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Rush Limbaugh and Black Quarterbacks

ike most old, out-of-shape American men, Rush Limbaugh harbors a lingering sports jones that can not be never be satisfied by merely watching athletic men compete. Since Rush is also terminally afflicted with know-it-all syndrome, and inexplicably gifted with a large national radio audience, it was perhaps inevitable that his love for football and alleged talent at broadcasting would eventually intersect. That happened for the 2003 NFL season, when ESPN put him on their pre-game show. He lasted about 4 weeks before some racist comments brought about his downfall, and I happily blogged about the whole episode.

The following blog excerpts proceed in order from first to last.


October 1, 2003

Rush Limbaugh has been given a job on the ESPN NFL pregame show this year, doing analysis or color commentary or something like that. I don't get up that early and I wouldn't watch the show if I did, Rush or no Rush (though I must admit him being on it makes me far less likely to watch it), so I don't have any opinion on how good or bad a job he's doing.

Since he's not any sort of football genius, ESPN was obviously hoping for him to say some controversial stuff and to bring an element to their coverage that the usual parade of sports nerds and inarticulate ex-players can't. Simultaneously, ESPN had to be hoping he wouldn't say anything so offensive or racist or sexist that it would get them boycotted.

Rush apparently kept his mouth from running off too much the first few weeks, but last Sunday he finally got into a comfort zone and said the sort of thing he does constantly on his radio show.  But since a national sports show is very different from the clubby dumb white guy audience his radio show enjoys, he's gotten into trouble over his analysis of the play of Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback Donovan McNabb.

"I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well," Limbaugh said. "There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."

Limbaugh did not back down during his syndicated radio talk show Wednesday.

He reiterated that he does not think McNabb is a bad player, just that he isn't as good as some members of the media think he is.

"This is such a mountain out of a molehill," he said. "There's no racism here, there's no racist intent whatsoever."

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

I loathe the man, but I don't think Limbaugh is lying in his explanation. Like a lot of casual racists (his past racial history is documented here), he isn't aware that he is one, and therefore has no idea why his comments would be viewed as racist by others.  Additionally, since he's built a career on insulting and vilifying people whose politics he doesn't agree with, he assumes that any criticism of his words/actions is motivated by personal animosity.  I'm sure much of it is, but there are also a lot of people who just think he's completely wrong on this issue.

Numerous sports writers have taken him to task on factual matters (McNabb has a higher QB ranking after four years than Elway or Favre had. McNabb has been voted by the players to the ProBowl the last three seasons.  There is a whole collection of sports writer comments on the issue here.) as well as expressing their general disgust with his comment.  Through it all Limbaugh remains unrepentant, since in the best blowhard tradition, it's inconceivable to admit to making a mistake or to change your behavior no matter how foolish it proves to be.

Rush is a racist, and this comment springs from his general outlook on life. He's not out burning crosses or murdering immigrant shop owners, but his perception of society is that blacks and other minorities are simply inferior to whites like himself. Therefore he feels that any black who enjoys success in a previously white-dominated field must be lucky, or is being helped along by white people who want the black to succeed.  In that light, all accomplishments by non-white males are viewed with great suspicion and this leads to him overlooking most of their successes and focusing on their failures. 

Wondering why ESPN doesn't just fire his fat ass to avoid the negative publicity?  Take a wild guess:

Limbaugh has helped increase the ratings for "Sunday NFL Countdown." Nagle said ratings are up 10 percent overall. Sunday's show drew its biggest audience in the regular season since 1996.

I've given this issue some thought in the past, so here's my opinion on the whole "black quarterback" topic, and how it ties into Rush's outlook on things.


Blacks were for many years denied the opportunity to play football with whites, and then when integration began, blacks were kept from playing quarterback. Segregation ruled high school, college, and pro football for decades.  When it finally began to decay, it cracked slowly.  Blacks were good at running fast and tackling and such, since those tasks are mostly physical in nature.  White racists could accept that.  They didn't like it, but they wanted their teams to win, and when the other teams are letting blacks play and regularly wiping the floor with you, your racist principles are going to vanish in a damn hurry.

So through the 60's and 70's the number of blacks playing football increased steadily, at a far greater rate than their percentage of the general population.  Today something like 70% of the NFL is black, while blacks make up around 14% of the US population.  And it's not as if that's due to any shortage of white guys trying to play football; the very best black athletes are just better than the very best white athletes (and Asian, and Hispanic, and so on).  The one bastion of whiteness that persists (persisted?) in football was at the Quarterback position.

