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ESPN drops the ball with Limbaugh

Published October 2, 2003

They did it again.

Once again, a major cable TV outlet handed over a high-profile broadcasting spot to a radio star known for sometimes bigoted, occasionally misogynist speech and he stepped in it big time.

The pundit trying to explain himself this time is conservative fire breather Rush Limbaugh who - in case you haven't turned on a radio or TV news in the past few days - implied on ESPN'S pregame show Sunday that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is overrated by a liberal news media that wants to see a black quarterback succeed.

For the record, here's the quote: "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.There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."

The reason idealogues like Limbaugh always make such boo-boos, is that their worldview doesn't allow them to see full implications of what they are saying. Even on Wednesday, Limbaugh was insisting "all this has become the tempest that it is because I must have been right about something."

Or horribly wrong. Because what Limbaugh refuses to face is the implication of saying McNabb - a talented quarterback who has appeared in three Pro Bowls - is credited for achievements he doesn't deserve because of his race. That's a statement that trivializes everything he's achieved (during a press conference Wednesday, McNabb took the high road, saying he doesn't expect an apology).

And if the liberal media is lionizing McNabb, surely they're doing so for other black QBs, right Rush? So now Limbaugh has trivialized every black quarterback who earns a headline or a nice contract.

Those even passingly familiar with the history of racial oppression in America know this is a common tactic: to trivialize and belittle the achievements of black people so even their greatest accomplishments are credited to others or to fate.

Of course, we've heard such things before about Tiger Woods and about the Williams sisters, before they dominated golf and tennis so completely only a total idiot would suggest anything but talent was involved. But does every black athlete have to be that good before you'll give up the love, Rush?

Surprisingly, Limbaugh wasn't the only broadcaster Wednesday who didn't get it. As the story exploded over cable news outlets, CNN anchor Miles O'Brien admitted he didn't see the negative inference saying, "(Limbaugh) said he's overrated (and) the media would like to see him succeed."

Fox News anchor Shepard Smith made a similar connection, saying "I don't see (supporting a black football player) as racist, I see it as progressive."

So let's see, a Fox News anchor is saying it's okay for sports journalists to overly praise a player they don't think deserves it because he's black? Talk about things that make you say, hmmm.

Some people tried to warn ESPN. Limbaugh's awful track record on race issues is well documented, from telling a black caller to "take the bone out of your nose" to musing that composites of criminal suspects often look like the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

His view on why so many black people vote Democratic: "They've chosen a way of life where Democrats are the masters and they're on the plantation." Couldn't possibly be the casual racism of such stalwart conservatives as yourself, could it Rush?

Now ESPN is reaping what it's sown in a bad rerun of MSNBC's disastrous experiment with conservative talk radio firebrand Michael Savage. The cable news network had to fire the notoriously anti-gay pundit in July when he wished AIDS on a homosexual caller.

A notoriously cynical journalist friend of mine warned me: this is what they want. They hired Limbaugh for controversy and attention, and look at all he's brought them. (ESPN says it's Sunday NFL Countdown ratings are up 10 percent this season).

I could be giving these guys too much credit, but I don't think that's true. Because this is the kind of publicity - national sports network condones racism! - that sends sponsors running for cover, lowers ad revenue and costs executives their jobs.

Late Wednesday, ESPN finally issued a statement calling Limbaugh's remarks "insensitive and inappropriate." But that's really like slapping a band aid on a gunshot wound.

MSNBC learned its lesson three months ago. Here's hoping ESPN will get with the program soon.

- Material from Times wires was used in this report.

[Last modified October 2, 2003, 09:04:37]

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