By Gerald Early
Special to Page 2

By now, of course, all of you have heard about the controversy involving conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. Limbaugh, who had been hired this season by ESPN to do commentary for their Sunday morning pre-game show, "Sunday NFL Countdown," said on the air on Sunday, September 28 that he thought that McNabb was overrated, that is, was given more credit for his team's success than he deserved and was over-esteemed beyond what his performance on the field merited.

Had Limbaugh said no more than that, the remark would have passed not quite unnoticed, for such a remark is meant to provoke some response, but certainly as nothing especially interesting to the world outside of rabid football fans, as it is virtually a commonplace in sports reporting to judge, assess, and re-assess the performance and rankings of professional athletes. And it is one sure way for a commentator or a writer to get some notice for himself, if not precisely benefiting his subject, if he says that some star player is not as good as he is cracked up to be. We might try to guess why it is an important ritual in discussing sports to deflate reputations. Of course, it happens everywhere in the world of art, so why not sports? Perhaps, in sports, it is form of masculine contest. Perhaps it is simply a human need to expose something that we think is phony, the emperor-has-no-clothes syndrome. Perhaps it is envy; after all, the critic, who cannot do anything like what his subject can do, nor earn anywhere near the same money, can reduce the mighty by a mere utterance. It is the nature of public performance to generate criticism, particularly in the instance of sports the intricacies and technicalities of which seem self-evidently understandable to fans. And Rush Limbaugh was speaking for the fan and in the guise of a passionate follower, one of the fancy, as it might have been called back in the days of bare-knuckle prizefighting.

The world of sports reporting and sports evaluation for the general public relies greatly on grandiose statements of praise or harsh counterstatements of criticism that border, sometimes, on invective or insensitivity. In this back-and-forth swing of meta-language to invest a seemingly meaningless activity with urgency, relevance, even mythology, there is nothing unusual about a player being seen as both great and mediocre simultaneously. The sheer tension of this ambivalence about some players is part of what gives sports its energy and power, its attraction, for its fans. This tension is also what makes the opinions of sports commentators, who represent both the nosiness of the person with the inside dope and the crafted taste of the aficionado, relevant. The power of sports is all about the passion of the mind that can be evoked to make a contrived contest mean something or be worthy of someone's attention. The power of sports is precisely located in its ability to make you care about the outcome, which means that you are emotionally invested, if only momentarily, in the people who create that outcome. The sports commentator serves as a facilitator to that end: to help make you care, to make success and failure, usually so ambiguous in sports, something of the nature of a myth or epic and also something of a moral issue. If a performer fails has he not squandered his talents, and so, in a fundamental, does not deserve to have them. Or, if the talent has been exaggerated, has he not, in some way, committed fraud on the public, played a confidence game?

In this sense, sports are a great deal, socially and psychologically, like fine art in this culture. The legendary Green Bay Packer coach Vince Lombardi spoke wiser than he knew when he called his football players, "artists." Sports performance is a form of art. Sports are just as much contrivance, artifice, as any other art, and they say as much about what it means to be human and about what we value. There is one major difference between other art forms, other performing arts, and sports: a sport is a live narrative for which the outcome is everything, and sport as an art is ever more intensified by uncertainty, not uncertainty that there will be an outcome, but uncertainty about what the outcome will be. It is how highly trained, highly motivated, intensely gifted individuals respond to the pressure of this kind of uncertainty and either succeed or fail that make sport performance heroic for not only the sporting public but the general public as well.

Part of that process of sport generating its power is making followers obsess about the true worth and meaning of the performance of a particular player, a particularly important player, like a quarterback. That's why, among other reasons, sports keep such meticulous records. There are clear and objective measures of knowing the worth of a sports performer.

But Limbaugh did not stop in simply saying that McNabb was overrated. He continued: "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media had 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." This caused such a firestorm of outrage in certain quarters that within 48 hours Limbaugh was forced to resign from ESPN. Limbaugh was accused of being racist. He insisted his remarks carried "no racist intent whatsoever." He went to say, on his radio show, that the overwhelming reaction to his remarks was proof that he said something that must had some truth, that hit some social and political nerve.

