Was Donovan McNabb Traded Because He Was Black?

A renowned sports economist argues that black quarterbacks are treated differently than their white counterparts.

Economist David Berri asks, “Did Race Play a Role in Donovan McNabb’s Departure from Philadelphia?

Alas, he doesn’t give us any insights into that question other than to note that: 1) Donovan McNabb is black and 2) Warren Moon — who was also black! — got traded, too. No, seriously.

Trades in the NFL are certainly not unusual. But consider the following list of quarterbacks: Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Troy Aikman. What do these quarterbacks have in common?

• Each quarterback started their career after 1969.
• Each is in the Hall-of-Fame.
• Each played their entire career with one team.
• And each is white.

Since 1969, ten quarterbacks have entered the league and eventually were selected to the Hall-of-Fame. Nine of these quarterbacks were white. And of these nine, only Joe Montana and Steve Young – who both played for the San Francisco 49ers — played for more than one team in their career.

In contrast, consider the story of Warren Moon, the one black Hall-of-Fame quarterback. Moon was undrafted in 1978 (despite leading the Washington Huskies to a victory in the Rose Bowl in 1978). He then spent five years in the Canadian Football League (where he won five consecutive league championships) before finally landing a job with the Houston Oilers in 1984. With the Oilers in 1984, Moon became just the sixth black quarterback to attempt 100 passes in a single NFL season. Yes, prior to the 1990s it was very clear that black quarterbacks were treated differently than white signal callers.

Moon’s Hall-of-Fame career was also different from his white colleagues. Across fifteen seasons, Moon worked for four different teams. Once again, no other Hall-of-Fame quarterback in the aforementioned sample toiled for so many different franchises.

If we look at NFL history, it is clear that race matters. And if we look at just the Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks, it also appears that race impacts a player’s career. But history and a sample of ten observations is hardly enough to tell us much about how quarterbacks are viewed today.

Yeah, no kidding. Especially when one considers that the list of black quarterbacks currently in the Hall of Fame include: Warren Moon.

For a larger and more recent sample, consider the factors that get a quarterback paid in the NFL. Rob Simmons and I – in a paper published in 2009 — looked at a sample with 435 observations. Across this sample we examined the factors that determine a quarterback’s salary. Once we controlled for performance (in a variety of ways), where a quarterback was selected in the draft, years of experience, the quality of skill players around the quarterback, pro bowl appearances, and the size of the market where a quarterback played; we uncovered evidence that a quarterback’s race impacts the size of his paycheck.

Well, that’s interesting. But it’s a separate question than the one being asked here. What else ya got?

But let’s return the specific story of Donovan McNabb. One can take the statistics (i.e. yards from passing, rushing, and sacks; total plays; and interceptions) tabulated for an NFL quarterback and use these to measure how many wins a quarterback produced (some details can be found HERE and more is offered in Stumbling on Wins – where the story of race and the NFL quarterback is also explored). Across McNabb’s career, he has produced 27.7 wins; and per 100 plays, his Wins Produced stands at 0.487. To put those numbers in perspective, McNabb’s career production of wins (and his career is not over yet) already top the career numbers of Staubach, Bradshaw, Kelly, and Aikman (even after these Hall-of-Famer’s numbers were adjusted for the time period when each quarterback played). And his per play performance tops what we saw from both the aforementioned quartet and John Elway.

If we look at performance in each season, McNabb has not posted below average numbers since his second NFL season. In contrast, Aikman was below average in three different years. And Bradshaw and Elway posted below average numbers four and five times respectively. But unlike Moon and McNabb, none of these players ever departed the team that employed the quarterback his rookie season.

So did race play a role in McNabb’s departure from Philadelphia? There is no way to answer that question with certainty. What we can say is the there is evidence that in general, elite black quarterbacks are treated differently than elite white quarterbacks. This is clearly seen when we look at the salary data.

But here’s the thing:  Staubach, Bradshaw, Kelly, Aikman, and Elway played all or most of their careers in the pre-salary cap, pre-free agency era.   So, they were operating in completely different labor markets.  In those days, if a once-great player’s skills were declining — or even if they weren’t — ownership simply gave them less money.   And they could be patient grooming a successor (Staubach sat behind Craig Morton for two years, despite being 27 when he came to the Cowboys from the Navy). And while Aikman wasn’t traded, he was summarily fired while still playing well enough to draw interest from other teams.

In the current environment, great players get cut and traded all the time because teams don’t want to be left holding the bag when a great player stops being productive.    Brett Favre was traded by the Falcons after his rookie season, played approximately 97 seasons for the Packers, was pushed into retirement and ultimately traded months after leading the team to the NFC Championship game.  Why?  He was old and the team had spent a 1st round pick and several years developing Aaron Rodgers to replace him.  They don’t come any whiter than Favre.

Then there’s the case of Favre’s fellow Caucasian, Drew Brees, who just led the Saints to their first Super Bowl and championship.   Same thing happened to him:  He was hurt and the team that originally drafted him, the San Diego Chargers, had already invested two #1 draft picks on Phillip Rivers.  Bye, bye, Breesy.

I bring up Favre and Brees because they’re very comparable to McNabb:  Players of uncertain value to teams who’d spent a high draft pick on a successor.   Yup, the Eagles spent their 1st pick in the 2007 draft on Kevin Kolb and thought he was ready.   McNabb is 12 years older and has a history of injuries.

Oh, and Staubach led his team to four Super Bowls, winning two.   Bradshaw,  four for four.  Kelly four straight, no wins.  Aikman, three SBs, three rings.  Elway, five appearances, two wins.   Favre was one for two with the Packers and Brees is now one for one with the Saints but was oh for oh with the Chargers.  McNabb?  One trip, no cigar.  The loyalty factor, therefore, is lower for McNabb than for the white QBs with whom he’s being compared.

