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Rush's play - More than just a fumble

Thursday, October 2, 2003

If Rush Limbaugh and his enablers over at ESPN were really keen to smash NFL stereotypes, there's no better place to begin than by making sure "Playmakers" gets canceled before the next episode hits the airwaves.

That would make Limbaugh a hero to football fans across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, it also would require work, something Limbaugh has been loath to do, judging by his "Sunday Rush" segments so far for the all-sports network.

It's one thing to make the kind of mistake he did two weeks ago, incorrectly saying the Rams have never been to a Super Bowl under coach Mike Martz. It's another, though, for Limbaugh to slam Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb as overrated without bothering to back up that opinion with any facts.

Apparently, Limbaugh arrived at that conclusion by watching a lot of TV.

"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."

While his sidekicks on ESPN's Sunday pregame show let Limbaugh's remarks pass without any challenges, there were plenty outside the studio.

The NFL disclaimed any responsibility.

"ESPN knew what it was getting when they hired Rush Limbaugh," league vice president Joe Browne said. "ESPN selects its on-air talent, not the NFL."

And amid the growing clamor, Democratic presidential candidates Wesley Clark and Howard Dean on Wednesday urged ABC, the parent company of ESPN, to fire Limbaugh. Clark, a retired Army general, called the remarks "hateful and ignorant speech."

Even ESPN joined in on the Rush bashing -- sort of.

"We have conveyed to Mr. Limbaugh that his comments were insensitive and inappropriate," the network said in a statement.

Unlike his syndicated radio show, Limbaugh couldn't simply hit the mute button. A day after an ESPN spokesman said Limbaugh didn't do interviews, he addressed the matter this way on his show:

"All this has become the tempest that it is because I must have been right about something," Limbaugh said. "If I wasn't right, there wouldn't be this cacophony of outrage that has sprung up in the sports writer community."

Typical Limbaugh answer.

Still nothing to back up his claim.

For the record, the Eagles have gone to the NFC title game the last two seasons, and having a defense ranked in the top five certainly hasn't hurt. By the same token, the rest of the league thought enough of McNabb's offensive skills to send him to the Pro Bowl the last three seasons. Without reporters blocking or catching a single pass, McNabb has led Philly to a 36-22 record in his starts, including the playoffs.

When he got off to the worst start of his career this season in losses to Buccaneers and Patriots -- who scored a combined 48 points; some defense -- McNabb expected to face some criticism. Until Limbaugh piled on, though, skin color had nothing to do with it.

"It's something that I've been going through since I was young," McNabb said Wednesday, adding he didn't want an apology. "You figure that it would have been over by now."

So did the rest of us.

Six black quarterbacks started in the 13 league games Sunday and a seventh, Kordell Stewart, got the nod Monday in Chicago. Had regulars Daunte Culpepper and Michael Vick been healthy, the number would have been higher.

In 1988, the presence of a black starter at quarterback was still considered news, enough so that a flustered media member asked Doug Williams the week before the Super Bowl, "How long have you been a black quarterback?"

It's a measure of progress that most of us understand an NFL coach would play Satan at quarterback -- with the tacit approval of everybody from team owner to team chaplain -- if he thought it improved his team's chances to win. Most of us also understand the opposite is true; that Philadelphia coach Andy Reid would have yanked McNabb the moment he found somebody he believed could run the offense better.

For Jon Entine, who wrote the book, "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It," the debate effectively ended a few years earlier. It was then, while attending an academic conference, that several speakers claimed blacks were still being denied opportunities to play positions such as quarterback and that "racial profiling" was still widespread.

Entine recalled a man the size of a defensive lineman sitting by himself at the back of the room. He was an assistant coach at Ohio State.

"I've been listening to this nonsense going on half an hour. ... At Division I or in the pros, to survive coaches have to recruit the best players and we damn well better play them at the optimal positions. We don't care if a player is white, black or striped. The pressure to win is immense."

If Limbaugh still doubts that players play on merit, he should check out next week's episode of "Playmakers." If you think star running back Demetrius Harris had a great game -- 147 yards! -- after getting high on cocaine 30 minutes before kickoff, just wait.

Next week, Harris visits a sick kid in the hospital and pockets the painkillers. He'll probably wind up with 247 yards.


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


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