Rush Limbaugh sees the world in black and white. It is the secret of his success. While other radio hosts wince at slicing the world in two — saying one side is always right and the other is always wrong — Limbaugh’s cash register has always rung on the jingle of such stubborn, if incorrect, simplicity.
So it is no surprise that Limbaugh brought his black-and-white outlook to ESPN, which hired him to spice up its NFL show Sunday mornings. The only surprise is that it took this long — a whole month! — to prove his shtick doesn’t work in sports.
Limbaugh, after four Sundays on the air, has resigned from ESPN, due to the flap over comments he made regarding Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb. Now, you should know that McNabb has been, for the most part, an attention-grabber. A three-time Pro Bowler. A big, hulking threat who can run, pass and take a hit. A guy who, on occasion, has almost single-handedly won games.
Nonetheless, after two less-than-stellar McNabb performances this season, Limbaugh opined last Sunday that the Philly quarterback was never that good.
“I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL,” Limbaugh said. “The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.”
He was hardly challenged on the program (maybe everyone was too stunned). Later, on his own show, despite a storm of controversy, he refused to apologize, saying, “If I wasn’t right, there wouldn’t be all this cacophony of outrage.”
Well, no, Rush.
Sometimes, outrage comes because you’re wrong.
The incorrect facts
Limbaugh wants to paint himself as the victim here, the target of a witch-hunt from those who insist he be politically correct. He is half right. People insist — and should insist — that he be correct. He’s not on a bar stool. He’s on TV. Broadcasting. And his statements were flat-out wrong. Not morally wrong. Factually wrong.
“The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well”? Excuse me. But football is not an affirmative action application at college. We don’t give extra points. If McNabb throws one touchdown pass, it doesn’t count as two because he’s black.
Sports is one of the world’s great equalizers, the rare place where skin color can truly mean nothing once the game starts. If the media were so desirous to boost black quarterbacks, how come Andre Ware is out of the league, how come Charlie Batch doesn’t have a starting job, how come Kordell Stewart has been bounced around, how come Akili Smith has been put on the shelf?
Conversely, how come the biggest budding NFL superstar is Michael Vick? Or one of the toughest, most gifted quarterbacks in the league is Steve McNair? Is it because the media gave them 20 percent better treatment than white counterparts? Don’t be ridiculous.
Limbaugh, trying to fend off anger, has pulled in his wagons, saying he was criticizing the media. Sure. Attacking the media is a rogue’s safe haven. The media are big. The media are a monster. Who would side against you if you blamed the media?
Unless, of course, you are the media.
The chase for ratings
When the storm began brewing over Limbaugh’s comments, ESPN asked him to come on and explain his position. He refused. He reportedly told ESPN he doesn’t do interviews. That’s funny, since I interviewed him when his radio show was coming to WJR-AM (760) in Detroit.
But Limbaugh, who told an audience of broadcasters Thursday, “I’ve been dealing with this stuff my entire career,” will not apologize. He doesn’t think he should.
I do. If you suggest black athletes are considered good only because of white reporters’ guilty consciences, you owe the white reporters and the black athletes an apology — or at least something more than “Oh, that silly liberal media. . . .”
Then again, Limbaugh was doing only what he was hired to do. Make noise. A more piercing question might be why was he hired in the first place.
The answer, of course, is ratings. Sunday mornings are crowded in the pre-football competition, and ESPN was looking for an edge.
The ESPN folks got an edge, but it was too sharp, and it cut flesh. Theirs.
I doubt this story will even nick Rush’s career. Blaming is easier than taking responsibility, and he will blame the liberal this and the liberal that, and heads will nod in agreement.
Still, this was a good lesson in how sports is its own universe. It’s not politics. It’s not the movies. Fast is fast. Strong is strong. And a guy who can run through traffic and throw across his chest, like McNabb, will draw praise from coaches and fellow players, regardless of his black skin or the white noise of the ill-informed.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He will sign “The Five People You Meet In Heaven” at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Little Professor in Dearborn.