IT IS A TOUCHDOWN at the old-boy network when ESPN hires Rush Limbaugh for pregame blabber about pro football. It is an extra point when the media think nothing of this event. They both should be penalized for roughing the past.
Mark Shapiro, ESPN's executive vice president of programming and production, claimed that the move was made to ''give fans a voice.'' Shapiro said: ''Rush is a great communicator and a fan's fan. His acute sense of what's on the minds of his listeners combined with his ability to entertain and serve as a lightening rod for lively discussion makes him the perfect fit for this new role.''
Limbaugh himself said, ''Football is like life, and I know life.''
The Associated Press noted Limbaugh's hiring for ''Sunday NFL Countdown'' in a short story by repeating the quotes provided by ESPN. The AP referred to the Limbaugh merely as ''talk radio's'' Rush Limbaugh. Most major newspapers used the AP story. The New York Times and Reuters referred to Limbaugh as a ''conservative'' radio host. The Washington Post and Bloomberg News called his show ''politically based.''
A handful of newspaper columnists and notes writers briefly made light of the hiring. The Boston Globe said, ''bet he'll espouse conservative game plans.'' The Orlando Sentinel said, ''for those who like conservative football ...'' In taking a mildly dim view of Limbaugh, a columnist in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked, ''Do ESPN's demographics show a paucity of Dittoheads, Feminazis, and antiliberals watching?''
An Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist who called Limbaugh a ''blowhard'' said, ''I'm going to step out on a limb here and assume that not many so-called feminists hunker down to ESPN's `Sunday NFL Countdown.'''
The fascinating thing is that on the first day of the news about Limbaugh's hiring by ESPN, no straight news stories went out on a limb to remind readers about Limbaugh's past. The past would seem significant, since he is about to pontificate on the NFL, where well over half the players are African-American.
Limbaugh has feasted off berating feminists, gay men and women, and people of color. African-Americans have come in for supercharged blasts of his hot air. In the 1970s, Limbaugh told an African-American caller, ''Take that bone out of your nose and call me back.''
Limbaugh has always had crime and black people on the brain. He once said, ''Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?'' He said, ''The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies.'' When Spike Lee said that African-American children should be allowed to skip school to see his movie on Malcolm X, Limbaugh said: ''Spike, if you're going to do that, let's complete the education experience. You should tell them that they should loot the theater, and then blow it up on their way out.''
What connections Limbaugh has made between people of color and sports are dubious at best. When a Mexican won the New York marathon, Limbaugh said, ''An immigration agent chased him the last 10 miles.''
Speaking of Mexicans and other Latinos, as bad as hiring Limbaugh for football is, think of the public relations disaster it would have been had ESPN hired him for baseball. Complaining about American jobs lost to NAFTA, Limbaugh said, ''Let the unskilled jobs, let the kinds of jobs that take absolutely no knowledge whatsoever to do - let stupid and unskilled Mexicans do that work.'' Limbaugh's popularity is symbolic of a United States that still quietly buys into his stereotypes. He remains popular because other than a compilation of many of the above quotes in the mid 1990s by the group Fairness and Accuracy and Reporting, or FAIR, the media treat him as more friend than foe. He was even a guest in the White House of the first President Bush (an invitation that mysteriously has not been offered to Louis Farrakhan).
ABC considered hiring Limbaugh for ''Monday Night Football'' three years ago. After a flurry of protests, the network selected someone else. Now, it appears that the Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC, is trying to slip Limbaugh through the old-boy back door into brother cable network ESPN. If Limbaugh's words were unacceptable for a broader TV audience then, they should remain so now. Limbaugh once complained about African-Americans: ''They are 12 percent of the population. Who the hell cares?'' ESPN and Disney should be made to care about hiring someone to cover a majority black sport who does not care about black people. Most important, newspapers should care, even if ESPN and Disney do not.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.