Monday, November 15, 2010

The Rick Reilly Column

I wrote the blog on Thursday in the hope that a more detailed explanation of what I was trying to say about the Mike Shanahan-Donovan McNabb issue would put an end to it—or at least my involvement in it.

To a large degree it did. The posts and e-mails that came in were close to what I expected: Some people didn’t really read what I said; they just had a knee-jerk reaction to even raising the specter of race. (BTW, James Brown, Tom Jackson and Michael Wilbon have all raised it too but because they are African American people tend to not pay attention or say, ‘so what?’ They’re ignored when they bring it up because they’re black; I’m pilloried—by some— for bringing it up because I’m white). What was gratifying though was the fact that quite a few people completely understood the point I was making: that Shanahan raising issues about McNabb’s intelligence brings back some bad memories for a lot of people about the racial stereotyping that went on for years when it came to African Americans playing the quarterback position. That was why I found it unforgivable. A lot of people got that.

Of course some people—many in the media—didn’t or chose not to. Rick Reilly absolutely torched me in his ESPN column. What was upsetting about the column wasn’t that Reilly disagreed with me. I’m perfectly comfortable being on the opposite side from Reilly on almost any issue. What did bother me—as I said in a note I sent him on Friday—was that he accused me of committing a crime I didn’t commit and then ripped me for it. If you read Reilly, he goes on about how ridiculous it is to think Shanahan’s benching of McNabb was racially motivated.

He’s right. Of course I never said it was. Like most people I saw it as a coaching temper tantrum after McNabb made a bad play. The issue came up after the game, first with the ‘he didn’t know the terminology,’ comments; then with the ‘cardiovascular,’ comments—that was about his conditioning not his intelligence—and finally with the Chris Mortensen, ‘sources,’ story that the poor Shanahans had to cut their playbook in half to accommodate their dumb African-American quarterback.

One argument being made is that the Shanahans might not have been Mortensens’s source. I don’t buy that for a second but let’s play along here for a moment and pretend they weren’t. If Mortensen is half the reporter I think he is and someone whispers that to him what’s his next move? I would think it is to call Mike Shanahan, who you can bet is on his speed dial and say, “someone just said this.” And Shanahan, UNLESS he wants his quarterback lying in the road with tire tracks on his back, says something like: “Come on Mort, the guy is a six-time Pro Bowler, of course he knows the playbook.” If Shanahan doesn’t say that then he’s guilty of not protecting his quarterback—even if there’s truth in the leak, which I’m not buying either. If Shanahan did say that I don’t believe Mortensen would still go with the story.

Anyway, Reilly pilloried me for saying McNabb was benched because Shanahan’s a racist. One example he cited as proof that Shanahan’s not a racist is that Shanahan cried on the phone when he learned one of his African American players had died. Wow, what a humanitarian! Even so, the argument’s moot because I don’t think Shanahan’s a racist. I do think he’s absolutely capable of throwing out racial stereotypes to defend an indefensible decision he made. Which is what I said and what I wrote. Reilly, in his return note to me, asked me if I really thought Shanahan could be that Machiavellian. Are you kidding? I think Machiavelli studied Shanahan somewhere along the way.

Two points here: Reilly and I aren’t friends but I’ve never considered him an enemy. We’ve known each other a long time and I thought he should have picked up a phone and called me before he hammered me—especially since he might have gotten his facts straight had he done so. Then again, that might not have suited his purposes. Rick defended not calling me by pointing out that I publicly nailed him twice in the past. Once was seven years ago when we appeared on Bob Costas’s old HBO show together and, in discussing the Riggs-King match, he said that Riggs had only had one serve and King had been allowed to play the doubles alleys. He was wrong. I said he was wrong and he insisted he was right. I offered to bet him $100 and he took the bet. To his credit he sent me a check when he found that he—or his researcher—had it wrong. According to Rick I went, ‘three stops past the exit,’ that night. Really?

