October 04, 2003

Limbaugh Redux

Posted by shonk at 10:59 PM in Sports | TrackBack

Now that the dust is starting to settle a bit from the scandal surrounding Rush Limbaugh's comments last Sunday on NFL Countdown, I thought I might add a thought or two before the issue becomes totally passe. For those that don't follow football, NFL Countdown is ESPN's Sunday morning pre-game show. In the off season, ESPN hired Limbaugh and Michael Irvin, the outspoken former Cowboy's receiver, to join Chris Berman, Steve Young and Tom Jackson in an attempt to inject a bit of excitement into the show and goose ratings. The format, basically, is that Berman and the three former players sit at the main studio table, talking about highlights, dissecting schemes and making predictions for the upcoming games, while Limbaugh sits off to the side and occasionally issues a "Rush Challenge" whenever he disagrees with something said or wants to argue. Or rather, I should say "sat", as Limbaugh resigned in the wake of his comments and on the eve of a coincidentally-timed prescription-drug scandal. Anywy, the idea was that Limbaugh, who is knowledgeable about the game but by no means an expert, would serve as a surrogate "average fan", objecting to analysis that didn't make any sense. Having watched the show once or twice, I thought that Limbaugh interrupted the flow of the show more than he added to it, but he did improve ratings, so he gave ESPN what it really wanted in hiring him in the first place.

Anyway, on to what Limbaugh said about Donovan McNabb, Eagles quarterback and Campbell's Soup pitchman:

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. 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.

Now, needless to say, that raised a few eyebrows. It's been the prime topic of conversation over at Off-Wing Opinion all week, was analyzed by Peter King and inspired a lengthy rant by Ralph Wiley, among many, many others. Even John Kennedy over at No Treason got into the act (and again, and again). As one would expect, not too many people were rushing to Rush's defense and I don't particularly plan to, either. I don't disagree with Limbaugh that McNabb is overrated, but I think the claim that he is so because of his race is dubious. The Barra articled linked by Kennedy and Off-Wing Opinion makes the best argument for Limbaugh's case: Barra claims, based on a statistical argument, that if McNabb were white, he would be less well-regarded than the perpetually mediocre Brad Johnson, but I think there are several important reasons why McNabb might be more highly regarded among the media and the average fan than just his race.

First, as "MaineCoon" opined in the comments on Barra's piece,

The fact is, it's much more likely that if McNabb is overrated it's because he plays a dynamic and attractive style of game that happens not to be as effective as one might think. But this explanation doesn't require one to make massive, unverifiable, implausible assumptions about liberal conspiracies, and so would of course not appeal to Limbaugh.

McNabb, whatever his shortcomings, is exciting to watch. He's fast, throws hard, has the ability to evade, make something happen out of nothing. Johnson has none of these talents; he may be more accurate, but reputations, in this day of slow-motion replay, are made more on the basis of spectacular highlights than consistent competence. McNabb has the highlights, Johnson doesn't, so it should come as no surprise that McNabb garners more Sportscenter time than Johnson. I'd also point out, as noted at Off Wing, "Johnson has played in offenses far more talented and dynamic than McNabb has ever enjoyed", so comparable statistics indicate greater ability on McNabb's part.

Second, though related to the first point, McNabb has far more potential than Johnson. McNabb is one of the best athletes in the NFL, which is high praise indeed; it's comparable to saying Bill Gates is one of the richest software writers in the world. Johnson, on the other hand, though surely a better athlete than you or I, looks about as stiff as a shirt soaked in starch all night. McNabb will always receive more favorable attention, if only because he has the physical tools to be a great player, even if he never capitalizes on them. McNabb may very well be overrated in large measure because of the potential for greatness that he has. This has nothing to do with race, as one can quickly confirm with even a momentary perusal of the career of Jeff George.

Third, and this may be even more important than the other two factors, McNabb is a very charismatic person, a quality rare among athletes. His omnipresence in commercials is a testament to this fact, as are his oft-aired interviews. McNabb is well-spoken, intelligent and relatively attractive, an ideal combination in this television age. Reporters are notoriously drawn towards quotable personalities and people who look good on TV, if only because good copy, good soundbites and appealing interviews sell newspapers and advertising. Hence, it should come as little surprise that the telegenic McNabb would be favored by the media over the stiff and awkward Johnson.

Finally, I would just point out that McNabb plays for Philadelphia, which means he's on the beat for Philly writers and only two hours away from New York and Washington, D.C., the two biggest media outlets in the country. Johnson, on the other hand, has had most of his success in Minnesota and Tampa Bay (failing miserably in Washington, by the way), both of which places are far from the centers of East Coast journalism that set the tone for media treatment.

These four points should make it clear that, black or white, it is only natural that McNabb would be more popular among the media than Johnson. In other words, overrated. Whatever factor his race may or may not have played in his being overrated is certainly hard to quantify and, in the presence of another bit of evidence, hard to give much serious credence. As Bill Simmons said:

I still think Limbaugh should have resigned from the show, not because he's racist but because he made the dumbest argument in the history of pre-game football shows. How can you argue that McNabb was overrated because of his color, when Steve McNair -- a black QB, last time I checked -- has been the most unappreciated superstar in the league for two straight years? Seriously, who's better than McNair right now? If you had to win one game, is there anyone in football you would take over him?

Peter King, incidentally, alludes to a similar point. Now, certainly, part of the reason McNair is underappreciated is that he plays in Tennessee, not Philadelphia or New York. Also, his value is, in large part, based on his grit and determination, rather than fancy highlights. Whatever the case, the point is that there certainly doesn't appear to be a media agenda to pump up black quarterbacks because of their race. When I made this point over at No Treason, Kennedy astutely pointed out that "There's a difference between an agenda and a common predisposition", but, supposing a common predisposition, it still doesn't make sense that it would benefit McNabb and not McNair.

That all having been said, I guess I can't completely discredit Limbaugh's opinion. Reporters tend to be more socially-conscious than most, and I'm sure many do want a black quarterback to succeed to confirm their particular social agendas. Some of that desire may even manifest itself in their writing and in their choices of who to interview and who to quote, though I suspect that this is primarily subconscious. However, even if we stipulate that, the ultimate arbiters of someone's "overratedness" are the fans who, in the case of football, tend to be more conservative than average ("progressive" types disdaining the wanton violence and commercialism of professional football). If McNabb is overrated, it is because he is overrated in the minds of the fans.

One final comment before I go: despite all this, if McNabb is overrated in part because of his race, I don't particularly see it as any more of an affront to decency than any of the examples of certain white athletes who have obviously benefited from their race. The most egregious example in recent memory is that of Jason Sehorn, who had one good year but benefitted massively from the fact that he (a) played in New York and (b) was the only white starting cornerback in the league (he's now playing safety in St. Louis, I believe). Sehorn remained popular long after his skills had eroded solely on the basis of his race (and, I suppose, the fact he slept with Angie Harmon). Other examples that spring to mind would be Jeremy Shockey, Brian Urlacher and, much as I like the guy, Ed McCaffrey. Were any of these guys black, they wouldn't get half the endorsement deals and screen time that they do. Moving out of the realm of football, we should surely add Keith Van Horn to this list, as he's been nothing but mediocre since the day he entered the NBA, yet still got compared to Larry Bird solely on the basis of his race. So, if McNabb does gets preferential treatment because of his race, let's not forget that he's not the only one. Warren Sapp may be one of my least favorite athletes, but he may be right about this:

Do we not have anybody that understands that there's way more scrubs in this game that are Anglos than there are black ones that are being pumped up? Trust me, it's not even close.