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Limbaugh preaches his own brand of caustic conservatism to an extravagantly large cheering section – the millions of devoted "ditto-heads" who faithfully give his show astronomical ratings. But in 2003 the world learned that the Rush-man had a broader set of interests than bashing Democratic politicians and the liberal media. That year, Limbaugh was hired by ESPN for sports commentary on Sunday NFL Countdown. It was a short-lived experiment. The show's conceit was that Limbaugh was to issue "challenges" to sports commentators, mimicking the challenges NFL coaches make to appeal close calls by the referees on the field of play.
A few weeks into this moonlighting job, Limbaugh chose to "challenge" the established wisdom that the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb is a good quarterback. Now, fans in Philly have been booing McNabb since the moment the team drafted him, and he was off to a rocky start in 2003, but it was when Limbaugh explained why he believed McNabb was overrated that he got in trouble. The beat reporters covering the NFL wouldn't criticize McNabb, he maintained, because they wanted a black quarterback to succeed. "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL," Limbaugh said. "The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. 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."
This remark seemed to strike Limbaugh's sports commentating colleagues, two of whom were black, as a deeply weird thing to say. They were literally speechless. For starters, several African-American quarterbacks had already succeeded in the NFL – and one of them, Doug Williams, won a Super Bowl 15 years earlier. Also, as far as the networks are concerned, race is the Third Rail of sport and it is a rail that has killed the careers of men with a lot more athletic street cred than Rush Limbaugh.
In 1987, former Los Angeles Dodgers' general manager Al Campanis was asked by Ted Koppel on the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier why more African-Americans had not been made managers or front office executives. His answer – that blacks "may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, or, perhaps, a general manager" – got him fired within two days.
Less than a year later, CBS Sports' on-air tout, former bookmaker Jimmy the Greek, was caught on camera musing aloud that slavery was the reason behind superior black performance in athletics.
Speaking in a television interview days before Doug Williams' big Super Bowl win, the Greek opined: "During the slave period, the slave owner would breed his big black with his big woman so that he could have a big black kid – that's where it all started." He, too, was swiftly cashiered. Limbaugh's statement wasn't overtly racial in that way – he was beating his favorite hobbyhorse of liberal bias in the media – and it might be best thought of as a case of culture clash. But it offended the classy McNabb, who told the Philadelphia Daily News two days later. "It's sad that you've got to go to skin color. I thought we were through with that whole deal."
Taking their cue from the quarterback, others quickly fanned the controversy. The National Association of Black Journalists, perhaps inadvertently confirming the gist of Limbaugh's claim, called for the sports network to "separate itself" from the conservative pundit. Democrats running for their party's presidential nomination jumped on it, too, as Wesley Clark, Howard Dean and Al Sharpton all demanded that ESPN fire Limbaugh. This was to be expected of Dems -- President Clinton had essentially blamed Limbaugh for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing -- and Limbaugh was initially defiant. "All this has become the tempest that it is because I must have been right about something," he said the following Wednesday on his syndicated radio show. "If I wasn't right, there wouldn't be this cacophony of outrage that has sprung up in the sports writer community."
He wasn't right, in either the tenor or substance of his remarks. Later that night, ESPN issued a statement disavowing Limbaugh's remarks as "insensitive and inappropriate," and he resigned soon thereafter with exceptional good grace. "My comments this past Sunday were directed at the media and were not racially motivated," Limbaugh said in a statement. "I offered an opinion. This opinion has caused discomfort to the crew, which I regret. I love NFL Sunday Countdown and do not want to be a distraction to the great work done by all who work on it."
And so this rather minor matter was laid to rest. Or was it?
Six years later, the knives have come out again. Limbaugh's ostensible sin was his comment directed at McNabb, who is still the Eagles' starting quarterback. But partisan politics seem to be at play here, too, with the involvement of many of the usual suspects, including Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and some whose political views no one has ever had occasion to hear before.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said Tuesday that he wouldn't want Limbaugh as a colleague, "I, myself, couldn't even consider voting for him," Irsay told reporters. "I met Rush only once. He seemed like a nice guy to me and all those kind of things, (but) it's bigger than the NFL. As a nation, and as a world, we've got to watch our words and our thoughts. They can do damage."
New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott was more succinct. "I know I wouldn't want to play for him," Scott told the New York Daily News. "He's a jerk. He's an _______."
Apparently, Scott didn't get the talking point about watching "our words and our thoughts" and about how intemperate language can do damage. Then again, this isn't only about Limbaugh's ill-considered comment about Donovan McNabb. It's also about politics. Limbaugh is the conservative who said famously that he hopes President Obama fails. The campaign against Limbaugh was launched by an Obama supporter named DeMaurice Smith, who also happens to be the newly installed executive director of the NFL players union.
Smith, who has no background in football, emerged earlier this year as a compromise candidate – and a surprise choice – to replace the legendary Gene Upshaw in the job. Smith, who ran track at Cedarville University, a small Christian college in Ohio, became a federal prosecutor after law school, rising through the ranks to assume several leadership positions in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, D.C., and becoming well-connected in the process. Smith worked closely with current U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, served on the board of a charitable foundation with prominent ex-Washington Redskins stars Charles Mann and Art Monk, and joined the politically powerful and predominately Democratic law firm Patton Boggs. In 2008, Smith made political contributions to Barack Obama.
Nothing is wrong with any of this, but it puts DeMaurice Smith's very public crusade against Rush Limbaugh's ownership bid in a somewhat different light. And it raises new kinds of issues for athletes. Should they refuse to play for an owner whose political views are not in sync with their own? On what issues? Abortion? Global warming? (And will their agents dare tell the players that, before the next collective bargaining agreement is signed between the NFL players and the owners, Obama and the Democratic Congress is likely to raise their taxes?)
Or should we go whole hog and rename the New York Jets the New York Yellow Dog Democrats? Should the (red state) Atlanta Falcons become the Atlanta Elephants (and the blue state Seattle Seahawks the Seattle Donkeys? What about those pesky monikers that are not politically correct, such as the Redskins and the Chiefs. Perhaps those need to be be changed. (I kind of like Kansas City Trumans. They could play the Washington Eisenhowers in honor of the last Republican president whom D.C. Democrats can abide – and the first president of either party to sign a civil rights bill.) This all may seem silly, but it isn't. Team sports are supposed to unite the people of a given locale, not divide them. One of the things that traditionally unites sports fans, by the way, is the perfidy of the owners.
Jesse Jackson made a sage observation this week. He noted that owning a pro football team is a "privilege" and not a right. He's right, and it's worth reiterating that Limbaugh's looming freeze-out is not censorship: He still has a right to say what he wants on the radio and if that makes him rich or costs him opportunities outside his chosen field – and clearly, it's done both for Limbaugh – that's part of life.
On the other hand, if outspoken liberal MSNBC host (and frequent Limbaugh basher) Keith Olbermann is appalled by the groupthink attack on Limbaugh, that ought to give DeMaurice Smith and Limbaugh's other critics pause. "There're now gonna be character tests for sports owners?" Olbermann asked incredulously on the air this week. "There'll only be three of them left."
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