Thursday, October 02, 2003

ESPN's American Cafe

I have always thought that Casablanca was a vastly over rated film, but it does have one great line. I don't include "Who is that boy over there?," which was asked of a black man who was well into middle age. Instead I refer to the scene where the French cop who is a regular at Rick's Cafe is ordered to close it down. He has to find some excuse and declares, "I am shocked, shocked to find gambling going on here." I though about it today when ESPN told their new commentator, Rush Limbaugh, that he had been insensitive in his remarks about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

On Sunday Limbaugh and the other panelists were discussing McNabb's poor start. He could have said that McNabb was over rated and left it at that. But ESPN wanted controversy from their star commentator and that is what they got. "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. 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."

ABC, ESPN's parent company, first considered hiring Limbaugh as the color commentator, no pun intended, on Monday Night Football in 2000. They didn't go with him at the time but someone was obviously insistent because like a bad penny he turned up again this year and became part of the broadcasting team on a NFL pre-game show.

When his hiring was announced back in July there was great concern expressed about having one of the most polarizing political figures in the country participate in a sphere that has traditionally been non-political. But Limbaugh is not just a partisan right winger. He has always been known for the meanness and cruelty of his remarks.

We are told that the mafia will "leave the family out of it" even when planning to kill their enemies. But it seems that Limbaugh has fewer scruples than la cosa nostra. In 1993 he felt compelled to make this remark about Chelsea Clinton. "Everyone knows the Clintons have a cat. Socks is the White House cat. But did you know there is also a White House dog?" he added, holding up Chelsea's photo. ESPN wanted controversy and got it by choosing Limbaugh.

At times like these I would like to join Mary J. Blige and sing "No More Drama." Needless to say when we have controversy about a sports celebrity, Rush Limbaugh, and charges of racism there will be much drama indeed. At first ESPN backed Limbaugh, by the end of the day they said he was being insensitive. Presidential candidates Clark and Dean have said ESPN should fire Limbaugh. By tomorrow President Bush will be asked his opinion. (Please God, don't let him give it.) I don't believe that this incident should be ignored, but if it is going to be fodder for sports columns, talk radio and the campaign trail then we must be honest in our discussions.

First, why did ESPN hire Limbaugh? At the time they said he would "represent the fans." Why would ESPN conclude that the fan is represented by the right wing? President Bush lost the popular vote so we can't say that the electorate is conservative. Even if he hadn't, less than half of all Americans bothered to vote. We can't use elections to determine the ideology of the average person. Polls on a variety of issues show that American opinion shifts from liberal to conservative depending on the questions being asked.

For years the right wing have whined that the media are liberal and that conservative views were unrepresented. Having made the complaint loud enough and long enough and with insufficient response from liberals they won the argument. You can imagine my surprise on election night in November 2000 as I witnessed this exchange on NBC. Brian Williams was introducing someone he called a "brilliant commentator." I nearly fell off my sofa when he then said the name Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh is heard on over 600 radio stations across the country. He had a television show, he has written books and he has now succeeded in being seen by millions of football fans who don't even like him. Yet he and his ilk still complain that the media exclude conservatives. As we are about to see in California conservatives are far more shrewd than liberals and emerge as the winners. In part they do so because they are relentless in pushing their ideology and claiming support of the public.

The only solution is to have real parity in political commentary in America. Just as news outlets are required to interview both candidates in a political race (are you listening Oprah), there should be a commitment by the media to have all voices heard. If Limbaugh can get away with telling a black listener to "take the bone out of your nose" and equate the NAACP with rioters then the media should give voice to black people who say what they like about white people. A left winger should be on as many stations as Limbaugh.

But for God's sake, none of them should be on a sports show.

I awoke on Thursday morning to edit this post and I found out that Limbaugh was going to be in the news for a little while longer. First, he resigned from ESPN. But it was also announced that he is a drug addict on an Elvisian scale. His maid contacted police about his illegal use of oxycontin and other prescription drugs. He is now under investigation. Did he resign because of the McNabb controversy or because he is about to make a perp walk? I would love to have been a fly on that wall.