In reporting on the first game McNabb played after Limbaugh's comments, on October 5 in Philadelphia against the Washington Redskins, the New York Times headlined the article "McNabb Issues His Reply," and the writer Thomas George writes that the Eagles' victory gave "a definitive answer to the question of whether their quarterback, Donovan McNabb was overrated." The writer then goes to say that McNabb's response was "157 passing yards, 18 more rushing and his first touchdown pass of the season." It is curious that these statistics are seen as "a definitive answer" when they are, in fact, not especially impressive. McNabb completed half of his passes, about average, and threw two interceptions; ordinary completion rates and interceptions have bedeviled him for the first several Eagles games. In fact, if one computed McNabb's quarterback rating for that day based on his completion rate, passing yards, touchdowns, and interceptions as the standard NFL formula requires, it would be a dismal 51.7. McNabb's interceptions were mentioned in the article, an odd omission as one of McNabb's interceptions set up one of Washington's touchdowns. Also, McNabb was not responsible for all of the Eagles' scores as one of their touchdowns was scored by their defense. One hundred and fifty seven yards is not a noteworthy total for a quarterback, when an outstanding day is typically throwing for 250 yards or more. (The game McNabb had the following week against the Dallas Cowboys, which the Eagles lost 23 to 21, yielded a better rating of 70.35, although his completion rate was worse, 11 of 26, and his yardage less, 126, but he threw no interceptions. The next game, against the New York Giants, that the Eagles won 14 to 10, on a miracle punt return in the closing two minutes of the game, was worse than even the game against Washington. Against the Giants, he threw for only 64 yards, completed 9 of 23 passes, threw one interception, and no touchdowns, which yields an abominable rating of 29.08.) Eighteen yards rushing is negligible. McNabb, a scrambling or running quarterback, has actually not run very much this year and certainly has had better days than that. Many have wondered why he has run so little this year. In the past, McNabb had had games where he was virtually his team's leading rusher. Finally, the Eagles barely won this game against the Redskins, with a final score of 27 to 25. The article had several quotations in it about how McNabb dealt with Limbaugh's comments, including one from McNabb himself, almost as if Limbaugh's comments were an injury he had to overcome in order to play. One might argue that McNabb, after all, has had to deal with greater adversity when he played a game last year, a great game, on a broken ankle, a career-threatening bit of derring-do, or when he had to withstand the crush of media attention during the Eagles playoff run, a severe distraction. One might expect a professional athlete, as indeed he is a public figure, to take criticism, whatever its merit or source, more or less as a matter of course. But the article assumed that the criticism here was of a special and, apparently, a different order than the sort that McNabb had any right to expect. Perhaps the writer of the piece felt that McNabb was especially unnerved because Limbaugh mentioned race, but McNabb could have gone as far as he has in his profession, playing the particular position he has played, without having to deal with race as an issue. Besides, no good athlete, and McNabb is certainly that, let's what is said about him, or even what may be happening in his personal life, affect his performance on the field. Many high-performance athletes like McNabb are, indeed, so insulated from the world and the normal responsibilities of adulthood that they often suffer from a debilitating form of immaturity that make it easy for people to take advantage of them. They are taught to concern only with their performance, which in the pressurized world they live in, becomes their only reality. It would, in fact, be a sign that McNabb lacks "mental toughness" had Limbaugh's remarks, or the storm they created, affected his performance.

It would seem that Limbaugh could have used this New York Times article to demonstrate the thing he asserted. McNabb could reasonably be seen in a piece like this to be getting some special consideration on the part of the writer; he is being rather excessively praised for not having had a particularly impressive game, and it seems that his race has something to do with it all. Why should McNabb get a form of special pleading by a Times sports reporter because both the writer and McNabb felt he suffered some racial insult, as if that makes life tougher for him than for anybody else in his line of work.