My second crime was different. When Rick left Sports Illustrated for ESPN, someone asked me if I was surprised. I said I wasn’t; that I knew ESPN had thrown a lot of money on the table but to me leaving SI for ESPN was a little bit like, “checking out of a Ritz-Carlton to move over to a Hampton Inn.”

Yup, it was a shot—at ESPN. Rick apparently took it as a shot at him even though I said I understood he’d been offered a lot of money. As I said in my return of his return note: “I’m guessing now you might think what I said was probably right—but I certainly don’t expect you to confide in me about THAT.” And I don’t. All I know is the guy was a GREAT take out writer at Sports Illustrated and now he’s hosting 2 a.m. sportscenters with some fourth string talking head at ESPN. Yes, that was a shot.

In all though, I’ve been gratified by the number of people whose opinions I respect who have understood what I said and why I said it. I also have a little clearer understanding of why REAL public figures (I consider myself a semi-public figure) get frustrated when they say something and it morphs into something completely different. But hey, that’s life.

There was one thing though that really did upset me. On Thursday night Rich Eisen described me on the NFL Network as the, “venerable Washington Post columnist.”

Venerable? Now THAT hurts.


Ed - Bethesda said...

John, your statement, "...I don’t think Shanahan’s a racist. I do think he’s absolutely capable of throwing out racial stereotypes to defend an indefensible decision he made," appears to be a word salad stating two consistent points of view. You think Shanahan is a racist and he uses racial stereotypes. It is fair to say that racial stereotyping falls under the category of racist behavior.

Don't hide behind the canard that "...they say something and it morphs into something completely different." Racial stereotyping is racist behavior, not something completely different.

Don't try to weasel out from what you said with an one of your overused ESPN rants. As Sharon Angle has recently said, " up!"

Anonymous said...

John, I agree with you on the McNabb issue. When Coach Shanahan brought up the whole intelligence issue, it reminded me of how my Dad used to say the same things in 1980 about Vince Evans was dumb.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting that Feinstein's shot at Reilly makes light of him being on tv when no one will see him, given that Reilly's article on the front page of ESPN caused such a stir that Feinstein has had to reply specifically to it. If Feinstein had called out Reilly on this blog, any chance Reilly would have felt the need to respond? Doubtful.

Anonymous said...

John: As a long-time Washington , DC resident, I suspect you understand this gambit. Attribute an comment to an opponent that was never written and then build an article around refuting that "fact". It's easy to knock down "straw men" when you constructed them yourself.

Shanahan's decision to pull McNabb for the last 2 minutes of a game didn't work. Now the Coach's ego won't permit him to admit the benching didn't work. One can't admit to any cracks in the edifice of the mastermind coach. So he threw his employee under the bus.

Your correct, the decision to bench McNabb was Shanahan's right. That he did so carries no implication on the McNabb's race. It was the subsequent "leaking" that McNabb wasn't smart enough to learn the whole playbook that is the problem. These are racial code words that anyone old enough to remember football before the 1980's understands immediately because that was how the NFL used to operate. That fact that a Washington Redskin's coach used them makes the situation even worse. After all, this is the team that had to be threatened with eviction from their stadium before they have a player who wasn't of the Caucasian persuasion.

John, your role as a pundit means that you often have to make dramatic points and exaggerate. Calling for Shanahan's firing is just such a case. It won't happen but it makes for lots of arguments. Some of your colleagues will also use their license to exaggerate in return. it is what it is.

Now the team is scrambling to cover their coach's mistake with the leaks that contract negotiations are about to start and McNabb might get a 4 year deal. If he does, I hope he takes as much money in a bonus as possible. I wouldn't be surprised if all the leaks are just public relations and McNabb never gets a serious offer. In any case, McNabb has handled himself with dignity and professionalism. we may watch somewhere else next year. All those draft picks for a single season - oh well, its the 'Skins.

