|In a Rush to make a big impact|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
How did we come to yet another "Yikes!" moment in NFL broadcast history? Who's guilty of what here in the Strange Case of Rush Limbaugh? The usual suspects are there: pride, ego, greed, power, hubris. But where does this episode stack up between Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder's lame and obtuse history lesson and Howard Cosell's "That little monkey!" naivete.
It had seemed such an inspired move, hiring Rush in the first place, in the pure-numbers universe. Hard to move your number northward in today's cable universe -- hey, let's bring Rush Limbaugh to ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown" team, along with Michael Irvin. Some matchup, huh? If that don't fetch 'em, I don't know Arkansaw! Or Florida. Or talk radio.
Along with the mainstays Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, and Steve Young, Rush would ride 'em, rope 'em, and brand 'em. And after three weeks, the ratings did bump up 10 percent to a whopping 2.2 percent of the universe of 87.6 million households. Rush's last show drew a 2.4 -- not killer, but improved. But improved wasn't enough for Rushamon. He was going to take a big bite out of this apple. What you saw was ego beginning to run toward amok, not just on Rush's part either; yeah, ego is part of it, part of it everywhere and with everybody with few exceptions in this business, in my experience. Success, pure-numbers-wise, breeds ego. I'm just trying to explain it to you without prejudice. I'm not here to pile on Rush. No need. No room, anyway. I'm here to examine what he said, and in doing so examine the reaction to it.
It's a tricky thing, the peculiar anthropology known as professional sports expertise and knowledge. Espousing it is like any profession. Sure anybody can have an opinion and get it right one time in two. Or three. But it's the accumulation of knowledge, instinct, expertise, experience, gut feel, that gets you included among pro sports analysts. It's like baseball, in a way. For a game or two, or 10, a Triple-A'er can hang out with the big boys, when they are just clearing their throats, just getting in some swings, not going all out.
Anybody can pick winners on a pregame show, for a while; but that is not true professional knowledge, that is not noticing the telling nuance on the fly, bringing the little-known decisive moment or fact to life. It's what they pay people like me for. There's no other reason. It's not because they love me so much, or because they know I'll bring in a half-point's worth of ratings, and I don't believe that it's because I'm black, although you'd have to ask the media I work for. All I know for sure is, when the pro begins to apply his knowledge, in whatever occupation, then comes the separation. Just like what color you are, it's not something you look down and notice when working.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me say Rush Limbaugh e-mailed me as this pro football season started, was complimentary of some things he'd read that I'd written about the NFL on Page 2. I e-mailed back, saying I was looking forward to hearing his take on the games, and that a truck driver had once told me, 10 years ago, when I was out on tour with a non-sports book that was poorly titled "What Black People Should Do Now" -- I was going for an ironic title there, but cut it too fine, and people read it literally, and thus the book failed -- that he thought Rush and I had a lot in common (except for key fact I didn't point out to the truck driver; Rush could afford a private jet, and I couldn't). One key here. I didn't tell Rush whether the truck driver had been white or black (he was white; but the telling point is, you were curious, weren't you?), because in this case, it shouldn't matter.
If only Rush had kept on e-mailing me, then I could have told him, "Not McNabb. Wrong dude. If you want to make that point, you should say ..."
Rush was going along OK, picking winners and losers, giving opinions, just like anybody else who'd been lucky enough to be picked to be on an NFL pregame show. I ought to know. I've been there myself.
Here's where the lightning struck.
I'm just speculating now, but maybe it occurred to Rush, or to Rush's ego, on a completely logical level, as large egos begin to see logic, that he had not yet been Rush, that he hadn't yet made an appropriate impact. Rush is a mover and a shaker of public opinion, a big-number guy, a drink-stirrer; once he really starts rolling, being Rush, the viewership bump would really spike; the way he does that is by being controversial, plucking emotional strings.
Plus, Rush had a speaking gig coming up, delivering the keynoter to a gathering of broadcasters in Philly the first week of October -- Thursday, Oct. 2, to be precise. That would be four days after Rush said, "Sorry to say this, I don't think (McNabb) has been that good from the get-go; 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, black coaches and quarterbacks doing well. 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."