In the same issue of the New York Times, TV sports columnist Richard Sandomir wrote a piece about ESPN's response to Limbaugh's remarks. Several accounts noted that when Limbaugh made his remarks on the air the other commentators did not call him to task for what he said about the media's overrating McNabb because he was black. Chris Berman, the host of the show, had said originally that he did not believe Limbaugh's tone or intent was malicious.

"As cut and dried as it seems in print, I didn't think so when it went by my ears. I probably should have looked to soften it. We're sorry we upset a guy who got off to a rough start," Berman said. In Sandomir's article, Berman, on the apology edition of "Sunday N.F.L. Countdown," is quoted as saying, "I'm angry because it hurt African Americans. I'm angry for the hurt it's caused all people. I've never looked at Donovan McNabb as a black quarterback. Ever. I missed it. I shouldn't have missed it. I've been kicking myself all week. In truth, we all missed it." The two black commentators on the showTom Jackson and Michael Irvinboth former NFL players were pointed out in news pieces about the incident for not responding to Limbaugh. As Sandomir wrote, "Tom Jackson, who is the program's senior analyst, and who is black, took the brunt criticism for not rebutting Limbaugh." Jackson is quoted as saying, "it was not our decision to have Rush Limbaugh on this show." He said Limbaugh "broke the trust" he had promised to honor when he was hired when he injected social commentary into the program. Sandomir then goes on to say that the show's executives needed to apologize as well: ". . . where was George Bodenheimer, the president of ESPN, or Mark Shapiro, the executive vice president, who has led the company's headlong leap into entertainment? Undoubtedly, Limbaugh's hiring was done for entertainment's sake, to get more writers to take notice of the program outside of the sports realm. It is reasonable to assume that ESPN believed people would tune in to find out what wacky thing Limbaugh would say next."

This all seems rather strange for Sandomir to write. I was rather under the impression that professional football was, in fact, entertainment, so how could ESPN being taking a "headlong leap into entertainment." I thought ESPN was nothing but entertainment. And it seems curious to me to hire someone like Rush Limbaugh, a noted conservative polemicist and political observer, to add "entertainment" to an entertainment show. Of course, one could argue that all radio talk showsfrom Drs. Joy Browne and Laura Schlesinger to Rush Limbaugh and Tavis Smiley--are forms of entertainment and that would not be untrue but they are also something else besides. Limbaugh's show is the highest rated talk show in the country, having an audience that is nearly three-times larger than his nearest competitor. ESPN doubtless hoped that some of those people would tune in but not to hear "what wacky thing Limbaugh would say next," but rather what insight he would bring to the show, as his audience is apt to hold Limbaugh's opinions and to respect his judgment. Part of what they would want from Limbaugh is something more than mere football analysis, rather, indeed, they might have reasonably expected some social commentary about the significance of it all. As Allen Barra wrote for Slate: ". . . if they didn't hire Rush Limbaugh to say things like this, what did they hire him for? To talk about the prevent defense?" There were already people on the show more than qualified to talk about the prevent defense, running stunts, blitzing a scrambling quarterback with either your free safety or your middle linebacker, and the effectiveness of play-action passes when your ground game is non-existent.

Indeed, hiring Limbaugh was an attempt by ESPN to suggest that football had some wider meaning beyond the obsession of the passionate fan. Whatever promise Limbaugh may have made about not making social commentary, his presence itself signified social commentary of some sort or another. The man's claim to fame in our society is his political opinions, not his expertise to analyze football, for which he may or may not possess competence. What Sandomir is trying to suggest in his article is that Limbaugh is both significant (he is famous, after all) and insignificant (his politics are really "entertainment" and he is apt to say "wacky" things; of course, the question is, wacky to whom?) in the same instance. But his politics are not just entertainment, for if they were, people, including two Democratic presidential candidates, would not have reacted so fiercely to what he said. To be sure, Limbaugh almost certainly did not make the remark to be mere entertainment.

