Playing Quarterblack, Playing Politics

Now that Limbaugh has been given the bum’s Rush, and there’s more interest in his interest in OxyContin, here, upon further review, is what the whole “quarterblack” flap was about.

When ESPN hired Limbaugh for its Sunday NFL pre-game show, it was expecting — and hoping — for controversy and a resultant ratings spike. But polarizing, controversial commentary is one thing; polarizing, controversial commentary on race is entirely different. It’s still too taboo. Not even Limbaugh — love him or love to hate him — can transcend that one.

First, let’s put the whole “quarterblack” matter into its appropriate context. It’s obviously a subset of the politically correct, racially sensitive times we live in. For too many, the difference between a racial reference and racist rhetoric is indecipherable or incidental — when the speaker is a non-minority. Warren Sapp commenting on “Anglo scrubs” isn’t news. It’s just the way it is. It’s part of the double-standard, linguistic minuet we dance to in contemporary America.

For example, if you’re in the media, you have to watch your wording in a restraining order of self-censorship. Even if you’re Howard Cosell — and just “monkeying” around — the onus is on you to prove what you did not mean. Using the proper code words is a must to avoid an arresting moment by the nuance police.

If an announcer says a player can beat you with his “athleticism,” what color might that player be? If he says that 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 players 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 from the University of Miami, don’t do that. Then, again, maybe it’s a matter of cultural insensitivity. Or perhaps you’re just no fun.

Racial or racist?

The morphing of racial into racist, especially in sports, can be seen in all manner of ways. Intent is in the eye of the beholder. Imply and infer are synonyms.

Suppose, for example, 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 poor kids a chance in life and a ticket out of the inner city cul-de-sac.

Are you a racist if you argue that Temple — or any university worthy of the higher education label — is not the place for remediation? Are you a racist if you were to suggest that less emphasis on sports — and more on schooling — would be a more helpful ticket to pursue? Would you be a racist if you were to note that virtually everyone who excels in football and basketball can’t make a living at it?

Does it matter if you argue that uncompromised standards really send a positive signal to inner city, student-athlete wannabes that academics do count as much as scoring averages? Does it matter if you argue that a “no” to an academically sub-standard black athlete probably means “yes” to the next best black player with decent grades and test scores?

But back to ex-ESPN commentator Limbaugh. His brains aren’t on loan from God, but neither are they borrowed from David Duke. And as difficult as it is, never mind that he’s an arrogant neocon-lover.

His views on who wants to see quarterblacks succeed is not way off target. Just dated. Such observations would have been more pertinent 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. Not among them, alas, is Shaun King. Anyway, it’s a long way from James Harris going solo for the Los Angeles Rams as a quarterblack a generation ago.

NFL is sensitive

Would the media like to see more quarterblacks succeed? That’s not that relevant; besides, it’s a rhetorical question. Reporters are not supposed to cheer from the press box — whether it’s for the home team or the home boyz. But most sign on to a liberal agenda, of which race is the centerpiece in this country. So, the answer is yes. (Probably an emphatic “yes” regarding McNabb, who is articulate and well liked.) To the media, the more stereotype-busting QBs, the better. So what else is new?

The NFL’s take, however, is more important.

It remains embarrassed — and subject at a moment’s pique to Jesse Jackson extortion — because in a league dominated by black players, it has so few black head coaches. Teams get fined for not interviewing black applicants. Ownership is white. Most of the fans and advertisers are white. It’s getting more like the NBA. It’s not unlike the Romans watching the Christians take on the heavily favored 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 our league. It helps bury those stereotypes that still linger that blacks are gifted athletes who aren’t as smart as their white counterparts. It helps buy us time until we can showcase more black head coaches.”

Now to Donovan McNabb, the Philadelphia Eagles’ versatile, black quarterback.

Fans want winner

For all their loutish, mutant behavior, Philly fans are pretty savvy sorts. Most of them, especially after the Eagles’ horrible, season-opening, offense-challenged losses to the Bucs and the New England Patriots, wouldn’t dismiss out of hand Limbaugh’s comments about McNabb being overrated — and their choice of words would be x-rated. He looked awful.

Philly fans remember former Eagle QB 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 forcing NcNabb into being more of a pocket (read: white) passer than he should be. He was free to freelance — and do what he does best and put up big, Pro Bowl numbers — when the Eagles were a non-contender.

But since the Eagles became better balanced, he’s been asked increasingly to play within a more disciplined system. (As was the case with the backups who replaced an injured McNabb last season and still 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. Moreover, he will likely 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 just stops trying to be too much of a traditional pocket passer. 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 don’t want social justice. They just want to win.

For the record, the hard-core fans in Philly were much less upset about the Limbaugh flap than were some presidential candidates and the media, including Philadelphia’s own. Philly fans were about as upset as the strangely silent Michael Irvin seemed to be when Limbaugh made his stop-the-presses comments.

And this final thought.

Amid all the agenda-pushing and knee-jerk comments across the political spectrum, the one person with significant insight who came across as notably classy was McNabb. Regardless of ratings, overratings and racial politics, he remains a superb athlete and a talented quar
terback. He also took the high road when so many around him couldn’t get out of the rhetorical ditch.

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