Thursday, September 20, 2007

I thought Donovan McNabb was correct

Donovan McNabb stirred up a tempest in a teapot for his comments about black QBs being criticized more. Here’s an excerpt of his HBO interview:
Brown then asks if the media is tougher on him than on white quarterbacks such as Carson Palmer and Peyton Manning.
"Let me start by saying I love those guys," McNabb tells HBO. "But they don't get criticized as much as we do. They don't."

McNabb’s theory, as I understand it, is that since there aren’t that many black QBs (his words), they have to do extra because black QBs are subject to more criticism than white QBs.

Let’s see if we can figure out if his assertions are plausible. That's right, it's time for "Fun with Numbers: Racist Sportswriter Edition."

First Assertion: Not enough black QBs?

This is true in gross numbers: there are only 6 black starting QBs right now, and 26 white starting QBs. But, as I’ve pointed out before, only 12% of the population is black. So I would expect there to be about 4 black QBs. So by the numbers, the representation of black QBs seems okay to me.

[Note: there’s no reason why the number of blacks playing QB should not reflect society as a whole. If you feel differently, prove it with numbers and I’ll listen. And don’t quote Michael Irvin or Jimmy the Greek in your argument.]

Second Assertion: Black QBs are more highly criticized

Empirically, this seems correct to me: a black QB will be subject to the exact same set of criticisms as his white counterparts (performance, wins, injuries, etc). But he’ll also be subjected to some criticisms that his white peers aren’t, based on general expectations of black QBs being better scramblers.

[The most famous example of this in McNabb’s case came from J. Whyatt Mondesire, who is black and a part of the Philadelphia NAACP. So this isn’t necessarily racist, nor is it some sign of bigotry by white sportswriters against blacks; it simply is.]

However, we can use numbers to help us find the truth of McNabb’s assertion. Here’s how I tested his hypothesis that black QBs are subject to more criticism:

I googled the name of 33 current NFL quarterbacks (I got them from Yahoo's qualified QB leaders statistics page) with the word “quarterback”, then recorded the number of hits I got. Then I googled the name and “quarterback poor”. Then I repeated two more times, looking for the name and “overrated quarterback” and the name with “underrated quarterback.”

Number of Items

The average number of hits for just the name plus “quarterback” was 480,182. For white QBs, it was only 468,000; for black QBs it was 535,000. So black QBs have about 11% more stuff about them than average, and white QBs about 3% less than average.

So there’s more being written about the average black QB. If the percentage of criticism is the same for all QBs, then in total McNabb’s assertion is correct: there are more total negative articles per black QB than there are for white QBs.

Let’s see if we can figure out how much of those items are negative.

Search for Negative Items

When searching for “quarterback poor”, you find that 34% of the items have this word combination. Black QBs average 27% of their items, white QBs 35% of their items fitting this description. That certainly makes McNabb’s assertion seem invalid.

Overrated quarterback search

When searching for “overrated quarterback” you find that on average, 10% of the items have this phrase. For black QBs it is only 8.3%, though, and for white QBs it is 10.2%. So it looks like black QBs are not as often viewed as overrated as their white counterparts.

Underrated quarterback search

When searching for “underrated quarterback”, you find that 7.7% of the items have this phrase, with black QBs having about 6.5% of their items as “underrated quarterback” and white QBs running about 8%. So more items about white QBs are about how they’re underrated than black QBs.

Perception Gap

If you take the number of “overrated” items and subtract the number of “underrated” items, you can make a Perception Gap score. When it’s positive, more items about this QB say he’s overrated, when it’s negative it means more items exist saying that the QB is underrated.

For black QBs, only 1 in 6 had a negative Perception Gap (Tarvaris Jackson), or a rate of 16.7%. For white QBs, 4 in 27 had a negative Perception Gap, or 15%. So this occurrence rate is the same.

However, the average perception gap for the other black QBs was 3.2%, and for the other white QBs it was 2.8%. So the black QBs, on average, have a much larger ratio of overrated items to underrated items than white QBs. But this difference is minor, and likely just an artifact of the data.

General Negativity

If you take the number of “poor” and number of “overrated” items, you could model it as General Negativity. The general negativity of black QBs is 35.3%, and of white QBs it is 45.4% (average is 43.5%).

So although black QBs have more written about them, a lower percentage of that material appears to be negative.


In light of this data, we have to reject McNabb’s hypothesis; in fact, we must consider that his hypothesis is not just invalid but perhaps the reverse is true: that black quarterbacks are, in general, criticized less than their white counterparts, not more.

That’s exactly the opposite of what I expected to find.

So while I'm inclined to agree with McNabb qualitatively, I’m afraid I’ll have to reject his statement quantitatively until I have some contradictory data.