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.