The media frenzy that pressed Rush Limbaugh's resignation from ESPN's NFL pregame show has been amazingly intense when compared to what was actually said. The entire sports/political culture ought to take a deep breath … and relax.
Rush said that he thought Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb has always been overrated because liberal sports reporters are blinded by a desire to see a black quarterback succeed. Forget the first part of this statement: Many (including me) would disagree that McNabb has been overrated. If Rush had said only that, he would have triggered a good old ESPN shouting match, presumably what he was being paid to do.
It was the second part -- the media are rooting for McNabb to succeed because he's black -- that did him in. Typical of the ensuing firestorm was this comment from Sports Illustrated's Roy Johnson, who told CBS: "To say that there's a social concern and a belief to want black quarterbacks to do well is ludicrous."
Ludicrous ? What's ludicrous is the denial.
Of course there is a social concern to see blacks break sports barriers, and it's laughable to pretend otherwise. Would Tiger Woods' arrival on the golf scene have garnered one-tenth the publicity were he white? Sports writers nationwide chased him with notebooks and microphones from Stanford straight into the PGA because he was making history, and they openly applauded the achievement. Who would try to deny that the same sentiment could be found with the ascent of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams from their poor and humble beginnings? To deny that our sports media -- along with the public -- cheer for black progress and greater black representation at the top of sports is folly.
And the same can be found in football. There are countless examples -- we've all heard them -- of commentators, columnists and editorial writers agitating for more black coaches and quarterbacks in the NFL. Last Jan. 8, New York Times columnist Selena Roberts did precisely that: "Didn't Michael Vick decode the Falcons' system ahead of the normal curve? Didn't Donovan McNabb prove he would decipher defenses from the Eagles' pocket after he broke a spoke on his ankle? Hasn't Steve McNair managed to outsmart defenders despite missing Titans practices because of pain? As the playoffs have revealed, there's progress, but so little change. There are proven black quarterbacks and coaches, but race relations are running a reverse in the NFL."
Maybe that wasn't what got Rush in trouble. Maybe it was that he had the temerity to slam the "liberal" sports writers. But again Rush makes a defensible point: many sports writers are liberal and use their sports forums to agitate politically.
After New York Times columnist Roberts finished praising the prowess of Vick, McNabb and McNair, she turned her guns on NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who she dismissed as hopelessly white ("as culturally hip as Pat Boone"); stated the NFL "is still as white as baking soda while teams ponder their openings;" and accused the owners of using "Trent Lott logic; just because you say ‘what up, homey' doesn't mean you're inclusive." If that's not liberal-think, what is it?
Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon is a great read on his sports page, great entertainment on TV and also regularly liberal politically in his sports reports. In 1995, Wilbon cheered NFL star Kellen Winslow when he entered the Hall of Fame with a political speech attacking Justice Clarence Thomas for opposing racial quotas and "barring the government from doing the right thing." Wrote Wilbon: "Winslow can be my Gipper any day. My hands are still raw from the applause." Wilbon even cheered the arrival of black sports stars at Louis Farrakhan's "Million Man March," and said of this spewing preacher and racist, anti-Semitic and America-hating bilge: "So much of Farrakhan's message was necessary and correct." None of this stopped ESPN from hiring Wilbon for its daily show "Pardon the Interruption."
One wishes Rush had explained himself better. Maybe it would have mollified his critics had he explained that it is also in the conservative impulse to cheer the achievements of barrier-breaking blacks, so long as the achievement is real (Woods, Williams sisters) and not construed (in Rush's analysis, McNabb). But that's the stuff of three-hour radio talk show discussions, not seven-second TV soundbites. That mistake, coupled with the media's unwavering commitment to political correctness, is what spurred ESPN to grow queasy and hush Rush.