It seemed odd also that the two black commentators on the show have been pointed out in several news articles as deserving special censure because they did not challenge Limbaugh when he spoke, did not, to use the parlance of the street, come to the aid of a stricken brother, if McNabb can be so characterized. But let us remember exactly what Limbaugh said: he said that it was the media, that is, the white liberal media that overrated McNabb because they want to see a black quarterback succeed. In other words, Limbaugh was accusing the white media of liberal racism. It seems that anyone could have responded to that, indeed, that whites might be more moved to respond as it was directed at the fact that they control the images of athletes and how people think about them. Chris Berman, the show's host, was in a much better position to respond than anyone but when he first heard the remark he did not notice anything wrong with it. There were white ex-football players on the show as well. In the matter of a black quarterback being overrated, why couldn't Steve Young, an ex-quarterback who certainly ought to how quarterbacks are seen by the press, have responded? Why was it just the moral burden of the black commentators to respond to Limbaugh?

Of course, many white sportswriters did take the bait and respond, such as St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports editor Bernie Miklasz on October 2, who agreed with Limbaugh that McNabb is overrated but that race had nothing to do with it. Miklasz argues that McNabb is overrated because the Eagles made him the second pick in the first round of the 1999 draft. "With that entry comes intense hype, great expectations, high standards, and to fulfill the hopes cast for him, McNabb would have to play brilliantly and take his team to the Super Bowl, and maybe even win the Super Bowl." Miklasz continued: "If you're the second pick in the draft, and heralded as a franchise savior, you'd better deliver sensational results, and that's true of any quarterback, black or white. McNabb is not more or less overrated than Cleveland's Tim Couch, or San Diego's Drew Breestwo acclaimed white quarterback draftees who haven't made a major impact on their teams."

Miklasz could have said that in 1999 McNabb was one of five quarterbacks drafted in the first round, an unusually high number. So, he really was nothing special. He was drafted behind Tim Couch but ahead of Daunte Culpepper of Minnesota and Akili Smith of Cincinnati, both black. On the other hand, McNabb's career passing rating is 77, which is slightly better than Couch's 75.9 but less than Culpepper's 86.3. McNabb might be overrated for a quarterback with that rating. In fact, McNabb's career rating is less than that of former Eagle quarterback Randall Cunningham and only slightly better than his immediate predecessor, Rodney Peete (73.3), both of whom are considered competent, not outstanding quarterbacks. Cunningham, it must be admitted, was certainly an exciting quarterback. One could make a case that because McNabb was a black quarterback who was a number two pick, the highest pick for a black quarterback between 1998 and 2003 with the exception of Michael Vick as the number one pick in 2001 that at least some sports writers might have wanted to see him succeed because of the combination of his skin color and his being such a high pick. But they did want him to succeed more than Steve McNair, the black quarterback of the Tennessee Titans, who was the number three pick in the 1995 draft and, who, in fact, has a better career rating at 83.3 than McNabb? Is there evidence that McNair, who played in a Super Bowl in 2000 against the St. Louis Rams and who nearly pulled out a win, was being pushed as much by the white press as McNabb?

When McNabb was drafted, many in Philadelphia were quite vocal in expressing their disappointment. The football fans in Philadelphia wanted the Eagles to draft Ricky Williams, a black running back, so it does not seem racial. But no one can be sure if the fans there would have been as disappointed if the Eagles had drafted Couch instead of McNabb. Remember the fans in Philly had had two starting black quarterbacks in the 1980s and 1990s, Randall Cunningham (1985-1995) and Rodney Peete (1995-1998), neither of whom took the team to the Super Bowl or seemed capable of winning big playoff games. Perhaps some had become a bit suspicious of black quarterbacks. The Eagles also had a black head coach from 1995 to 1998, Ray Rhodes, who started well but ended poorly. Was there some bitterness or disappointment with the team being under black leadership for four years with both a black head coach and a black starting quarterback? Who can say? So, perhaps, some sportswriters in Philadelphia might have been especially supportive of McNabb because of the negative way he was received by the Philadelphia sporting public. It would require reading dozens of sports articles in local papers about McNabb that cover a period of years and comparing them to articles about comparable quarterbacks in the local papers of other cities over the same period. It is unlikely that Limbaugh ever did that. He probably felt he didn't need to something so academic. Intuitively, he knew he was right. On the whole, Miklasz's argument about McNabb's draft position does not preclude, by any means, that race played a factor in the making of McNabb's professional reputation. In fact, Miklasz's argument is rather weak.

