October 1, 2003

Rush Limbaugh Wrong on Black Quarterbacks


It sure was noble of Rush Limbaugh to say he resigned from "Sunday NFL Countdown" to avoid becoming a distraction.

Go figure. I thought that's why ESPN hired him.

Every so often, the folks at the all-sports network crave buzz in the worst way. This time they got what they deserved.

Early Tuesday, when Limbaugh's remarks about Donovan McNabb turned up the heat on ESPN, a spokesman for the network said Limbaugh didn't give interviews, then noted ratings for the show were up 10 percent overall. That, he said, was largely because of Limbaugh.

The bravado didn't last long.

By Wednesday night, Limbaugh limped away from the network and left behind a statement. Some fighter he turned out to be.

"The great people at ESPN did not want to deal with this kind of reaction," Limbaugh said. "The path of least resistance became for me to resign."

We can assume he didn't get much resistance from George Bodenheimer, who heads ESPN and ABC Sports. Instead of thanking his latest hire for a job well done, Bodenheimer all but told Limbaugh not to let the door hit him on the way out.

"We regret the circumstances surrounding this," Bodenheimer said. "We believe that he took the appropriate action to resolve this matter expeditiously."

It's a safe bet ESPN didn't put Limbaugh on the air because of his extensive NFL contacts or his expertise, because you only had to catch the emperor's act once to realize he had no clothes on.

For Limbaugh to call McNabb overrated is well within bounds, since last time we checked, this was America and everybody is entitled to their opinion.

But the only thing the right-wing radio talk-show host offered to back that up was the same vague conspiracy theory he uses to belittle his opponents on the left: "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."

Limbaugh said afterward that his remarks were not racially motivated, and the "tempest" they created only proved his underlying point was true - that the media is biased in favor of blacks. Those statements are even tougher to back up than his assessment of McNabb.

For starters, Limbaugh is the media, or at least a considerable chunk of it. He has a radio show that is syndicated in more than 650 markets worldwide, his own Web site and access to as many other media outlets as he has time to talk.

And had ESPN bothered to listen or look in during some of those appearances, here is a sample of what they would have found:

According to a group called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting - or FAIR - Limbaugh once told a black caller to "take that bone out of your nose and call me back."

On another occasion, Limbaugh said, "Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?"

OK, so maybe he meant not everybody in the media wants to see black QBs succeed.

But whatever opinions the rest of us harbored about the topic were pretty much exhausted a few years ago, right around the time black quarterbacks became commonplace in the NFL. By then, it seemed that everybody else had moved on, too.

And so maybe the strangest thing about this whole controversy is the timing.

Only Limbaugh knows why he chose to slam McNabb now. It's not like there was a groundswell building to send the Eagles' quarterback straight to the Hall of Fame before last weekend. Besides, McNabb's career resume marks him as anything but an easy target for critics.

He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft, he led his team to consecutive NFC title games and went to three straight Pro Bowls.

If he's fooling people, it's not just the media. No less an expert on quarterbacks than Redskins coach Steve Spurrier - whose team faces McNabb on Sunday - just labeled him "one of the best in the league."

Then again, McNabb was a convenient target, especially for someone with an agenda. He was off to the worst start of his career and ripe for criticism. Limbaugh wasn't the only member of the media riding that bandwagon, just the only one lazy enough to suggest that race was an appropriate measuring stick.

Exactly why ESPN expected Limbaugh to do anything different on his "Countdown" segments than the rest of his shows is anyone's guess. But maybe they should have told him that first.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org