October 7, 2003

Rush Starts One Fire Too Many

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Every fire starts with a spark, and Rush Limbaugh always seems to have a pack of matches handy. At one point or another during the past fifteen years, the radio host has probably said something incendiary that offended you. But usually, you can discount his comments as innocuous political ballyhoo and social blather. Last Sunday, however, he crossed the line.

On ESPN’s NFL Countdown, Limbaugh remarked that the media intentionally overrates Eagle’s quarterback Donovan McNabb because it wants to see a black man succeed at the position. The squib incited the NAACP, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton.

“It’s not true and it’s demeaning to the black athlete,” said Jackson. “It is wrong to suggest that the hard work of black quarterbacks is breaking in by the gratuity of the media.”

By Tuesday of last week, the influential trio had called for Limbaugh’s resignation. In a rare moment of prudence, Rush listened, and he relinquished his position at the network. The abdication quelled most critics, but it resurrected a heated public debate: the role of race in sports.

It doesn’t take 20/20 vision to see that racial tension underlies most American institutions. Prejudice and preference manifest themselves in affirmative action, racial profiling, and college admissions. Nonetheless, America, in its efforts to compensate minorities for the abuse and bigotry they have endured for over a century, has progressed dramatically since the grassroots Civil Rights campaign of the 50’s. But lingering inequities among us show that we still have a long way to go to achieve equality. I’d like to think, however, that we do have at least one level playing field in this country — Sports.

Sixth graders — black and white — across the country idolize athletes like Yao Ming, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, Alex Rodriguez, and Venus Williams. These role models appear on sports cards, not race cards. Their performances speak for themselves, and the media need not underscore their stats to help them succeed in the public’s eye. If Tiger shoots a six over par and loses the Masters, you won’t hear Chris Berman veil the result. Rather, he will tell you that Tiger’s swing was off and that he didn’t read the greens well. Likewise, if Michael Vick runs for 150 yards in a game and throws three touchdowns, any responsible reporter will tell you he’s one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league right now; but he certainly won’t over-emphasize the accomplishment by saying that Mike’s the best player ever born.

But it wasn’t always like that.

At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens, America’s premier sprinter, stunned the world by winning four gold medals. Hitler snubbed him at the awards ceremony anyway. Eleven years later, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first African-American to play professional baseball outside the Negro League. He won Rookie of the Year that season but crowds still booed him. In 1957, Althea Gibson became the first black woman to win Wimbledon. New York City held a tickertape parade to honor her victory, but many Americans still resented her because of race.

Listening to Limbaugh makes me think that nothing has changed.

“It’s amazing to me that this is a controversy at all,” he told Sports Illustrated. “Had what I said been anybody else