Rush, or his sources, or both, apparently don't think that much of the skills of McNabb. On the other hand, some people do. Jon Gruden, probably the top offensive talent evaluator in the league right now, raved about McNabb from that same get-go, the Senior Bowl of McNabb's senior year out of Syracuse. Gruden raved about what a great pro McNabb would be. Loved him. McNabb has since made Pro Bowls and twice played in the NFC Championship Game and two years ago finished runner-up as the MVP of the entire league. And he isn't even 30 years old.
Even in that ill-fated NFC title game loss, he was directing an inspired drive against the Tampa Bay defense, one of the best of all-time, until he threw a pick-and-go to Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber inside the Tampa Bay 10-yard line. McNabb has the skins on the wall, but that does not absolve him from critiques of his performance, informed or not.
The discussion was about like it is with all NFL quarterbacks, on balance, so far pretty normal. But it was the insertion of McNabb's race as a factor favoring his media coverage, and as a factor in the host institution (the NFL) and its reaction and support of McNabb, was purely political. And that, not sports, is what Rush does to inflame the populace and bump his numbers. Period. That's what he does. So we can't act all surprised. Rush couldn't lay back and just be one of the boys talking ball and still be Rush. And he just had to be Rush. He had to try to turn it into an anti-affirmative action, hot-button debate about the liberal media that would inflame the part of the audience that expects such inflammation from him, and thrives on it.
Here's where the lack of football knowledge hurt Rush. His point could not be covered in a football sense, which made suspect his further speculation that the media and the league favored McNabb, and therefore all African-American quarterbacks. But, God help us, if he had chosen Kordell ...
"Sunday NFL Countdown" had suddenly become "Meet The Press." Or maybe "Triumph of the Will." Or at least of the Rush.
In a perfectly logical marketing move, but perfectly naive football move, Rush went on the air and basically did what Rush does. He decided to do a power move, and use McNabb to make his point, figuring McNabb would be down in flames again, and Rush would not only be hotter on ESPN, but also in Philly to, you will forgive the expression, crow about it.
It was completely logical, not what he said, but the fact that Rush Limbaugh would say it. Completely logical -- except for the football part, and the social part. What he said was, in fact, incorrect. I'm not talking about right and not right. Guys (and gals) are right and not right about football every weekend on ESPN. I myself think, for instance, Kurt Warner is overrated, but I am not going to add a theory that Warner is being propped up by the league and the St. Louis media because he is white. But would I, or anybody else, think it? Do we see ourselves and our own fates personified by who's under center? This is where Rush insinuates himself, into your less-than-better self. His point, if pressed, would be that he was talking about what's in the media's mind and hearts, which you can throw into question about basically anything.
Rush could have been content with staying with picking scores, evaluating performances, calling into question players' abilities, and helping "Sunday NFL Countdown" enjoy that ratings bump until the cows came home, and it would have been no problem. But, simply put, that wasn't enough for Rush. He had to be the bell cow. He calls into question McNabb's abilities and the intentions of the NFL and media covering it, pitting both against the white male majority, essentially, then sitting back and watching a bomb go off. He was incorrect, but people are incorrect in evaluating football players virtually all the time.
The only question is, was he correct about the "Social Concern" part?
The great thing about text, even in an audio/video sound-bite world, is that sometimes it's the only way to closely examine truth and falsehood.
Being correct has gotten a bad name, because all somebody has to do is shout "political!" in front of your correctness, and suddenly it's a bad thing.
Now if Rush had e-mailed me, I would've told him, "Rush, if you want to generalize about unspoken feelings about black quarterbacks, I'd advise against it. But, hey, you're you and you're gonna do what you're gonna do. I'd wait until I had a speaking gig in Chicago, if I were you, then you can questions Kordell Stewart's abilities until your heart's content. At least you'll be right about the football part."
Even if Rush had kept reading his Page 2 R-Dub & Road Dog NFL columns (he probably did) he would at least have been delivered of the opinion that the Eagles were lacking in areas around and other than McNabb. But Rush didn't do that. Or worse, he did, and then flew in the face of it, rendering any prior compliments to me moot. He chose to go after Donovan McNabb and make him the anti-affirmative action baby.