Byran Burwell, a black sportswriter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote a far more angry column about Limbaugh-McNabb affair. He called Limbaugh "a mean-spirited, liberal-bashing, feminist-bashing, gay-bashing, minority-bashing, blowhard, who spent a great deal of energy ripping everyone who doesn't look or think like him." He goes on to quote from a list of racist statements Limbaugh made that was complied by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, ending by saying, in effect, that ESPN got what it deserved in hiring Limbaugh in the first place. McNabb's popularity and success is, according to Burwell, "filled with Pro Bowls, two trips to the NFC championship game and stats that say at times he was responsible for 70 percent of the team's offense." This response was similar to Robert A. George's in Salon.com and Derrick Z. Jackson's in the Boston Globe, both of which frankly called Limbaugh a racist and both of which touted McNabb's accomplishments. But those achievements would not mean that McNabb is not overrated. After all, he has never taken his team to the Super Bowl or won it, although many thought that the Eagles of last year, particularly, were Super Bowl material and McNabb played poorly at home in the championship game against Tampa Bay. A sign of a great quarterback is the ability to play well in big games. Also, McNabb missed nearly a half-dozen games last year with a broken ankle and the team performed just as well without him, even when a third-string quarterback was substituted for him. This might support the notion that the Eagles' great strength was their defense, as Limbaugh said. Moreover, the fact that McNabb at times was 70 percent of his team's offense was not so much a sign of his greatness, it could be argued, but the inadequacy and thinness of the Eagles offensive squad.

Allen Barra, writing for Slate on Thursday, October 2, 2003, was one of the few white sportswriters to agree with Limbaugh on both points. "Limbaugh lost his job," Barra wrote, "for saying in public what many football fans and analysts have been saying privately for the past couple of seasons." Barra points out that McNabb's offense never ranked higher than tenth in the previous three seasons and that in two of those seasons it ranked seventeenth in a league of 32 teams. This year they rank 31st. Their defense, on the other hand, ranked in the top ten during the years of McNabb. Limbaugh was right. According to the statistics, the Eagles' defense did carry the team, not an especial astute observation, as most who even casually followed the fate of the team, without the statistical verification, knew that.

He then compared McNabb with Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson, a white veteran of ten years who is not highly regarded by analysts. Johnson's rating as a passer is higher than McNabb's and his statistics all around are better than McNabb and Johnson has won a Super Bowl. In short, Johnson is a better quarterback than McNabb but he clearly isn't touted as such. "In terms of performance, many NFL quarterbacks should be ranked ahead of McNabb. But McNabb has represented something special to all of us since he started his first game in the NFL, and we all know what that is."

Berra continued: "Limbaugh is being excoriated for making race an issue in the NFL. This is hypocrisy. I don't know of a football writer who didn't regard the dearth of a black NFL quarterback as one of the most important issues of the late '80s and early '90s. (The topic really caught fire after 1988, when Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl.)

"So far, no black quarterback has been able to dominate a league in which the majority of the players are black. To pretend that many of us didn't want McNabb to be the best quarterback in the NFL because he's black is absurd. To say that we shouldn't root for a quarterback to win because he's black is every bit as nonsensical as to say that we shouldn't have rooted for Jackie Robinson to succeed because he was black."

Why is led to the question: were these same white sportswriters led to tout Steve McNair, who came into the league four years before McNabb? Were they led to tout Andre Ware, a black quarterback for Detroit who was a seventh round pick in 1990? Or were they merely interested in McNabb? If so, why just McNabb? If not, were these other black quarterbacks as overrated as McNabb? Are all black quarterbacks overrated as a general rule? Barra does not take up this issue.