Anonymous said...

well john, sounds like you might need to write rick reilly an apology. Skins just gave donovan an extention-5 years for 78 million with 40 million gauranteed. If shannahan can be accused of making racially suggestive statements for saying he didn't understand the playbook then what does giving the same guy 78 million say? Clearly there was no racial intent and the fact was that donovan didn't read the whole play book but you wanted to get in the news and now the skins just killed your argument. I'm sure part of you even thinks they did it just to spite you.

Steve -- Falls Church said...

John --

The biggest problem I have with bringing race into any conversation is that it ends the conversation. We're not talking about McNabb anymore, we're talking about whether or not you called Shanahan a racist. Your reaction to the comments bothers me even more. You're gratified by the cheerleaders who "understood" you, but you assume that most who disagreed didn't really read what you said. Maybe there were some commenters who disagreed with you who you felt did really read what you said, but if so, you chose not to address them. I would guess you "didn't really read" them either, since you obviously missed the one where someone compared you to Wilbon.

I'll just say I've read all you've written, watched the Wash Post Live thing and listened to you on Czaban's show. I have a pretty good understanding of what you said, but I still have a big problem with it. As I said before, it's a conversation killer. If you truly believe that Shanahan used "coding" and that he should be fired for it, shouldn't you continue the call for Shanahan's head, instead of writing two blog posts defending yourself? If it was truly a fireable offense, wouldn't it at least merit a call to Shanahan and Mortensen to try to get their side of the story? Or is that kind of diligence only owed to you before Reilly writes a column (one in which, I'll note, he never called for your firing)?

People love to talk about the much needed "conversation about race." But too often, all we get are reckless pronouncements that only end the conversation. And to what end? Do you think your comments were of any help to Donovan McNabb? Do you think you're changing any minds? It seems that instead you're just hardening the opinions of your detractors, while basking in the gratitude of the cheering section.

Is there really any value in trying to read into everything anybody says? Maybe Mike Shanahan did exactly what you think he did. I don't pretend to know one way or the other. But why not let him fail on his own for making poor decisions, rather than trying to ascribe your own motives to everything he says?

dbh said...

Is no one else going to point out Reilly's relationship with Shanahan from Shanahan's days in Denver? Reilly protects those he loves.

Anonymous said...

Redskins have signed McNabb to a five-year, $78 million extension with a reported $40 million guaranteed.

John should apologize to Shanahan.

There was no racial coding going on. Just clumsiness.

Anonymous said...

"Ed - Bethesda" doesn't seem to grasp a very real fact of life: one need not believe in something in order to capitalize on those who do. Feinstein's thesis is arguable, but at least get it clear. He's accusing Shanahan not of racism, but of being an egotistical, scapegoating ass. There, was that so hard?

Anonymous said...

John did not accuse Shanahan of being racist. He said Shanahan used racial coding in his language and excuses for the benching. That is indisputable. Racism is often subversive, rarely overt. Don't believe me? I used to watch Warren Moon in Edmonton and Johnny Bright taught at a school here. They were NFL talents from Day One, but played in the CFL. Bright's no longer with us, but Moon knows all about 'Couldn't understand the terminology.' I'm afraid he understands Shanahan's terminology all too well.
-- Dylan from Canada

Paul said...


I read Reilly's column and all I could think was, "wow he really didn't read what Feinstein wrote." Then I realized that if he had, he wouldn't have had a subject to write about. I'm thinking that your comments came at the right time for him, because his lack of comprehension of your position is ridiculous. The guy is a top writer, so there is no way he could have misunderstood what you wrote. He simply didn't read it. Or he did and chose not to understand it. As I typed that last sentence I realized how far fetched it really is. Final conclusion: He didn't read what you wrote, period.

Anonymous said...

So he was using racial coding, but in no way at all were you accusing him of being a racist, at all, obviously....he should just be fired for using racist terminology? As if pretending an African-American can never be questioned on the terms of comprehension and intelligence. As an African-American, this disgusts me. If he had said this about a Caucasian quarterback, you'd never written that race mattered.