Wrong guy. (Whew!)
McNabb is the right/wrong guy for the same reason Jackie Robinson was the right/wrong guy. Among the best of the young African-American NFL quarterbacks -- Steve McNair, Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick and McNabb -- if we insist on breaking them down that way, McNabb might be the least QB-skills gifted among them, just as among Jackie Robinson, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, Robinson might have been the least skilled as a baseball player. But Jackie was still plenty gifted enough to be a Hall of Famer. But he was even more, and I sense the same in McNabb. The others are accomplished (McNair has been to a Super Bowl, two AFC title games; Vick has already won a playoff game at Lambeau Field, something no other opposing quarterback has accomplished, Culpepper has been in an NFC title game), but not necessarily verbal. They cannot defend themselves in the clinchés of little verbal political games nearly as well as they play football; they could not come back and spar with the likes of Rush or his quoted material being thrown in their faces for rebuttal. But it was no problem for McNabb to rebut it.
"I'm sure he's not the only one who feels that way," McNabb astutely said in a news conference, a few days after surprising some, but not the people who really know pro football, by leading the Eagles to a 23-13 victory over Buffalo, and taking some of the steam out of Rush's stride. "But it's somewhat shocking to actually hear that on national TV." (So, McNabb had identified the nerve that Rush works for a living, admitted it was there, and then expressed shock one would let one's worse self be on public display.)
"... A free ride from the media in Philadelphia? That's a good one." (McNabb exposed Rush's lack of knowledge of sports media by locale, by reminding us that in Philly he had been booed on draft day, and that Philly fans boo everyone from Mike Schmidt to Santa Claus, let along Donnie McNabb, and that the Philly press, like the New York press, only worse, treats every game outcome as if it were the pivotal battle for World War II, and if you lose; you're a bum).
Let us crush two notions with one stone. First is the notion that quarterbacks are paragons of intelligence who hang in the pocket until the last minute to deliver passes in their down time from composing sonnets and concertos and writing motivational speeches for businessmen and splitting the atom. Oh, please. Really.
Four of the five best quarterbacks ever were Johnny Unitas, John Elway, Joe Montana and Steve Young. Of the four, Unitas might have been the best football player. Definitely he would have score the lowest on the SAT. There are mushrooms that would have scored higher on the SAT. Unitas was no genius. No book genius. No verbal genius. As far as being "pocket passers," the term is used for white quarterback in media; but that is simply the classic quarterback pose if that QB is on a team good enough to consistently form an impregnable pocket around him.
You can't be a pocket passer while the defense is sending sellout blitzes at you. Then you must adapt, modify, improvise. Then you must play football.
Every great quarterback has been able to run, white or black, at one point or another, until they either got too old or too busted up to do so. This is football, people. These are not the wheelchair games. Unitas would be 40 yards downfield flying in front of his ball-carrier running a reverse, throwing cross-body blocks. Fran Tarkenton must have run 200 miles behind the line of scrimmage alone. Montana ran like the wind. Elway was a runner, as was Young. This is no new phenomenon, because black quarterbacks do it.
What is relatively new is the spiked degree of difficulty of the position, with all the exotic blitzes and speciality edge rushers and size and speed of the defenders today. Charlie Ward, Heisman Trophy quarterback of Florida State and point guard on the Seminoles basketball team, decided to play in the NBA and forsake football, the game at which he had true genius, because of the beating required to play the position. "I've seen what happens," Ward said, alluding to several Florida State quarterbacks being greviously injured in practice while he was there. The rise and proliferation of black NFL QBs since Doug Williams won the Super Bowl in 1988 has more to do with the increased degree of difficulty of the position than any "social concern."
There are only a small number of people who can actually physically and mentally -- like combat, it has more to do with fortitude and cunning than intelligence -- play quarterback in the NFL. And there are not that many. There are more Ron Jaworskis of any color than John Elways of any color, with Elway being the standard of QB play.
