The sudden rise and abrupt fall of Rush Limbaugh, sports commentator, have brought a distasteful media experiment to a close and ought to raise some hard-nosed questions about the motives of those who conducted it.
Earlier this year, Limbaugh -- whose bellicose right-wing views have made him America's most listened-to radio commentator -- was hired as a panelist on ESPN's "NFL Sunday Countdown," an in-studio cable television show that previews the week's professional football games. Wednesday night, Limbaugh was forced to resign for making racially inflammatory remarks about Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Donovan McNabb, who is African American.
The Eagles have won only one game this year, and Sunday the panel was discussing the reasons for the poor start when Limbaugh offered this charming insight:
"Sorry to say this, I don't think he has been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well, black coaches and black quarterbacks doing 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 ferocity of what followed seems to have caught even the veteran radio controversialist by surprise. By Wednesday, the Philadelphia media, Democratic presidential candidates Wesley Clark and Howard Dean, 21 members of the Congress -- led by Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) -- and an array of civil rights leaders were calling for Limbaugh's dismissal. A virtual who's who of TV sports commentators denounced his remarks as offensive and wrong.
Late Wednesday, ESPN issued its own statement of nonsupport: "Although Mr. Limbaugh today stated that his comments had no racist intent whatsoever," it read, "we have communicated to Mr. Limbaugh that his comments were insensitive and inappropriate."
How about malicious and wrong?
In any event, within hours Limbaugh -- still unrepentant -- resigned, saying, "My comments this past Sunday were directed at the media and were not racially motivated."
Earlier he told his syndicated radio show's audience there was "no racist intent whatsoever.... All this has become the tempest that it is because I must have been right about something. If I wasn't right, there wouldn't be the cacophony of outrage that has sprung up in the sportswriter community."
Limbaugh's not-particularly-deft and utterly transparent debater's trick notwithstanding, what occurred in this case has nothing to do with sports journalism's purported political correctness and everything to do with what happens when provocateurs of his ilk venture too far outside the ideologically sheltered workshop of talk radio.
Over the past decade, the dripping-fang school of right-wing polemic has squeezed every other shade of opinion off commercial talk radio, in large part because station owners would trade their first-born children for a larger share of 18- to 34-year-old audience with which these shows are so popular.
One of the hallmarks of these commentators -- among whom Limbaugh is a sort of uber-mensch -- is their irrepressible tendency to politicize every question, no matter the social sphere in which it arises. Hence the assumption that coverage sympathetic to the obviously struggling McNabb must be ideologically motivated. So too must be the objections raised to Limbaugh's comments.
No American institution is immune to racial division; race, after all, is the background noise of our social drama. But professional sports and the U.S. military are as close as we yet have ventured to true meritocracies.
People rise or fall mainly on their performance. Thus Colin Powell, Michael Jordan, Barry Bonds and others too numerous at this point to name.
According to the National Football League, there are 17 African American quarterbacks on the league's active rosters. Would Limbaugh really have people believe that they are there under some form of affirmative action? Has he ever met an NFL owner? They don't even have hearts, let alone things like social consciences.
Were the sports media being politically correct when they chronicled the exploits that made McNabb one of the most honored student-athletes in the history of Syracuse University? When he tied the school's single-season passing record? When he set a record for total offense? Was it an act of social engineering -- there's a phrase beloved of talk radio -- that made him the runner-up in the voting for the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 2000? Were the other teams throwing games when McNabb led the Eagles to their first NFC East championship in years?
Has Limbaugh noticed how the media is treating Kordell Stewart, another quarterback who happens to be African American but lacks McNabb's record or talent?