in Kulturkampf

Archives: How the NFL Gets Race Right (and Rush Gets it Wrong)

This originally ran at HuffPo on October 15th, 2009.

Poor Rush Limbaugh. His dream of one day owning and trading Negro men has been shattered by the liberal media, which keeps making up lies about him. Lies, I tell you! The wingnutosphere insists: Rush has never, ever made a racist comment! Ever!

Except for this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one and this one, and this one, and this one and this one.

And, of course, this one:

When Donovan McNabb led his team to the Super Bowl in 2005, Rush claimed the defense had carried him; all the credit given to McNabb, he said, was just “social hope.”

What Rush and his defenders would have us do is “define down” racism to the sole criteria of the n-word. Rush is too smart to use it, but his sophistry encourages racial divisions all the time.

There couldn’t be a worse fit for an ownership stake in the National Football League, which takes diversity issues seriously. One look at the huddle and you can see why:

Seconds on the clock with victory or defeat just yards away is no time for disputes. As former Alabama coach and Huffington Post blogger Bill Curry once explained in the ESPN documentary series Autumn Ritual, all external values disappear in the huddle and character takes over. At the snap, all eleven men must execute with unified precision or the whole enterprise breaks down. This is why you see so many college and high school teams holding hands before the big play — without regard to the color of the hands.

Victory takes the total of each player and leaves the talent of none behind. As a result, professional football is an inherently leveling game. Conservative George Will once described the game as a “mistake” combining the two worst aspects of the 20th Century: organized violence and committee meetings. He might as well have added “equal opportunity” to the mix.

There once was a dearth of black NFL quarterbacks, but Doug Williams shattered that barrier with a Super Bowl win in 1988 and the league has never looked back. In making those divisive comments about McNabb, Rush injected racial animosity into a sport that has long ago outgrown such thinking. Evolved, you might say.

When the NFL lacked minority head coaches, the league required all teams to interview at least one minority candidate for open jobs. Not hire, mind you — just interview. The results are Tony Dungy, Mike Singletary, and Mike Tomlin.

These “liberal” tendencies surpass race. With profit-sharing to keep smaller-market teams competitive, salary caps, and an emphasis on parity, the NFL is far more of a “socialist” organization than, say, baseball. Not only is Rush’s rhetorical record a bad fit for the league’s personnel policies, his corporatist economic tendencies would be a better match for the major leagues, which are a “free market” affair by comparison.

Nor does the Limbaugh narrative of evil, politically-correct media square with actual events. When news of Limbaugh’s interest broke, NFL players were the first to speak out, and not “state run media scum,” as Rush would have listeners believe.

Indeed, reaction across the league was uniformly negative, with the players union and the NFL commissioner joining in throughout the day before the media even began replaying Limbaugh’s racist commentary.

Contrary to the narrative he has invented and stovepiped through the right-wing blogs, Limbaugh was rejected by professional football. The NFL didn’t need the media’s help to know what he is. The McNabb debacle wasn’t so long ago the league would forget it. Limbaugh wants to climb on a martyr’s cross, but the crucifix just doesn’t fit.

There is another context: Limbaugh has been here before. This is not the first time “political correctness” has taken the blame for the death of his dreams. After his television show was canned for low ratings, Limbaugh embarked on his decade-long Oxycontin bender. By the late 1990s, he whined when other right-wing talk radio hosts outdid him with Vince Foster-conspiracy nonsense.

He’s a new man now. Vowing never to be left behind again, he launched into the Obama administration with full force, and in the wake of this NFL failure he’s fighting back with every bit of hatemongering energy he possesses. It’s his inevitable psychological pattern. Remember his speech to the CPAC conference?

Now, about my still-to-me mysteriously controversial comment that I hope President Obama fails. I was watching the Super Bowl. And as you know, I love the Pittsburgh Steelers. [Cheers and Applause] So they have this miraculous scoring drive that puts them up by four, 15 seconds left. Kurt Warner on the field for the Cardinals. And I sure as heck want you to know I hope he failed. I did not want the Cardinals to win. I wanted Warner to make the biggest fool of himself possible. I wanted a sack, I wanted anything. I wanted the Steelers to win. I wanted to win. I wanted the Cardinals to fail.

There could be no better, clearer example of identity politics at work. Our national success is not a game; national failure affects every American. Limbaugh, on the other hand, sees America as divided into competing tribal identities — and likes it that way. Conservatism succeeded for forty years by driving such wedges in the politics of divide and conquer.

Meanwhile, the NFL has worked diligently to become what it is: a success that transcends any one team. America has become what it is, and that is a nation no longer so vulnerable to the politics of division. The league has managed to reflect a changing America even as Limbaugh has stayed willfully, contemptuously behind.

This failure is Limbaugh’s alone, and he’s still not able to man-up and deal with it. That’s a perfectly good reason why he shouldn’t own any part of a league franchise. This sport is for the tough, not the whiny.

Socialize this!