To me, Steve McNair is the closest thing out there to the standard that is John Elway. We do find it interesting that Jaworski always says you must run the game from the pocket. It serves his own playing style and memory, his own persona, and ego. That's exactly the feeling that Rush preyed upon. We all vicariously play through the people on the field on NFL Sundays -- reflecting our own unique frame of reference. If they look like us, are we more likely to root for them?
You can have a pro like Kordell Stewart or a collegian like Carlyle Holliday, who either are too mechanical (Stewart) or have little or no feel for the position in the pro style (Holliday), but who are very mobile. And you can also be not the most mobile (Manning) and have a total feel for the position. Black and white have nothing to do with it. But do not think Peyton Manning is not a tremendous athlete. His father Archie was the best athlete I had seen at the position, before Elway came along. For some reason, even the Colts' own kicker thinks he knows better, is hipper to some better way of both playing QB and coaching. Mike Vanderjagt not only knocked Peyton, he knocked his coach, Tony Dungy, who is of this black faction that Rush cut out of the mob and claimed was getting a leg up on other coaches from the league and the media.
The Colts are now undefeated, going into Tampa Bay on Monday night. Regardless of the outcome of that game, there is little question that barring the unforeseen, within the next year, and then for the next five years or so, Manning and Dungy will play for the right to go to the Super Bowl a time or two, maybe even three. Dungy is stoically building another championship-level defense, just as he built the one in Tampa Bay, this time to complement the higher offensive skills of Manning. It's not a matter of the media or the league wanting or not wanting either one of them to do well, Rush. People (media is, surprisingly, made up of people) who cover the individual teams always want them to do well, whether they pretend objectivity or not; they want to cover good teams, winning teams, they want good teams to represent them, and the players and coaches who get hired in the NFL -- getting hired being key, and this is what Rush was leaning toward, who gets hired, and is this affirmative action? -- they either get it done, or they don't. The media does have its shortcomings. Propping up undeserving minorities is not one of them. Not after they are exposed as having shortcomings, anyway.
McNabb said it was shocking.
Yeah? Wait until Donnie finds out that performance has nothing to with the so-called "social concern" Rush was talking about. Whatever somebody is accusing you of doing, nine times out of 10, that's what they are guilty of doing. McNabb can't play quarterback any better than Willie Mays played the outfield. And yet there were major-league teams, who were in the business of baseball, who did not sign Mays after trying him out. Now that's a social concern. All McNabb can do, for the time being, is play, and be glad to have the opportunity to play, because it didn't have to be that way. But it will be interesting to see what McNabb does in future years, how this impacts him.
How do I know this? Sometimes ESPN.com will sponsor a chat, and invariably, with all the good sports questions that come in to me, there will be some that, how shall I say this, express "social concern." They accuse me of being racist, talk of how I and some of my occasional writing styles bring down the quality of writing for good educated people. Invariably, I will post one of those replies in the marathon chats, just to remind, not the readers, but myself, that some people can't get past color to performance, no matter what you do, no matter how well you perform. I know that I have forgotten more about composition than any of the hateful posters and their descendants will know in their lifetimes. And yet I end up defending my credibility again and again simply because of a trait I can't even see unless I look in a mirror.
That's the wrong Rush did, not to ESPN, not to the media, but to McNabb, McNair, Dungy. It's no matter, "moot" as McNabb said, that Rush can say he was simply questioning the so-called liberal media. Black coaches and quarterbacks who do not perform at the championship level in the NFL will be replaced soon enough, just as white ones will. But why foster resentment against the good black coaches and quarterbacks who perform, simply to get more attention from manipulated viewers of the very same media whose intentions you decry?
Rush's speculations were intriguing.
They were born of ego and power, and prey on suspicions and fears.
The great thing is that I can write this as well as think it.
I'm sorry Rush left so soon.
But to say "No mas" was the smart move.
It was about to get ugly.
Rush picked the wrong guy.
And I wish it was as simple as that.
Ralph Wiley has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC. His many books include "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributes to many ESPN productions, and bats cleanup on a weekly basis for Page 2.