The QB is the most important guy on offense, he handles the ball on every play, he has to make good throws, call plays, quickly figure out what the defense is doing, and so on.  The position requires physical ability, but less of it than most other positions on the field.  Certainly less than any defensive position.  Playing QB also requires a lot more mental analysis and speed than any other position, and that's where the white racist mindset hung on.  Sure, they thought, blacks are faster and stronger and can jump higher. But whites are naturally more intelligent, and the black man is not smart enough to play quarterback.

It's a country club mentality, the sort of institutionalized racism that greeted Tiger Woods as he took the predominantly-white sport of golf by storm. People who didn't give a thought to blacks playing basketball or football or baseball somehow found it wrong that a black man (Well, "Cablanasian", or whatever Tiger calls himself, but since his daddy looks black, and he looks at least half black, that's what people think of him as.) could be the best golfer on earth.  After all, golf was a sport that wasn't about physical strength or speed; it was about mental strength and consistency and finesse, things that they just knew blacks couldn't excel at.

Back to football, and the barriers separating blacks from playing QB eventually began to crumble at the high school and then college levels, but remained in the NFL. It wasn't like the Negro Leagues again, where the best black QBs were not allowed to play, but they were encouraged to shift to receiver or running back, since after all, they just couldn't be smart enough to deal with an NFL game. It was too much faster and more complicated than the college game.

There were successful black QBs in college for years, but they were only successful due to their physical skills.  They could run faster and throw farther than whites, and that made up for their smaller brains, or so the racist institutional mindset went.  Black QBs were great at running simple, run-oriented offenses like the Option, but they couldn't succeed as passers, and even if they could do so in college, they certainly couldn't in the pros, where the offenses and defenses are so much more complicated and the game moves so much faster.

There was an NFL institutional dislike of QBs who ran at all, for many years. That sort of scrambling around was fine for college and high school, but it was never going to work in the pros, they said.  An NFL QB had to stand in the pocket and scan the field and find a receiver.  He was not supposed to run for yardage.  Of course when white QBs like Fran Tarkenton and Steve Young ran they were being smart and taking what the defense gave them and making the best play available.  Black QBs would just run at every opportunity, they weren't "pure pocket passers" and relied too much on their physical skills to get by.

I can't point to quotes on this type of thing or articles discussing it, but I remember hearing this sort of thing for years in the 80's, when I was young and a rabid football fan. I always wondered why a Quarterback couldn't be both a great passer and a runner, and why all of the QBs had to be tall, slow, white guys who couldn't pick up a 3rd and 6 scrambling if the field were paved in ice and they were the only one wearing shoes.  I loved Randall Cunningham (black QB in the 80s) and his high speed exploits, and always wished he could have been on a team with some talent surrounding him, so he didn't have to try to win the game single-handedly.

But while there were isolated black QBs who were successful, the usual NFL draft was another bunch of tall, husky white guys with strong arms and "pocket presence," while the fast black guys who could throw it 70 yards flatfooted were converted to RB or WR or CB, or just not drafted at all. Never mind the fact that the vast majority of all college QBs aren't good enough to make it in the pros, it was the blacks who didn't that stood out to the Rush-style racists.  They remember Andre Ware, Akili Smith, and other prominent black college QBs who didn't do anything in the pros, yet somehow the legion of top drafted white QBs who amounted to nothing is just discounted.

Looking at the high first round draft picks from 1990-1999, we've got names such as Jeff George, Dan McGuire, David Klingler, Rick Mirer, Heath Shuler, Jim Druckenmiller, Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch, Cade McNown, and on and on. All white guys, all high draft picks, all flops of varying degrees in the NFL. Yet no one takes their failure as evidence that white guys can't play QB. I'm not saying it's a consciously-racist "pick on the black failures" mindset that Rush shares with so many other unaware people -- it's more like their mental filter simply screens out the aspects of reality that they find upsetting or that just don't fit into their perception of world events. Everyone does this in one way or another, it's just more obvious in some situations.

