have African Americans at the quarterback position and playing in college. We can probably pick out 70% of the teams in college probably all of them have Black quarterbacks, and they’re recruiting African American quarterbacks. So I just want to even the playing field where we recognize the players, and not just as “running” quarterbacks, as “mobile” quarterbacks but just as quarterbacks.
E: Like when people say “Urban” and you know they really mean “Black.”
Donovan: Right. It’s still a narrow perception. Recognizing the quarterback of the New York Jets, the quarterback of the Washington Redskins the “mobile” or “strong arm” big strong burly guy quarterback that can get out of the pocket and create with his legs. No. He’s the leader: Intelligent, leader of men, strong arm, accurate, same that you would refer to any other quarterback. Same playing field. He’s the same type of quarterback.
E: If there’s anything the past few months have proven it’s that the problems also still exist at the executive levels in pro sports.
Donovan: And that’s something that you look at, I mean I hate to bring up the reference but look at what’s going on in the NBA right now. We could talk Donald Sterling but look at [Bruce Levenson]. You kind of step back and just say “Really?” And that’s something that probably exists in other front offices. You know, 13 years of my career in the NFL, you look at the difference in scouting reports when they’re looking at different quarterbacks. “Strong arm, mobile, good size not as accurate” we all know they mean Black quarterback. But you look at the white quarterback which is like “leader, accurate, good size. Decent arm but he’ll help you get to the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl. As a quarterback you’re supposed to help lead your team to the Super Bowl. Does that really need to factor into your scouting report? And that’s something that I’ve dealt with over the years that continues to bother me.
E: Now that you’re a member of the media and on a different side of that topic what is your approach to race?
Donovan: Well the thing is I just report on the player and the incident. if a guy made a mistake I’m talking about the guy and the mistake. Or the football, when I go into that or describe what happened, I’m talking about the play, the player and the result. When I’m talking sports it’s not so much about the African American or the Caucasian quarterback. I’m talking about the actual play, the player who made the play and the end result. Also, I’ve lived it. I can talk from experience. I can break it down. Some people have never been in those shoes. If you’re with a network that allows you to be yourself, and if you communicate your points the right way and in a way that people can understand then you’re doing your job.