When a Pro Player Quits His Team

Donovan McNabb has been taking heat for leaving the Vikings, but for a true competitor, sometimes quitting is the only option

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Of all the four-letter words that are taboo, nothing damages the reputation of an athlete like the word quit. Sure there are fancy ways to say it, like “ask for my release,” but once it leaves your lips and is set in the first person, it can’t come back. This creates an instant fork in the road, most likely marking a moment when you let a team down, you let yourself down, maybe you even disgraced your pedigree.

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Despite that kind of fallout, athletes have executed that four-letter word since the dawn of their sport, and no matter what claim an athlete makes about their impenetrable fortitude, at one time or another, they have thought about walking out on their team without warning.

When the Minnesota Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb met with his team this past week, his state of mind was at stake. He knew he had to say that dreaded four-letter word. He also understood that there would be a lot of people who would not look upon it favorably.

Of course the rules of professional sports do not give you much of a choice when it comes to job hunting. If you are rotting on the bench behind a bevy of other players who play your position or if you know your manager is a racist or incompetent, you can’t just float your resume on the Internet even when there is clearly a job opening elsewhere. So you squarely put it in management’s lap by asking to be traded, but their sovereign power allows them veto that in a heartbeat. The last and most painful option forces you say that dirty Q-word one way or another.

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I certainly tried to work every internal avenue to get on better terms with one of my minor league managers. This included talking to the front office, talking to him (remember, every manager always says “my door is always open”), even talking through my agent, but with all the talking, nothing was changing, and if I wanted to take matters into my own hands, I had to drop that Q-bomb. Knowing that this option did not allow me to play anywhere else in the pro ranks (and being that I still wanted to play baseball professionally,) I knew I just had to bide my time.

I was 24 years old, not an infant by baseball standards, but I had time on my side. McNabb is 35 years old, he has been there and done that, and by now, certainly knows when he is in an irreversible situation. He also knew that his taboo decision would potentially end his career.

He is taking the obligatory heat for that decision. Some now say he was out of shape and got more out of shape when the team benched him in Week 6 of the NFL season. He claims he was ready and cited a need to “clear his head,” but the bottom line is he was not performing well nor was his team. Being a quarterback, the buck stops with him.

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Despite the news he had to deliver to his head coach, his veteran wisdom allowed him to walk out while getting a good recommendation. His former head coach declared that McNabb was a great pro and put his work in after he lost his starting job, which included helping his replacement get better. Noble, but unsustainable for a competitor.

There is this idea that top echelon athletes don’t quit anything, but in fact for a true competitor, quitting has to be part of their vocabulary. The business of the game makes that so. Sure it is a last resort, but because of the way players are traded, owned, bartered and signed, there are many scenarios where they have no exit. So if you absolutely need to instantly change your circumstance, you may have to use the fire door and quit while you’re behind.