This is what it's like to be Rush Limbaugh.  He sees a player who he doesn't think is as good as the media says he is.  But while a normal person would stop there, in Rush's world there must be more to it.  Why does the media say this guy is better than Rush thinks he is?  After all, in Rush's world he's the smartest person on earth, so whatever he thinks of something must be true.  Why the media must have some sort of hidden agenda! And since the player in question is a black QB, and Rush knows that the black man isn't intellectually capable of taking on that sort of responsibility, that must be it.  Why it's yet another example of the insidious liberal media putting down the hard-working white men who built this great nation, in preference for the uppity minorities that just want welfare handouts to get through life!


The current situation in the NFL is that white guys can play QB pretty well, but so can black guys.  The pro game is far faster and more difficult than the college game, and the vast majority of successful college QBs fail pretty miserably in the pros, both since they aren't good enough, but also since so many of them land on bad teams that have poor offensive schemes.  A great deal of success in a team sport like football comes from having a good team, and there are very, very few athletes who are so great that they can make a team noticeably better all by themselves. The flip side is that a quarterback can definitely lose a game all by himself, and in fact it's quite often that one does.

Also, part of the whole "pure pocket passer" thing is true, and of benefit to white guys.  You can be a successful quarterback in the NFL while being basically slow and clumsy.  You just have to have a particular knack for seeing the open man, realizing where the defense is going to be, and throwing the ball a long way with great accuracy.  If you can run and make yards with your feet that's great, but the ability to throw the ball successfully is so valuable that plenty of teams will overlook their QB's glaring inability to run or avoid the rush so long as he is a good passer. There are white guys and black guys who can throw and also run, but as the 70% black NFL testifies, the very best athletes in the US are black guys, for the most part.  And while the whole "doesn't really need to run very well" aspect of being a successful QB will keep more white guys there than in any other position, I think that we'll eventually see mostly black QBs, just like every other position.  Look at the NBA if you're doubtful.


And of course, after I spent time writing this Wednesday evening, I checked ESPN to see the baseball playoff scores and saw that Rush had resigned.  There's probably more to the story than meets the eye; just how much this was a save face by "resigning before we fire you"  sort of thing isn't yet known. ESPN initially said they stood by him, but if the NFL objected officially, you know ESPN would roll over. I'm pretty well ruling out any possibility of Rush actually feeling bad or wanting to resign on his own.

It will be interesting to see how the story develops the next few days.



October 3, 2003

This mail came in yesterday, from Reaper.

Hey there! Just thought I'd mention that you accidentally said it was October 10th on the main page today! 

And as for the whole Rush Limbaugh scandal, I think you're reading a bit too much into the situation, possibly due to your unbridled hatred for right wing extremists. I personally think that he simply saw McNabb's performance in the few games he watched, and he didn't see him as an exemplary quarterback. Perhaps McNabb doesn't pass as much as Rush thinks a quarterback should, or he could have been in a little slump on the few games that Rush saw. 

But I don't care enough about either football or politics to do any research, so oh well. But I just thought I'd mention that I think you probably put a bit too much thought into the whole situation. 

I agree with him, except that I didn't take any real issue with Rush's characterization of McNabb's skills.  I haven't seen many (any?) Eagles games over the recent years to have an opinion on McNabb, which is why I just quoted various sports writers pointing out that his stats are very good, and that he's been selected to the Pro Bowl the last few years.

The part of what Rush said that I found worth commenting on was the whole, "the media has a vested interest in seeing black quarterbacks succeed" part. And thinking back, that wasn't even really what I blogged about.  I mostly used the Rush thing as an excuse to launch into an unscientific explanation of how racists think, and to give my nutshell history of black quarterbacks. I had no idea that a rant about black qbs was in me, since I haven't given that topic much thought in years, but I've been thinking a lot about the racist mindset of late.

Well, that's somewhat misleading.  It's not like the subject has consumed me, but since Malaya is a minority (Asian) and has been one her entire life (an homage to the reporter who asked Doug Williams before the 1988 Superbowl, "How long have you been a black quarterback?") we often talk about race and perceptions on things.  I've long been interested in the issue, and Malaya often asks me things like (paraphrasing), "How did you get so aware of racial issues, and why are you so able to see the sorts of casual racism that most white people are totally unaware of?" 

Anyway, I'm not going to get into the whole topic again today, but racism and race relations and assumptions people have about race are things I find very interesting, and you can expect me to revisit the subject again.

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