PeteWill said...

John, I have to say that the McNabb story isn't of much interest to me. But it got a little more interesting with the amazing extension the Redskins signed him to yesterday. I guess we will find out how that sits with the Shanahans soon enough. I can't wait to hear that explanation. As for words being twisted by media and readers who have their own points of view, it even happens to me on the Maryland Insider. Because I am not a Koolaid drinker I get attacked all the time and my positions and words are distorted into unrecognizable garbage. Most of the time it's best to just ignore it, but in this case I think you had to say something. Perhaps that last shot at Reilly could have been avoided as it was gratuitous.

Tim said...

So, after all the ESPN reports of $40m guaranteed for McNabb, the truth comes out from ESPN (another reporter) that its really only $3.5m guaranteed. Amazing reporting there.

So, you anonymous's up there, should the contract really still be seen as a long-term commitment to McNabb?

qtlaw24 said...

Its been concluded that Mr. Feinstein labeled Mike Shanahan a "racist." From my reading of what Mr. Feinstein wrote, he accused Mr. Shanahan of using racial coding which is a bit different, but a distinction nonetheless.

More importantly, Mr. Feinstein gave his opinion of what he thought happened, he did not say it was fact. Whether you believe Mr. Feinstein or not, you are free to agree or disagree with his opinion.

I first learned of this issue on a message board and I was stunned that Mr. Feinstein would simply call Mr. Shanahan that. Clearly, that is not what happened.

I agree that the information coming out of Redskins Park calling into question McNabb's ability to perform looks eerily similar to the racial coding during the times of Joe Gilliam/Vince Evans/Warren Moon.

Whatever Mr. Shanahan's intent, only he knows for sure, the weight of the evidence points towards either blind ignorance or worse.

Jack Frost said...

Feinsten, remember the old adage about not picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel? Well, my friend - though you mock him for attaining the very success you have spent your life chasing - Rick Reilly buys a LOT more ink than you do.

Reilly's column gets seen by millions every day. Your little blog here probably gets a few hundred hits a day, and that's a generous estimate. Oh, and you have have your little online-only Washington Post pieces - it's nice for you that they keep you around. But newsflash - no one is reading those either.

You said what you said. Instead of whining about it, why don't you - for once in your miserable life - be a man and own up to a mistake?

Or you could go write another kids mystery novel that no one in the world will buy. Or send another email to those ESPN bullies.

Mattjumbo said...

"Don't hide behind the canard that "...they say something and it morphs into something completely different." Racial stereotyping is racist behavior, not something completely different."

Hear, hear!

For Pete's sake, at least be man enough to call Shanahan a racist outright and then let him and others respond. The whole "He's not a racist but he said a bunch of racist things" comment is ridiculous and borderline insulting to anyone who reads it.

I guess Tiger Woods is "not a cheater" but just "a guy who has sex with women who aren't his his wife."

Mattjumbo said...

"Dylan from Canada- He said Shanahan used racial coding in his language and excuses for the benching. That is indisputable."

It's perfectly disputable. What kind kind of language does one use if the QB *is* stupid? Just because he's had some success doesn't mean he's smart.

I love Steve Young but when you see him speak it's clear that, though he may be a great athlete, he isn't the sharpest tool in the shed.

Or is it simply *not possible* that a black QB could be dumb? The real racism in this entire discussion is the racism that occurs when paternalistic whites jump to the "rescue" of people who neither need it or (in all likelihood) want it just to get a roar from the peanut gallery.

MrFlannery said...

How can you throw out racial stereotypes and use racial coding but not be racist?

Ryan P. said...

John - Is it so far out of the question that McNabb truly is just DUMB? Did you stop of a second and consider that perhaps everything coach said was true? You played the race card, nobody else.

Shame on coach for saying the things he did publically. And shame on you for inserting yourself they way you did.