IT WAS NOT Rush Limbaugh who choked. It was ESPN and Disney. Limbaugh said only what his venomous mind was capable of thinking. He did not survive even the first quarter of the National Football League season. In a discussion on ESPN's "NFL Sunday Countdown" on why Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was off to a slow start this year, Limbaugh turned McNabb into a fraudulent affirmative action hire.
"I don't think he's been that good from the get-go," Limbaugh said. "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. They're interested in black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well. I think there's a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he really didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."
The resulting protest carried Limbaugh right out of ESPN's booth. He can now go back to fanning ignorance and hate on his own radio talk show. Political pages are not normally the place to get into sports statistics, but even the most rudimentary rundown renders Limbaugh either paranoid, crazy, or both.
McNabb led the Eagles to within one game of the Super Bowl in each of the last two seasons. In 2000, he finished second in the league's Most Valuable Player voting by the Associated Press. He has been to the postseason Pro Bowl for the league's all-stars three times. In one game last season, McNabb broke his ankle on the third play. Thinking it was only a sprain, he completed 20 of 25 passes for 255 yards and four touchdowns before sitting out for six weeks.
Even a slavemaster would have been impressed with the content of McNabb's character. Not so on the Limbaugh plantation. Even though McNabb holds the NFL's third-best winning percentage among active starting quarterbacks, all Limbaugh can see is the color of the quarterback's skin. All Limbaugh can see is a mediocre black man. Limbaugh could not resist using the whip.
That is no surprise, given that Limbaugh has dropped such gems on the American public as once telling a black listener to take a bone out of his nose and declaring that a Mexican won the New York Marathon because an immigration agent chased him for the last 10 miles. The surprise all along was that ESPN, which is owned by Disney, was so willing to throw a race card into a realm of American culture that has achieved a peculiar universal popularity.
In this age of segregated sitcoms, Monday Night Football, which runs on another Disney property, ABC, was the only prime-time television show on the top 10 list of both white and African-American viewers in the 1999-2000 season according to Nielsen Media Research. In last week's Nielsen ratings, Monday Night Football was one of only three shows in the top 10 for both African-American and white viewers.
That is part of an overall trend of universal popularity. A recent Harris Poll found that for the first time, more than twice as many Americans, 29 percent, named pro football rather than baseball (13 percent) as their favorite sport. The poll found that pro football was the favorite sport of 32 percent of white respondents and 31 percent of African-American respondents.
There is plenty that remains wrong in the NFL. Only 10 percent of the head coaches are African-American in a sport where the players are 70 percent African-American. But part of its equal popularity surely is because the position of quarterback has increasingly become one where African-Americans are welcome.
Whereas 16 seasons ago, Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams had to listen to a reporter start a question by saying, "You've been a black quarterback all your life," today's African-American quarterbacks can run for their lives with significantly less worry than yesterday that reviews of their performance are dragged down by the undertow of racist stereotypes.
That progress was not enough for ESPN, which was so desperate to seek a ratings edge with white males, it was willing to sacrifice the sensitivity of African-American viewers. Until the pressure for Limbaugh to resign became too much to ignore, there was either silence or defense of Limbaugh from the hallways of ESPN.
Chris Berman, the anchor of "Sunday Countdown," said "I don't think Rush was malicious in intent or in tone." ESPN spokesman Dave Nagle said, "ESPN hired Limbaugh for his passion and his ability to express opinion and spark debate as a football fan. In just one month, he has certainly delivered." Limbaugh sure did deliver. He delivered one more reason why he himself was never so good from the get-go.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.