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The NFL Doesn't Need a Limbaugh Controversy

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, October 16, 2009

Rush Limbaugh, are you ready for some football?

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Um, I guess not.

The right-wing radio host's attempt to become part-owner of the St. Louis Rams ended Wednesday when his fellow investors cut him from the squad. Rush got the bum's rush shortly after Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the National Football League, hinted strongly that His Loudness was most unwelcome.

Controversy had focused on Limbaugh's history of incendiary and offensive remarks about race. Striking his patented tone of arrogant, bombastic victimhood, Limbaugh sought to portray his ownership bid as an urgent matter of great historic importance to the nation.

"This is not about the NFL, it's not about the St. Louis Rams, it's not about me," he bellowed on his show, hours before being sacked. "This is about the ongoing effort by the left in this country, wherever you find them, in the media, the Democrat Party, or wherever, to destroy conservatism, to prevent the mainstreaming of anyone who is prominent as a conservative. Therefore, this is about the future of the United States of America and what kind of country we're going to have."

No, it's not. It's about making a splash and getting attention. And it's about the free market and individual rights -- which I thought conservatives were supposed to worship.

Limbaugh had every right to join the group of would-be buyers headed by sports mogul Dave Checketts, who already owns the St. Louis Blues hockey team. And, let's be honest, Limbaugh would hardly have been the only archconservative to own a piece of a pro football team. Given the demographic profile of the average NFL franchise owner -- white, male, middle-aged to elderly, richer than Croesus, egocentric -- I doubt that many of Limbaugh's political and social views would be out of place. I mean, it's not as if he were trying to join the board of the ACLU.

Goodell, however, had not just the right but the duty to consider the impact that such close association with Limbaugh would have on the league. The NFL hates controversy, because controversy -- of the non-sporting kind -- is bad for business. It's one thing for fans to debate a questionable pass interference call; it's quite another for sports-talk hosts and their callers to argue about whether the league endorses tendentious and stereotypical views about African Americans. Whatever NFL owners may think about politics or race, they don't broadcast their opinions nationwide every day the way Limbaugh does.

Attention has focused mostly on Limbaugh's contention in 2003 that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was overrated and that he was being hyped because "the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well." This was stupid and wrong on every level -- black quarterbacks had already excelled, with Doug Williams having led the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl victory 15 years earlier; and McNabb was good enough to take the Eagles to the Super Bowl two years later. The statement offended so many people that it got Limbaugh fired from his short-lived job as an ESPN football analyst.

But Limbaugh has made other ugly observations. He gave this overview of the preponderance of black players in the league: "The NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons. There, I said it." He has referred to basketball as "the favorite sport of gangs." He has called President Obama "the greatest living example of a reverse racist" and "an angry black guy" and -- because of his biracial heritage -- a "Halfrican-American." An equal-opportunity offender, Limbaugh also has called Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor a "reverse racist," compared Latino illegal immigrants to an "invasive species," and referred to Native Americans as "Injuns."

Hey, I understand, it's all about the ratings. For Limbaugh, more outrageousness equals a bigger audience, and a bigger audience equals more money. But football operates by a different formula. The sport's executives and owners understand how diverse the nation has become. They realize that soon there will be no racial or ethnic majority, just a collection of minorities. They know that they're in the business of entertaining, not offending.

In announcing that Limbaugh was no longer associated with his bid for the Rams, Checketts said it was "clear that his involvement in our group has become a complication and a distraction." That's the way the free market works in this great country of ours. I know that Rush will join me in a chorus of "God Bless America."

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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