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Feinstein: Racism Still Exists In NFL – Even If Fans Don’t Want To Believe It

March 06, 2018 - 11:49 am

In October 2010, Mike Shanahan benched his starting quarterback, Donovan McNabb, in the final minutes of a Washington loss to the Detroit Lions. For reasons not explained to this day, he brought Rex Grossman in with his team trailing 31-25, even though McNabb had been the starter all season and the team was 4-3 at that moment.

Grossman, coming in cold, was sacked and fumbled on his first play. Ndamukong Suh picked the ball up and ran into the end zone. Ball game.

Even though it backfired, there was nothing wrong with Shanahan deciding to play Grossman at that moment. His coaching instincts told him that McNabb hadn’t had a good day and maybe Grossman could rally the team.

He was wrong, but he had an absolute right to make the move.

Except, instead of just saying that in his postgame press conference, Shanahan mumbled something about Grossman knowing the two-minute offense better than McNabb.

No one was buying that, so the next day the subject came up again in Shanahan’s Monday press conference. This time Shanahan said he was concerned about McNabb being in good enough shape to run back-to-back no-huddle plays.


As it happened, Washington was in its bye week and the McNabb story festered. Then, the following Sunday, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that Washington “sources” had told him that Shanahan and son Kyle, the offensive coordinator, had to cut the playbook in half because McNabb couldn’t learn the entire thing.

It was a cowardly thing to do, whisper anonymously in a reporter’s ear that your quarterback was too dumb to learn the playbook.

To me, there was also racial coding in the whole thing: he doesn’t know the two-minute offense; he’s not in shape; he can’t learn the playbook.

Yup, an African-American quarterback not smart enough to play the position. Forget the fact that McNabb had taken the Eagles to five division titles in 11 season and to the 2005 Super Bowl. The Shanahans were telling the world their black quarterback couldn’t learn the playbook.

So, I went on TV and said this was racial coding that reminded me of the 1960s, when any talented black quarterback was automatically converted to wide receiver or defensive back. Even as late as 1980, Warren Moon had to go play in Canada because no one in the NFL wanted to give him a chance to play quarterback.

I didn’t say Shanahan was wrong to bench him. I didn’t call Shanahan a racist. I’m certain Shanahan never thought that what he was saying was racial coding — even though it was. But I felt like we were in a time warp and people were insisting that — to paraphrase baseball’s Al Campanis — that black men didn’t have the “necessities” to be NFL quarterbacks.

Have things improved since Moon went to Canada and Tony Dungy, after leading the Big Ten in passing, was instantly turned into a defensive back when he reached the NFL?

Of course. Doug Williams had won a Super Bowl with Washington in 1988 and McNabb had been the second player chosen in the 1999 NFL draft — although Eagles fans at the draft booed the pick. Four years earlier, Steve McNair had been the No. 3 pick.

Progress? Yes. “Most of the progress is with the guys who are stars,” Williams said to me this past fall. “If you’re flat out a certainty, they’ll take you. Jameis (Winston); Cam (Newton). But you don’t see a whole lot of African-American quarterbacks in the league as backups do you?”

I had been stunned the previous April when Deshaun Watson, who I thought was in the same category as Newton and Winston, dropped to the 12th pick in the draft. Mitchell Trubisky — who is white — went to Chicago with the No. 2 pick after being a starter in college for one season. A talent certainly, but someone to pick ahead of Watson?

I asked Williams: “If Watson was white, where would he have gone in the draft?”

Williams smiled. “Ahead of Trubisky,” he said.

“Trubisky went number two.”

Williams smiled again and said, “I know.”

Back to 2010. As soon as the words “racial coding” were out of my mouth, I was pilloried — first by the local media in Washington, where no one is allowed to be critical of the football team for anything other than losing games.

Then it went national. Rick Reilly, who I’d known for 25 years, wrote a column saying I had called Shanahan a racist for benching McNabb (nope) and that Shanahan — who he was pals with from the coach’s days in Denver — was absolutely not a racist. As evidence, Reilly cited as evidence Shanahan crying when one of his African-American players from the Broncos had been killed.

Well, that certainly proves it. I’m pretty sure Miss Scarlett also cried when Mammy died at some point after the movie ended.

Then the TV types rushed in to defend Shanahan. There’s no racism in the NFL they claimed. The nicest thing anyone said about me was the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen, who called me a “veteran sportswriter.”

The whole thing reached a crescendo when Washington grandly announced a contract extension for McNabb that could pay him as much as $88 million! Buried deep in the fine print was the fact that if the team cut him after the season, he’d get the $3 million signing bonus — period.

The day the contract was announced a local radio voice named Steve Czaban — one of those guys who calls all the local teams “we”— asked me on-air if I was ready to apologize to Shanahan and the team.

“Steve, they gave him $3 million in hush money,” I said. “He’ll be gone as soon as the season’s over. Won’t get another dollar.”

Which is, of course, exactly what happened.

I bring this all up now because almost eight years later race remains the elephant in the room in our entire country. Last week I wondered out loud if NFL scouts and “experts,” like Bill Polian and Mel Kiper, would ever suggest that Lamar Jackson should move to wide receiver if he was white.

Oh boy, I hit a nerve — again. Out came the angry white people citing white quarterbacks in the past who had been asked to change to another position. Of course there are because there are plenty of college quarterbacks — white and black — who can’t play the position in the NFL. Some brought up Tim Tebow. Great thought, except for this: Tebow was drafted in the first round by Denver as a quarterback and was a starter for most of a season.

I also said repeatedly last season that those claiming Colin Kaepernick wasn’t blackballed for his failure to stand for the national anthem in 2016 must believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the movie Groundhog Day (which was great).

Again, came the angry voices: Kaepernick can’t play; Kaepernick has a bad attitude; Kaepernick would be a distraction in the locker room.

Guys charged with sexual assault or domestic violence aren’t a distraction, but someone who kneeled for the national anthem to make a point about a major issue in this country would be a distraction?

I’ve been in locker rooms. If you can help the team, you’re not a distraction. Tebow — through no fault of his own — was a distraction. These same people didn’t bring that up.

The honest truth is those who get angry when Kaepernick raises the issue of white police officers committing acts of violence against black victims – or when I raise the issue of the lack of minority head coaches, general managers and managers across all sports – do so because deep down they know it’s all true.

But they don’t want to hear it. The problem, they say, is bad guys like Kaepernick and liberals like me who BRING UP the problem. We’re just making it up.

Except we’re not. It was the issue of race that led to a Civil War in this country in the 19th century. Yes, economics were involved, but the primary driving force behind the war was that those in the south didn’t want to “give up” THEIR darkies.

Even now, with college sports imploding because of the hypocrisy of its leaders, there are those who say — I’ve got the tweets to prove it — “These players should be grateful that they are given an education and free room and board.”

Yup, just like the plantation owners who gave their slaves a roof over their heads, plenty of food and, heck, sometimes taught them to read and write.

I know that one will anger a lot of people. I really don’t care. If you don’t think race remains the most dividing issue there is in this country, you ought to go work in the White House. I hear there are plenty of job openings these days.

John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than four months. His latest Young Adult mystery, “Backfield Boys,–A Football Mystery in Black and White,”—was selected by the Junior Library Guild as one of the best books of 2017.