— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Sunday, October 05, 2003
The Lesson Not Learned
The Rush Limbaugh controversy isn’t just relevant to football.
As everyone paying any attention to the goings-on in the sports world knows, Rush Limbaugh made some very controversial remarks on ESPN’s NFL Countdown last Sunday, suggesting that the media has overrated Donovan McNabb at least in part because of a desire for a black quarterback to succeed in the NFL. A firestorm erupted Tuesday morning and within 48 hours, Limbaugh had resigned/been fired from ESPN’s Sunday morning football preview show. That did not end the story, however, and the question of racism and Limbaugh’s remarks continued to be asked to all the sports talking heads.
And as usual, the media missed the point entirely. Other than a complete lack of tact, Rush’s error wasn’t in being racially insensitive, but in committing the error that we see a lot of people make on a daily basis - making a conclusion that doesn’t correspond with the facts. Donovan McNabb almost certainly is a bit overrated as a quarterback, even taking into account that Thrash, Pinkston, Lewis, and Mitchell is hardly a stellar receiving corps, and there was a time in which the lack of black quarterbacks was considered a pressing issue, but it doesn’t follow that McNabb is overrated because he’s black rather than overrated because he’s an exciting player who makes a lot of electric plays. The sports establishment, however, went for Rush’s throat, the easy target, when what they should have been doing is tearing about Rush’s argument on the underlying facts and using this as an opportunity to do a frank evaluation of themselves and how race is perceived in sports.
What do the rantings of a talk-show host on a football pre-game show have to do with baseball? I believe that the answer is “a lot.” Baseball is no different from other sports in that the race has played an important rôle in its history and perhaps, even moreso. For half its history, professional baseball maintained a strict color line and the history of race in baseball didn’t stop when Pumpsie Green stepped on the field on July 21, 1959.
How have we done since then? In some aspects, pretty well, in others, the results are mixed at best. The problem is how do we objectively look at it? It becomes especially difficult when the media abdicates its responsibility in examining the issue intelligently in order to concentrate on the quick soundbite and, I believe, looking hard in the mirror to review how they help shape the perceptions of the general public by the way they frame their stories.
What the media did as a whole in this instance was far worse than any single commentator can do - they automatically assumed that what Rush said about them could not possibly be true and reported on the story in that way.
Don Malcolm talked a few years ago about how Sheffield’s contract remarks were taken in a much different light than similar remarks by Roger Clemens and David Wells by the media. This isn’t the only example - why are most scrappy players white? Why are most crafty pitchers white? Why is Paul Molitor’s isolated drug use 20 years ago completely forgotten while the isolated drug use of 20 years ago by Tim Raines still sometims comes up? Why is Julio Lugo a pariah while Mike DiFelice’s indiscretions are forgotten? The answer may very well not have anything to do with racism, but the problem is that the media won’t even ask themselves that question. The media is quick to crow whenever MLB doesn’t hire black front-office executives, but where are they when the Brewers are hiring one?
Earlier this year, there was a poll taken of the players in Major League Baseball. Other than the hilarious discovery that some players still think Babe Ruth is alive, one of the notable results of the poll was that the players who were perceived as overachievers were overwhelmingly white while those perceived as underachievers were overwhelmingly non-white. In the mainstream media, this went completely overlooked when there could have been made an interesting observation about how even within the bounds of the clubhouse, perception isn’t color-blind.
The media, in every field, does a lot to shape how the general public looks at things. That race has become the third rail in any kind of discussion is the fault of the media as a whole, not Rush Limbaugh and Jimmy the Greek, and things cannot improve on that end until they realize that they’re major players in the perception of race and open a real dialog on that end. The media is made of many, many individuals, all with differing beliefs on society. But what they seem to share in common is a lack of courage in examining their effect on race in sports and using race to promote their own interests.
In a final note, the other broadcasters on ESPN’s NFL Countdown, those men in the best position to be open and frank about discussing Rush’s departure, decided this morning that the most responsible way to deal with the incident was to claim that every single one of them and every single member of ESPN’s production crew “didn’t notice” what Rush was saying, a far-from-convincing argument and as big a fumble as Rush’s.
In a second final note, the Baseball Primer mail server is down, so anyone who needs to contact me for any reason needs to use my alternate e-mail of firstname.lastname@example.org.