In any case, despite this cheerleading from some white sportswriters (it would be reasonable to think that some did not want black quarterbacks to succeed for fear that they would completely remove any white presence from the field), it can be assumed that coaches and team owners did not start using black quarterbacks, about a little less than one-third of NFL teams have black starting quarterbacks, as some sort of social experiment. One can assume that they started to use them because they felt that they could win games with them. It is difficult to say whether Eagles coach Andy Reid would have drafted Tim Couch instead of McNabb if he had had the number one pick in the 1999 draft but he probably could have traded up for the number one pick if he wanted to make sure that he got Couch. It would be safe to say that Reid thought he could win more games with McNabb. But perhaps Reid did think he could win more games because McNabb is black and has more, as it is said, "pure athleticism" than a white quarterback. After all, that is why no one finds any whites who play cornerback in the NFL, nor will there be any movement to bring them back at that position. Perhaps there is interest in black quarterbacks because since so many of the players on the average football team are black, over 70 percent, it might make sense to have a black quarterback as well. He might relate to the other players better, although there has been no evidence that this is true and that black offensive players would relate better to a black quarterback. But even that reason would still be largely driven by the desire to win and by the need for a certain type of efficiency, a powerful buzzword in pro football as it, of course, in the world of business, and the military.

The two most striking black responses to the McNabb/Limbaugh affair were op-ed pieces written by John McWhorter and Jesse Jackson. Jackson, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times on October 7, 2003, said that Limbaugh's "poisonous words reveal much about the race-baiting politics so prevalent on the right." He goes on to describe McNabb as "one of the modern mobile quarterbacks who have revolutionized the position." Jackson continues that "Rush didn't see McNabb as an Eagle or as a quarterback. He saw him first and foremost, as a black man." (When McNabb's agent, a few years ago, complained that the Eagles were unwilling to pay the quarterback properly because he was a black man, was he seeing his client first and foremost as a black man, as he felt, apparently, the Eagles front office was. Or was this simply the agent using McNabb's racemaking sure that the public saw that he was, indeed, a black man--to get a big payday which McNabb certainly did get, in the end.) Jackson says that Limbaugh's comments are racist and incorrect for three reasons. First, Jackson argues that blacks have never been pampered at quarterback but have had to overcome "entrenched prejudice to play [the position] at the professional level." Jackson is correct in saying that blacks who had been quarterbacks in college or high school had routinely been made into defensive backs or wide receivers. Second, Jackson asserts that Limbaugh is slurring black ability by implying that Affirmative Action is the reason why McNabb is a quarterback, which is also tantamount to smearing Affirmative Action itself. Third, Limbaugh is after his favorite conservative bete noir, "the liberal media." But Jackson argues that "sports columnists tend to be bottom-line oriented. Win and you are the toast of the town. Lose and you're trash."

McWhorter, author of Losing the Race: Self Sabotage in Black America, writes in the New York Times on October 4, 2003, that Limbaugh "has injected a bit of honesty into our public discourse about race. . . he raises a valid point: America wants to see black people succeed, whether they need help or not, and that yearningwith all its ambiguous and even adverse effectshas become part of the warp and woof of our national consciousness." McWhorter goes on to say that if Limbaugh had made the remarks on his radio show and not on "Sunday NFL Countdown," they would have gone unnoticed. He continues: ". . .Limbaugh's mention of the possibility that McNabb is overrated because of his skin color is not racist in the least. Limbaugh certainly didn't claim that black people are not good at sports (that's be a tough one to defend). Nor did he link his unenthusiastic view of McNabb's talents to his being black. He simply stated his view that the broader evaluation of McNabb is filtered through relief and joy that a black person is a quarterback for a professional football team." McWhorter then takes up the issue of Affirmative Action, which he says "has tended to crudely use skin color alone as a proxy for disadvantage." While McWhorter says that Limbaugh's view is hardly "unassailable," pointing out that we have not moved past race as a society "hardly condemns [Limbaugh] as a benighted bigot."