Despite rooting for a division rival, I really like Donovan McNabb.   He’s been a terrific performer on the field and seems to be a genuinely good guy.   But he’s 33 years old and likely in the twilight of his career.    The Eagles traded him in for a newer model.   That’s not racism; it’s professional football in the modern era.

via Matt Yglesias

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. G.A.Phillips says:


  2. Tano says:

    Yeah, his hypothesis fails the preliminary plausibility test.  There was undoubtedly a racist attitude toward black quarterbacks in the past – that they were not to be expected to be able to perform as well at such an intellectually demanding position – and some remnant of that prejudice could well explain the salary discrepancy (the market might still undervalue them). Or maybe, if there was a team that seemed reluctant to hire a black QB, maybe you could argue that the old prejudice was still at play there.
    But when a team hires a black QB, and keeps him for years, you need to explain why suddenly the act of trading him could possibly be based on race. Clearly the team hired the guy in the first place because they felt he would be a good fit, and do a good job, irrespective of his race. And presumably, they kept him because he fulfilled those criteria each year, once again, irrespective of his race. Why would there all of a sudden be a difference – such that the team would no longer look to its own interests, but suddenly rely on prejudices in making a decision to trade?
    If you look at his last paragraph, you realize that the answer to the question in his title – did race play a role in the trade? – is ‘can’t say, but blacks seem to get paid less’. In other words, no.

  3. Herb says:

    If the Eagles were such racists, you’d think they would have dumped Vick first…

  4. Dantheman says:

    “If the Eagles were such racists, you’d think they would have dumped Vick first”

    Moreover, the 2 prior quarterbacks who started for more than 1 year for the Eagles were Rodney Peete and Randall Cunningham, who were both black.  While there are plenty of reasons to like and to dislike the Eagles decision, I have a hard time ascribing it to racism.

    A good discussion (both the post and the comments) of McNabb’s relationship to the Eagles fanbase is <a href=”http://www.footballoutsiders.com/walkthrough/2010/walkthrough-mcnabb-deniers”>here</a>.

  5. I second Tano:  there was clearly a time when QB was thought to be a “white” position. However that era is well over with now.

    Dantheman makes an excellent point about Philly and Cunningham and Pete.

    And James hits to main variables of significance with the pre- and post-salary cap era discussion and the SB Ring variable.

    Really, the above tale of McNabb is not that different than the tale of Drew Bledsoe, who also has (IIRC) better career stats than several of the HoFers listed and yet only has the one SB appearance (as a starter), which was a loss.


  6. anjin-san says:

    A non-story.

  7. Trumwill says:

    But when a team hires a black QB, and keeps him for years, you need to explain why suddenly the act of trading him could possibly be based on race. Clearly the team hired the guy in the first place because they felt he would be a good fit, and do a good job, irrespective of his race
    Very true. I made a similar point on a contribution to Manzine a year or so ago regarding black coaches. It’s one thing – a fair thing – to complain when good black head coaching candidates are passed over, but when you pile on to universities that fire black coaches, you’re piling on the (too few) universities that hired them in the first place. They didn’t suddenly wake up three years out and realize that they’re hired a black person. They made the determination that it wasn’t working out. Maybe that determination is misguided, but misguided determinations are not exactly restricted to black coaches.

  8. John P says:

    What has Donovan McNabb ever done to deserve this moniker? Seriously, I feel for McNabb like no other. Every time race and a QB become an issue McNabb’s name is somehow thrown to the forefront (with the exception of Vick and dogfighting which I consider to be a class/intelligence issue). On top of all of that he had to play with TO.
    Just let the man play football. He’s an above average QB who, as much as anyone else, deserved to get to the Super Bowl (which he did) and may deserve to be in the HOF conversation.
    I honestly think anyone that has a problem with the way black qb’s are treaded and compensated in the NFL is hitting the Purple Drank with JaMarcus.

  9. 11B40 says:

    God, I hate it when some black quarterback’s glass is only 99.9% full.

  10. WhiskeyJim says:

    This has been a favorite topic on sports forums for decades.  The prevailing answer is that race is not the factor.
    There is some reason to believe Moon was treated unfairly.  The guy was arguably one of the best quarterbacks ever, during a time where the prevailing experience was that black quarterbacks ended up being too erratic.  He has admitted publically that the insisted on being the highest paid athlete in the NFL, which of course explains some of the issue.
    But his example actually makes the point.  There is still a prevalence of white quarterbacks.  Cunningham was fantastic for a few years, and then where did he go?  Same with Doug Williams, who everyone thought was going to be the next Theismann.  Two years after winning the Super Bowl he couldn’t complete a pass.  Teams absolutely rely on dependability and predictability at the quarterback position even if it is not A1 quality.  That so many fantastic black quarterbacks have not lasted is still a mystery.
    And statistics only go so far in explaining the issue.  The big knock against McNabb is that he’s good but can’t get through the big game.  Limbaugh was right.  BTW, that was the knock against Kelly in Buffalo as well.  Both had great stats on paper.  Both left their teams hanging by coming up soft in big games.
    The end story is that there is too much money at stake for race to play a role in professional sports, or anywhere else for that matter.  And stats don’t capture the measure of anyone, including athletes.  For example, if anyone thinks Barry Sanders’ contribution to the Lions is encapsulated by his stats, they are nuts.
    I can’t leave the post without observing that the Left insists on seeing the whole world through race lenses.  For most of us, it never mattered.  But then, when I look at the Washington monument, the last thing I think of is a phallic symbol.  Like race, I had to be taught that when I became an adult and discovered the childishness of identity politics.
    In the real world, quarterbacks are just quarterbacks.  And a monument is just a cool tall building.