By Michael Wilbon
Friday, October 16, 2009
The free market, rather loudly, told Rush Limbaugh it wasn't interested in what he sells. Undoubtedly there are NFL owners who share Limbaugh's brand of conservatism. A few, I'm told, are so far to the right politically they think Limbaugh is liberal. But the voices that spoke up in the private club Limbaugh wanted to join shouted him down.
It was noticeable enough that several players, very eloquently in some cases, said they wouldn't want to play for a team he owned. But then there was an owner, the Colts' Jim Irsay, who went on the record as saying he wouldn't vote to accept an ownership group that includes Limbaugh. And most important, the NFL commissioner himself, Roger Goodell, said very firmly that Limbaugh's public utterances as they relate to race, to African Americans specifically, are "divisive" and "polarizing."
It was obvious at that point that Limbaugh wouldn't be part of an NFL ownership group. And it's fair. Limbaugh, every day and very publicly, judges people, turns thumbs up or thumbs down on someone's candidacy or worthiness. Now he's been judged: Thumbs down, not interested. Millions of people believe what Limbaugh believes about politics and race. But millions of others believe something else and, more to the point, reject what Limbaugh espouses. And the push-back was more than Limbaugh was going to overcome, so it's over.
When it first became public that Limbaugh was going to be part of Dave Checketts's group that was attempting to buy the St. Louis Rams, it riled up black folks probably more than anyone else, which should come as no surprise. I've met Limbaugh. I communicated with him last week on the issue of his being a part-owner of a franchise. One-on-one, he comes across as approachable and open to pretty much any discussion. But his radio persona is another thing. I don't listen to his show because his comments about people of color anger and offend me, and I'm not easily offended. I'm not going to try and give specific examples of things he has said over the years; I screwed up already doing that, repeating a quote attributed to Limbaugh (about slavery) that he has told me he simply did not say and does not reflect his feelings. I take him at his word.
But Limbaugh has long history of the same insults and race baiting, to the point of declaring he hoped the president of the United States, a black man, fails. I never understood why someone with Limbaugh's gift for communication was so nasty and, in my opinion, gave cover to bigots everywhere under the guise of conservatism. Clearly, I'm not alone.
The smartest expression I've heard on the entire subject came from Mathias Kiwanuka of the New York Giants, who said, "I am not going to draw a conclusion from a person off of one comment, but when it is time after time after time and there's a consistent pattern of disrespect and just a complete misunderstanding of an entire culture that I am a part of, I can't respect him as a man."
Irsay said Tuesday, "I would not be in favor of voting for him," and he labeled some of Limbaugh's comments "incendiary. . . . We've got to watch our words in this world and our thoughts because they can do damage."
Limbaugh has the right to say pretty much whatever he wants on his show. People with opposing views have the right to say, "We don't want to be associated with that."
Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and a smart man on these issues, wrote in his blog that this is a bottom-line issue, that the risk of offending people runs hand-in-hand with the risk of costing the NFL money. Cuban writes: "The problem with Rush is that it's his job to take on all of life's partisan issues and problems. Not only is it his job to take on these issues and problems, it's key to his success that he be very opinionated about whichever issues he feels are important to him and/or will cause his very large audience to tune in. . . . The wrong thing said on the show, even if it's not spoken by Rush himself, about a sensitive national or world issue could turn into a Black Swan event for the NFL. . . . This isn't about free speech. It's about the NFL protecting their business. There is no reason to put it at risk. "
Now that his bid to own an NFL team is over and unlikely to be revived, I wonder if Limbaugh has any misgivings about what he says and how he says it. I wonder whether he cares at all that his own history of intolerance (even if it's just perception) has resulted in an institution representing a rather broad spectrum of society, even a private club of men accustomed to wealth and privilege, not wanting to be publicly associated with his views or his bombast. Is this simply everyone else's fault, a "liberal conspiracy," or a rejection that's hurtful enough that it will make Rush Limbaugh take a tough look at himself?
Part of me wonders if some greater good might have been served by Limbaugh actually becoming an owner. Sports, more than anywhere else in this culture, is where preconceived notions are immediately tested and often die. Hostile bigotry can't last long in the athletic arena because whether you're a left tackle, an owner or power forward, you're too dependent on somebody who looks different than you or who practices a different religion. Sports are not without prejudice; but they're the closest thing this society has to a true meritocracy, and as a result, cooperative and constructive human relations in the pursuit of winning are unavoidable.
Folks who would never embrace each other in business, science and technology, religion, media . . . they've got no choice in sports. Stadiums in the United States are completely integrated on Sundays. Churches are not. Even somebody with Limbaugh's bombast, I think, might wind up not just editing himself but actually feeling different about people other than himself if put in that setting every single week as an owner, his business identity tied to sweaty black men. And trust me: Limbaugh loves sports enough that he'd be right there hugging them in the locker room after big victories.
You think if Limbaugh's team had a black quarterback as successful as Donovan McNabb that he'd be dismissive of him?
It would have been interesting to see what might have happened, what fundamental changes might have come about in Limbaugh, had he become an owner. It's one thing to demonize people from afar, but quite another to do it after you've just hugged and cried with somebody of that race or ethnicity after a shared joyous experience.
But we'll never know, not in the context of Limbaugh and the NFL anyway. Perhaps another league will let him in; Missouri has other teams. Perhaps enough people are tired of the incendiary comments, as Irsay said, to simply say, "You have to do better, exhibit a greater tolerance or simply public decency to join us."
Limbaugh is a great communicator of his message. I wonder if he heard this one loud and clear.