For once, ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown” didn’t begin with the usual happy anticipation of the grand spectacle of controlled warfare and mighty collisions that is pro football in America. Instead, Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, Steve Young, and Michael Irvin sat tensely in their seats. We knew they’d have to address the Rush Limbaugh-Donovan McNabb controversy, but we didn’t know how. Given the fact Rush had acted to protect the program and his former castmates by resigning, one might have assumed Berman and company would give a brief postmortem and apologize for the uproar. Regrettably, that was not to be the case.
One by one, Berman and crew explained their deep sorrow that they had failed to react appropriately to the divisive nature of Limbaugh’s remarks. According to Steve Young, former star quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, “We all missed it. I missed it. And the truth is, everyone at ESPN missed it.” Berman chimed in, “I have been kicking myself all week.” Tom Jackson felt the same way, saying, “Do I wish that I had caught it in hindsight? Absolutely. Do I regret that I didn’t? Yes. But I’m human. Mostly, I regret that I missed it for Donovan McNabb’s sake. I regret that.”
Anyone who viewed the controversial program in which Limbaugh expressed his opinion that McNabb’s performance had been overrated due to his skin color is left wondering exactly what the “NFL Countdown” team thinks they missed. When Rush originally made the assertion, the members of the cast exploded in general disagreement. They pointed out McNabb’s pro bowl appearances and his leadership on the field that led to two NFC championship matchups for the Philadelphia Eagles. Berman and company didn’t miss anything. Limbaugh made the statement. The other analysts rebutted the remarks. The program’s lively give-and-take moved on to other topics.
Approximately 48 hours later, we learned what it was that had been missed. Rush Limbaugh (substantively wrong about McNabb in my opinion) had dared to remark on upon a racial issue without setting up a series of disclaimers and escape routes. The national media were angry the legendary broadcaster had somehow managed to walk off the set largely unscathed. Compensation would have to be made. After all, having Rush Limbaugh in the crosshairs and letting him walk away is just not done. Maybe he could get away with it in the largely free speech zone that is his program, but not on a Disney network.
Before angry protests erupt at the notion of Limbaugh as a free speech champion, potential contestants should listen to Limbaugh’s program and compare it to those of his competitors. While hosts like Glenn Beck and Neal Boortz routinely shout down those who disagree with them, Limbaugh is typically solicitous of those who disagree and frequently extends them more air time than sympathizers. No one gets ruled out of bounds during Rush’s three hours behind the golden EIB microphone.
Perhaps that’s why Limbaugh felt comfortable launching out on a discussion of a potentially radioactive topic. Given his own tolerance for dissent in a forum he controls completely, he may have believed he’d receive similar treatment. When he discovered he’d misinterpreted the rules of engagement, he gracefully resigned.
I’ve already written about how this episode demonstrates the poverty of our national discourse, but we also know a personality other than Limbaugh might have escaped a similar level of calumny. After watching the Berman-Jackson-Young-Irvin team play kick the can with Rush’s deteriorating reputation, I remembered a story told by Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard.
After becoming a nationally syndicated humor columnist and best-selling author, Grizzard received an invitation in the mail to join the club at Augusta National, where the Masters is played each year. Needless to say, the membership at Augusta National is the elite of the elite. Rockefellers might find themselves pressed to get in. Grizzard felt both proud and amazed at the prospect of being included among social and economic giants. A few days later, one of his friends called and gave away the charade. Grizzard hadn’t really been invited to join the prestigious club. The invitation was a forgery and a not terribly funny joke to a man from humble beginnings who was just letting himself believe he’d broken through a major barrier. At the end of the story, Grizzard explained how he allowed himself to think he was in line for such a great honor, “I had forgotten my place,” he wrote.
I think this is another part of the fate that befell Limbaugh. Rush had been grudgingly admitted to the dance based on his incredible star power, but unbeknownst to him it was only a learner’s permit ready to be revoked at any time. He believed he’d really earned a place in the mainstream media elite with the new job at ESPN. Rush, an outspoken conservative who has never backed down from battle with the media elite, had forgotten his place. And despite his resignation, he had to be punished for having done so.
I turned off ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown” after watching Rush’s former castmates vigorously denounce him in an elaborate hating ritual worthy of a scene from 1984. I won’t be turning it back on again. I can get that from Bryant Gumbel any time I want.
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