SOMEONE ONCE told Donovan McNabb that he was to Philadelphia what Tom Cruise was to People magazine. For as long as he played quarterback here, there would not be an aspect of his life that would go unscrutinized and endlessly debated. Even if he changed his hairstyle, he was told by his personal publicist Rich Burg, "it would be front page news in town." Burg says that was hard for McNabb to believe until it actually happened: He showed up for training camp last year with a bald pate and suddenly found himself on the cover of this very newspaper.
"He looked upon it as surreal," says Burg. "I think his initial reaction was: 'Why would this even matter to people? Who am I?' And then he realizes: Donovan McNabb is wearing the jersey of the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles."
Going back to the days of Norm Van Brocklin and even before, that jersey has always had a target on it. But in the 10 years that McNabb has worn it, it has become even larger with an unprecedented explosion of alternative media. Where once not so very long ago the coverage of a team consisted of the local print, TV and radio outlets, the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of the Internet has been an aspect of playing quarterback that not even fairly contemporary players such as Randall Cunningham had to face. In the first generation of athletes who have had to adapt to the plethora of technology that surrounds us, McNabb has found it has certain advantages and certain disadvantages.
"I think it has given fans an opportunity to learn more about their favorite players," says McNabb. "But I think there is a negative aspect to it where there may be too much information out there. I think some things should be obviously private."
The upside for someone in the position of Donovan McNabb is that he can communicate with the fans directly. With the help of Burg, he has retooled his Web site, donovanmcnabb.com, where he updates fans on forthcoming events that involve him and shares his views on a variety of subjects on his blog. (The blog is also picked up by yardbarker.com, which includes a consortium of such fare by star athletes.) Somewhat tamer than the blog produced by Red Sox and former Phillies pitcher Curt Schilling, 38pitches.com, which can be occasionally newsworthy, McNabb says it is a opportunity to weed out the "fact from fiction" when it comes to his public persona. He says, "Sometimes, you have no idea where some of this comes from."
For someone in the public eye, the Internet can be a problem. All kinds of stuff seems to pop up there and no one is ever exactly sure where it comes from. Given the pervasiveness of cell phones with the capacity to snap pictures, it was not surprising that an image surfaced on You Tube of quarterback Matt Leinart in a beer bash at his Arizona house. So if you are McNabb or someone else of equal stature, you never know who is taking your photo when you are in public. Or what they plan to do with it. Says McNabb, who has not had such problems: "That is a negative aspect of things."
Blogs can also be a launching pad for trouble. Unchecked facts are passed along as rumors, which are then commented on and passed along again. Given the anonymity that the Internet affords, some of the stuff that is said is far beyond the realm of what passes for civilized conversation. Worse, it excites an atmosphere of rage that previously did not have a convenient outlet other than a letter to the editor or a sports talk show, both of which were expected to adhere to certain standards. The problem is you can say anything on the Internet and there is a 50-50 chance that someone will believe it. The concept of unassailable fact has been absorbed by purveyors of unreality, which McNabb and some of his teammates have discovered to their chagrin.
Chances are if you have ever browsed myspace.com, you will come across some pages for McNabb. In fact, there are dozens of them. But none of them has been authorized by him. The pages have been assembled by people pretending to be McNabb, and some of them are elaborate in scope. All have photos of him - some in uniforms, some in casual attire. One even has an old photo of McNabb and his father. McNabb calls it "kind of a problem" in that it could lead to identity theft. Eagles kicker David Akers agrees.
"Someone on there is posing as me," says Akers, who says he has contacted myspace.com security in an unsuccessful attempt to remove the account. "There is no policing it. I consider it identity theft. There are so many bad scenarios that came out of this. And it is disheartening that nothing can be done by about it."
Has he wondered about the type of person who would do something like this? "Somebody just trying to be someone they are not," he says. "Someone who is role playing."
Cornerback Lito Sheppard says he has four myspace.com pages. None of them are his either.
"You get people who envy you or who just like you," says Sheppard, who adds that he does not keep up with the activity on the pages. "I am sure that if there was something negative it would be publicized or brought to my attention and it would be addressed."
Long-snapper Jon Dorenbos does not have anyone posing as him that he knows of. He tends to look upon the Internet as something that aids his sideline career as a magician. Some of his act is up on You Tube and it has led to opportunities. But he also understands that there can be a downside to it. He has Hollywood friends who have had problems with identify theft. Some have also had incidents with paparazzi, which fuels the hunger for gossip that Dorenbos concedes is in each of us. Says Dorenbos, "People live vicariously through gossip. I know I do."
Does McNabb plan to take action regarding myspace.com?
Burg says no but concedes "the thing is kind of weird. You would hope if someone went through some of those pages, they would realize that it is not him. But you never know what people know. So far it appears like people are just having fun with it, and as long as it remains that, I doubt if we would do anything [to try to stop it]."
Burg keeps an eye out for everything that is written and said about McNabb. In any given season, that can be a formidable undertaking. Every word that the Eagles quarterback utters is subject to scrutiny. Akers says, "Everything he says is examined: 'What did he mean by that?' 'Does he have a hidden agenda?' " Burg says he does not share everything he comes across with McNabb, only the occasional thing he thinks could be useful to him. Interestingly, he says that contrary to the impression that is out there, he has discovered that McNabb is far more popular than some people think.
"There is a perception of out there that only 50 percent of the fans like him," says Burg. "But since I have ventured into the blogosphere, I have learned that the percentage is much, much higher than you would think . . . Even some people in the inner circle wondered if there were a lot of people who did not like him. The fact of the matter is, that is only a handful of people. And no one is universally loved."
But Burg points out that McNabb does not obsess over how he is perceived. "To quote something Andy Reid once said, 'Donovan was wired to play in Philadelphia,' " says Burg. "Only a certain type of person can handle what goes on here. And there is more of it than ever. I am always surprised when former athletes say, 'We handled it differently when I played.' But a lot has changed even since Donovan got here, and there will continue to be change from Donovan to whoever follows him as quarterback."
Though the Internet has provided McNabb and others a portal to build a connection with fans, there will never be the relationship that existed between the player and fan in the old days, when the player could walk down the street undisturbed and the fan could looked upon him as just another member of the community. Money changed that long before technology did. But McNabb is accessible to the degree that he can be, just as long as the fans are not rude and hold off asking for autographs while he is having dinner.
And then there is: Do not call your friend while you are standing in line for an autograph and ask McNabb to say hello.
McNabb chuckles and says, "I do not grab cell phones." *