Limbaugh remarks ill-advised, but not racist

Posted: Oct 03, 2003 12:00 AM

If you hired Jerry Falwell to be a commentator on your TV show, would you be shocked and dismayed if he mentioned God? If you invited Ralph Nader to do color commentary for Major League Baseball, would you drop your jaw in disbelief the first time he mentioned corporate "greed"? If you asked famed prop-comic and California gubernatorial candidate "Gallagher" to anchor the nightly news, would you be stunned if he ended his broadcasts with a smashed watermelon?

Maybe you would. In fact, maybe you're a programming executive at ESPN.

The sports news network hired Rush Limbaugh to do pre-game football commentary and chatter for its "Sunday NFL Countdown." Rush Limbaugh is a conservative talk show host with strong opinions about all sorts of things, including race and media bias. He offered his opinion about race and media bias. He lost his job. Who did ESPN think it was hiring? Martha Stewart?

So what did he say? Explaining that he considered Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb to be overrated, Limbaugh said on Sunday's show, "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well." He continued, "There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."

In short, Rush was saying that McNabb, who is black, was getting extra slack because of his skin color.

Immediately, the vultures swooped in to feed on Limbaugh's predicament. Presidential hopefuls Wesley Clark, Al Sharpton and Howard Dean all called for ESPN to fire Limbaugh. The owner of the Eagles, Jeffrey Lurie, accused ESPN of "institutional racism" for hiring Limbaugh in the first place. "Some of the events of this week are built with institutional racism," Lurie said. "It exists. Let's not hide it. Let's not make us believe the problem is a single person. It's far from that."

Somebody at the NAACP hit F10 on their computer and churned out a typical press release calling Limbaugh's comments "bigoted," "ignorant," etc.

You can make an argument that Limbaugh's comments were dumb, but I am at a loss to see how they were racist.

The case for them being dumb rests on the fact that Limbaugh is a smart man who knows that race and sports don't mix - unless they are joined through liberal white guilt. When a white sports guy - he doesn't even have to be a conservative - says something that runs against the grain of liberal racial sensibilities, he's toast.

In 1988 Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder lost his job for saying blacks have a genetic advantage over whites athletically. Al Campanis, an L.A. Dodgers executive, suggested that blacks don't have the "necessities" to make good managers. Those guys lost their jobs, their careers and their reputations.

But just last summer, Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker said blacks and Latinos have genetic advantages that make it easier for them to play in the heat. Because Baker is black, his comments did not make Howard Dean angry and they didn't make the NAACP's fax machines hum with outrage.

Limbaugh knew all this. So, one could argue, to leap to a racial analysis when there were other more plausible explanations wasn't a smart move.

On the other hand, he's Rush Limbaugh for Pete's sake. Moreover, Limbaugh's comments rate a 0.0 on the racism-o-meter when compared with the remarks of Campanis, Snyder and Baker. He was referring to the biases of the media, not to the innate abilities or disabilities of McNabb or any other blacks.

Indeed, if this had happened in a discussion about politics instead of sports, nobody would have cared. Here's a demonstration: Let me declare here and now that one of the reasons the media like Colin Powell is that he is black. Let me also declare that if Jesse Jackson were white, he would either A) be fixing refrigerators right now or B) he'd be laughed at as a charlatan.

And didn't we all just spend six months talking about whether Jayson Blair's problems at The New York Times were the result of liberal whites giving him a free pass?

Such comments can be right or wrong, rude or fair, but they aren't necessarily racist. I don't know if Limbaugh's right about McNabb. To be honest, I don't really care. But nobody on the show with him thought the remarks were racist. Indeed, fellow panelist Michael Irvin, who is black, said "Rush has a point" in response to Limbaugh's comments. Should he resign, too?

Ultimately, I'm disappointed with ESPN for creating this mess. I'm disappointed in Limbaugh for not standing his ground. I'm disappointed with the owner of the Eagles for buying some cheap grace. And, I'm disappointed in Dean, Clark and Sharpton just for being them.