When ESPN hired Rush Limbaugh, it was expecting — and desiring — controversy and polarizing commentary. But race — in all its permutations — is still too taboo. Not even the bombastic but influential Limbaugh and his large constituency — which includes a surprising number of NFL players — because they’re rich — could transcend that.
First, let’s put this into its appropriate context. In a politically correct culture it is hard, if not impossible, to distinguish between racial and racist. If you’re in the media, you have to watch your wording in an ordeal of self-censorship. You have to use the proper code words.
If you say a player can beat you with his “athleticism,” what color might he be? If you say a player can’t beat you with his “athleticism” but is like a “coach on the field,” what color do you think of? Happens all the time.
If you said black athletes were behaving like boorish clowns by their celebratory, look-at-me antics on the field, are you a racist? Well, it so happens that white players, except for the occasional tight end out of the University of Miami, don’t do that.
Suppose you disagreed with Temple University basketball coach John Cheney who wants black recruits admitted to Temple regardless of academic standing. Cheney will tell you it’s part of giving kids a chance and a ticket out of the inner city cul-de-sac.
Are you a racist if you argue that the university — any university worthy of the higher education label — is not the place for remediation? Does it matter if you argue that uncompromised standards really send a helpful signal to inner city, “student-athlete” wannabes that grades do count as much as scoring averages? Does it matter if you argue that a “no” to an academically substandard black “student athlete” probably means “yes” to the next best black player with decent grades and test scores?
Back to Limbaugh.
His views on who wants to see black quarterbacks succeed is not way off target. It’s just that it would have been much more on target a decade or two ago. Currently, more than a quarter of NFL starting quarterbacks are black, among them Duante Culpepper and Steve McNair, who are franchise-type players. It’s a long way from James Harris going solo as a quarterblack.
Would the media like to see more black quarterbacks succeed? That’s not all that relevant. Reporters are not supposed to cheer from the press box — whether it’s for the home team or the homeboyz. But most sign on to a liberal agenda, of which race is the centerpiece in this country. So the answer is probably yes. The more stereotype-busting QBs, the better. So what else is new?
Interestingly enough, when Limbaugh made his stop-the-presses comments, those best positioned to respond–and refute–what he said, fell silent. That includes his ESPN colleague and former player Michael Irvin, who is black. Ironically, the flamboyantly outspoken Irvin, who always has something to say, said nothing.
The NFL’s take is more important.
It remains embarrassed — and subject at any moment to Jesse Jackson extortion — because in a league dominated by black players, it has so few black head coaches. Ownership is white. Most of the fans and advertisers are white. It’s getting more like the NBA. It’s like the Romans watching the Christians lose to the lions.
So the next best thing for NFL show-and-tell is the highest-profile position on the field: QB. What better way to say, in effect, “We really are progressive. We’re not part of the Al Campanis-Jimmy the Greek generation. We think black players assuming the consummate cool-under-fire, make-good-decisions, lead-your-men-in-battle position reflects well on the NFL. It helps bury those old stereotypes about blacks being gifted athletes who weren’t as smart as their white counterparts. It helps buy us time until we can showcase more black head coaches.”
Back to McNabb. For all their loutish behavior, Philly fans are pretty savvy sorts. Most of them, especially after the Eagles’ season-opening, offense-challenged losses to the Bucs and Patriots, wouldn’t dismiss out of hand Limbaugh’s comments on McNabb being overrated. He looked awful.
Philly fans remember Randall Cunningham. He had enough, uh, athleticism to have his own highlight video. But in big games, they will tell you, you couldn’t count on him to make good decisions. Ron Jaworski took them farther.
They see haunting parallels in McNabb, who’s better than Cunningham. They will tell you that the biggest fault of the Eagles offensively is that there is a concerted effort to force McNabb into being more of a pocket (read: white) passer than he is comfortable being. He was free to freelance –and do what he does best and put up big numbers — when the Eagles were a non-contender.
But since the Eagles became better balanced, he’s been asked increasingly to play within a system. (As with backups who replaced him late last year and won.) But when he stays in the pocket, within the system, Philly fans will tell you, he’s not nearly as effective, and he won’t be leading the Eagles to any Super Bowls that way. And he will look overrated in the process. The fans are frustrated as only Eagle fans can be.
And in moments of despair and candor, they’ll tell you that the Eagles are better if McNabb stops trying to be too much of a traditional pocket passer, reading defenses and looking off DBs. If that sounds like they want him to be less like a stereotypical white quarterback, they don’t care. If it sounds like they want him to be more like a stereotypical black quarterback and use his legs a lot, they care even less. They don’t want a black Koy Detmer. They just want to win.
For the record, the hard-core fans in Philly are much less upset about the Limbaugh flap than are some presidential candidates and the local media, which is as liberal on race as most media most places.