Donovan McNabb's celebration over his successful scamper to the sidelines drew criticism a couple of weekends ago. In just 30 seconds, the Fox clip includes the penalty, the stunt, and the summary judgment by commentators Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. It also lays out a fundamental contradiction in professional football, namely, the emphasis on teamwork and lowkey conformity espoused alongside the many rewards conferred on sensational individuals.
McNabb is an especially complicated embodiment of the tension, at once self-aware, gracious, and frankly good at being a celebrity. Not only has he had an especially difficult relationship with the Philadelphia fans (almost every time an "issue" comes up on ESPN concerning his behavior, play or shifting status, someone remembers that he was booed on draft day in 1999), but he has also been taunted by TO and sniped at by Rush Limbaugh, who famously said he was "overrated" because he was black. McNabb handled this and other silliness with aplomb, noting that the media hubbub was its own beast, and that he'd been dealing with people like this all his life.
This season, now over for the Eagles, brought its own serial crises, from McNabb's confessed ignorance of the league's overtime-tie rule (11/17) to his benching during the Ravens game on 11/23. He's said the phone call was a function of overexcitement at the drubbing his team was delivering to the Giants (the clip here begins on Eli Manning's uneasy face before it cuts to his rival's antics). But as much as McNabb would like to explain or forget it, the image of phone call circulated long enough to seem a last gasp of Eagles drama, inspiring Buck and Aikman (and the ref who handed down a five-yard penalty) to engage in predictable finger-wagging.
Questions: Rather than wonder what "runs through that guy's head," we might wonder what's at stake in the policing action, for the NFL, for the white commentators, for McNabb? How does such flamboyance drive the business of sports even as it's decried and judged? And how is it that such a stunt would be termed "unsportsmanlike"? How does such a verdict redraw the boundaries on what is "sportsmanlike"? And how is all of this trivia a function of TV per se, the camera's capacity to follow McNabb to the sideline and zoom to the act, the Fox guys pronouncing like gods from their booth, and the ways fans have learned to watch the games -- with narrative and measurement provided minute by minute, as if these are the same thing: yards, drives, points, completed passes and interceptions. As everyone knows by now, it's hard to be a (black) quarterback on TV, especially if you're willing to hold press conferences about every little nit the reporters want to pick.