Breaking through one barrier only to find another in its place

October 05, 2003|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON -- People say he was only hyped because of his skin color.

They say he was never as good as he was made out to be; folks were just desperate to see a player of his race do well.

I am not talking about Donovan McNabb and the controversy that just led Rush Limbaugh to resign from ESPN, though I will in a moment.

Right now, I'm talking about Keith Van Horn of the New York Knicks. When he entered the NBA a few years ago, he was compared by some to Larry Bird, one of the last U.S.-born white guys to be considered a basketball immortal. Mr. Van Horn was called, quite openly, the "great white hope" of a league that had become overwhelmingly black.

But it was not to be. While undeniably talented, he has proved to be a player whose talent was less prodigious than his hype. And one wonders if Mr. Van Horn ever feels used, burdened by unfair expectations that had nothing to do with his ability to put a ball through a hoop.

I bring this up only because it would be intellectually dishonest to judge the McNabb controversy without doing so. For those who missed it: conservative radio host and fledgling football analyst Rush Limbaugh said Sunday on ESPN that the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, who has struggled this season, wasn't "that good from the get-go." The media, said Mr. Limbaugh, inflated the mediocre Mr. McNabb out of a desire to see a black player do well at a position that was historically white.

I'm not here to defend Donovan McNabb. Other people have done that quite ably, pointing to his stats and his multiple Pro Bowl appearances to buttress the case that he is a rare talent. Besides, I'm not qualified. The things I don't know about football would fill a stadium.

I do, however, know something about the kind of thinking -- I use the word advisedly -- that says this or that black man only got where he did because of race. In the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, we all do.

You remember what was said: Poor little colored boy elevated beyond his modest abilities by well-meaning white liberals at The New York Times. It is a caricature beloved by some on the political right. So beloved that they are blind to the patronizing assumptions and rank hypocrisy at its core.

To put it another way: For all the similarities, there's a difference between Mr. Van Horn's experience and Mr. McNabb's. Whatever else he's had to deal with, Mr. Van Horn does not have to bear the weight of legacy. He struggles against no long history of people saying white guys are not good enough to play the game.

The same is not true of Mr. McNabb. Even a football illiterate like me knows the quarterback position has historically been closed to blacks, who were judged insufficiently intelligent to play it.

So how must it feel to be one of the men who has broken that barrier only to discover that your skin is still the only thing some people see? That you are not, after all, a quarterback, but still only a "black" quarterback?

This is not about sports. It's not about political correctness or even racism, which I don't believe Mr. Limbaugh's remark demonstrates. It is, rather, about that sick disgust that comes when you climb one mountain, only to discover that somebody's put another in your path.

I have no idea if Mr. McNabb is overrated. Don't really care. I just wish that someday a black man could be overrated, indeed, screw up royally, as white men are rumored to do from time to time, without some bloviating windbag lazily and reflexively making it an issue of his race.

It is draining and demeaning to be reduced constantly to a color. I suspect that the first time that happened to him, it was a revelation to Keith Van Horn.

But Mr. McNabb? At a news conference Wednesday, someone asked how long he's been dealing with this stuff.

"All my life," he said.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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