-- Radio-talk show host Rush Limbaugh resigned late tonight from the ESPN National Football League pregame show on which he appeared after racially charged comments about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb drew widespread media attention today.
Limbaugh, hired by ESPN this year in an effort to boost ratings, made the comments Sunday. Limbaugh, in discussing the talents of McNabb, who is African American, said: "I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. They're interested in black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well. I think there's a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he really didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."
In a statement released late tonight, Limbaugh said his comments were directed at the media and were not racially motivated.
"I offered an opinion. This opinion has caused discomfort to the crew, which I regret. I love 'NFL Sunday Countdown' and do not want to be a distraction to the great work done by all who work on it.
"Therefore, I have decided to resign. I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of the show and wish all the best to those who make it happen."
George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports, accepted the resignation.
"We regret the circumstances surrounding this," he said in a statement. "We believe that he took the appropriate action to resolve this matter expeditiously."
ESPN, in a statement released earlier today, said: "Although Mr. Limbaugh today stated that his comments had 'no racist intent whatsoever,' we have communicated to Mr. Limbaugh that his comments were insensitive and inappropriate. Throughout his career, he has been consistent in his criticism of the media's coverage of a myriad of issues."
McNabb, in a conference call to reporters at Redskins Park today, criticized Limbaugh's remarks. "Did that upset me? Yeah," McNabb said. The Redskins and Eagles will play Sunday in Philadelphia. "It upset a whole lot of people," McNabb said. "But I don't get involved in that too much. Hopefully, that will take care of itself, but you would have thought we were past that."
McNabb was quickly joined by several prominent Democratic politicians, including presidential hopefuls Howard Dean, Al Sharpton and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who called on ESPN to fire Limbaugh. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue telephoned McNabb to offer his support, and several NFL players expressed their backing for the Eagles quarterback as well.
McNabb, 26, is a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback who has led the Eagles to the NFC championship game the last two seasons. On Sunday, seven of the NFL's 32 teams were led by black starting quarterbacks. Two others, Daunte Culpepper of the Minnesota Vikings and Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons, did not play because of injuries.
The NFL clearly was not happy. Joe Browne, the league's executive vice president of communications and public affairs, said: "Donovan's stature as a top quarterback reflects his performance on the field, not the desires of the media. That's true of McNabb, Brett Favre, Steve McNair, Patrick Ramsey and others. ESPN knew what they were getting when they hired Rush Limbaugh. ESPN selects its on-air talent, not the NFL."
Tagliabue phoned McNabb after the Eagles' regular practice in what an Eagles spokesman called a "show of support," adding that Tagliabue advised the quarterback not to allow the controversy to become a distraction. The spokesman said the commissioner also praised McNabb's performance during his news conference, which was televised nationally by CNN as well as ESPN News, and urged him to "continue to take the high road."
On his radio show today, Limbaugh, who is scheduled to address the National Association of Broadcasters here Thursday, defended his remarks, saying: "All this has become the tempest that it is because I must have been right about something. If I wasn't right, there wouldn't be a cacophony of outrage that has sprung up in the sportswriter community. . . . This is such a mountain out of a molehill. There's no racism here. There's no racist intent whatsoever."
Limbaugh, 52, who once worked as a director of community relations for the Kansas City Royals of Major League Baseball, has had little experience commenting on sports other than on his own show, in which he frequently charges that the country's mainstream media have a liberal bias. He has always made it known on and off the air that he's an avid sports fan, particularly of professional football. ESPN added him to its NFL pregame show this season in an attempt to create controversy, and improve ratings. The show's ratings are up 10 percent this year over last season.
As a radio talk show host, Limbaugh once said he felt guilty about telling an African American caller to "take that bone out of your nose and call me back." He still uses the mock dialect "ax" instead of "ask" when discussing black leaders on his syndicated radio show and often plays the theme song "Movin' On Up" from "The Jeffersons" when referring to Carol Moseley Braun, the African American former senator from Illinois who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In addition to Dean and Clark, several prominent African American leaders said ESPN -- or its parent company Walt Disney Co. -- should fire Limbaugh.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the talk show host's remarks "outrageous and offensive."
"They have no place in American society and I would hope that he would not hide behind the First Amendment to defend such insensitive comments," Cummings said in a statement. "People like Rush Limbaugh are a constant reminder that we still have a long way to go in dealing with race in America. I call on the executives and leadership of ESPN and its parent company, Disney, to swiftly address this matter."
The NAACP also condemned Limbaugh's remarks, calling them "bigoted and ignorant," and called for the network to fire Limbaugh or at least provide an opposing point of view on the show. "It is appalling that ESPN has to go to this extent to try to increase viewership," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said in a statement.
NFL players reacted negatively as well.
"I personally was offended; in this business, there's no place for that," said Eagles defensive tackle Corey Simon. "The athletic arena is the one thing that unites us all. It takes away racial and religious affiliation. To bring that into what we do is dumb. If that type of ignorance is in his heart, he has to deal with it. To bring this guy out of the political arena to the purity of football I think is uncalled for. And there has to be some consequences for this. It's pure stupidity. It kind of sickens you."
At Redskins Park in Ashburn, Washington linebacker LaVar Arrington said he also was offended: "Who is Rush Limbaugh to make a statement that like? He needs to stay in his area of expertise because he's out of it right now." Speaking today at his regular Wednesday news conference, McNabb tried to take the high road, but made it obvious he was disturbed to hear the comments, and was concerned that none of the other NFL analysts in the ESPN studio had come to his defense. The show, "Sunday NFL Countdown," is hosted by Chris Berman and also features former NFL players Michael Irvin and Tom Jackson, both of whom are African American.
"It's pretty heavy. It's something that I've been going through since I was young," said McNabb, who got off to a rough start in the Eagles' first two games this season but played well Sunday in a 23-13 victory over the Buffalo Bills. "You figure it would be over by now. But if he's the guy who said it on TV, then I'm sure everyone else has thought about it or it's on their mind. I'm sure he's not the only one who feels that way."
Berman defended Limbaugh today, telling the Associated Press: "I don't think Rush was malicious in intent or in tone. As cut and dry as it seems in print, I didn't think so when it went by my ears. I probably should have looked to soften it. . . . I don't think it defines the way Rush feels about people."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.