It is interesting that both McWhorter and Jackson brought the entire controversy down to their own views of Affirmative Acton: Jackson a staunch defender, McWhorter, a great deal more ambivalent and skeptical about it, if not completely opposed to it. The irony is that if there is one area in American life where the issue of racial preference or Affirmative Action did not compromise the presence of blacks, it was sports. There might be an Affirmative Action issue involving the hiring of more blacks for coaching and front-office jobs in sports but there was never any question about special consideration on the field. If there was one area where blacks were able to compete with whites without question, it was sports. There was never any concern about merit in sports because it was supposed to be a pure competition, driven by the bottom line of the final score, the men and women who played were the best that were available. They served no intentional symbolic social purpose. It has always been the belief and the hope of many that sports could be divorced politically and socially from the society that brings it into being, that it could be, indeed, pure entertainment, a view that itself is culturally driven, a bourgeois hope that sports could be escapist and unburdened by the reality of how success and privilege are constructed in the United States or, for that matter, how that reality is constructed anywhere else. Sports in this way did not represent social neutrality as much as it represents a kind of social objectivity, the ideal way a meritocracy would work. But this belies the fact that sports have always been seen by its followerscommunists, fascists, liberals, monarchists, anarchists, conservatives--around the world as possessing political and social significance. After all, to profess that something like sports have no social significance is itself socially significant as a belief. Rather, it is commonly believed that sports have a self-evident ideology of virtue and discipline that empowers a politics of virtue and discipline, and this made sports highly appealing and dramatic. Who plays high-level sports has as much meaning as how well they play. We have only to look at the story of certain black athletes or certain women athletes to know this is true. So, therefore, if we are to grant that sports have social and political significance, it is as a form or sign of progress, of how things are getting better and more democratic as demographic shifts occur in who is performing certain economically important high-level sports. But this view is nothing more than seeing sports as something like a lesson in grade-school civics or as another story in American redemptive history.

Both Jackson and McWhorter are correct in seeing Limbaugh's comments as an attack on Affirmative Action. It is particularly sensitive because the quarterback position is so controversial. Blacks were supposedly unable to play quarterback because they weren't intelligent enough to master the plays. (One might recall when Muhammad Ali's intelligence or lack thereof became a political issue when he failed the Army aptitude tests back in the early 1960s and was originally classified 1-Y, mentally unfit to serve.) Today's pro football offenses are especially complicated and playbooks can be as thick as a Webster's dictionary. But of course there are white quarterbacks like Vinny Testaverde who are not considered very bright, who have had difficulty mastering playbooks, but who still have had lengthy and successful NFL careers. No one has to be Einstein to play quarterback in the NFL. Repetition and experience has more to do with making an athlete better than virtually anything else. But what does it mean that so many black quarterbacks are scramblers, indeed, can be so identified with scrambling that Randall Cunningham called his autobiography, I'm Still Scrambling?

Scrambling is not, as Jackson asserts, an innovation, or at least not an innovation brought to the game by black quarterbacks. After all, Fran Tarkenton, a white quarterback who played with Minnesota and New York for eighteen years, was known as the prototypical scrambler. John Elway, another white quarterback, was known for running in the early days of his career. Joe Montana ran from time to time. Steve Young was another scrambling quarterback. But all of them eventually stopped running. What made these quarterbacks great, in the end, was not their ability to scramble, but their ability to throw and make plays. There are good reasons why coaches would prefer if quarterbacks not scramble. First, they are more apt to get hurt by taking more hits than they should. This is assuming, of course, that the offensive line can protect the quarterback for about five or six seconds, the time needed for the quarterback to survey the field and complete a pass. Not every team can do this for its quarterback. Second, they are likely to throw the ball better, more accurately, by not running. The fact that black quarterbacks run a great deal and make up plays on the fly is more an indication of the lack of training they probably received in high school and college than anything else. They could simply get by on their vaunted "athleticism." They make up plays on the spot as if they were playing in the schoolyard. This has become black style in footballsomething equivalent to playground basketball, so a black quarterback who runs is simply doing what is expected of a black quarterback. Staid white quarterbacks without rhythm stay in the pocket; black quarterbacks create jazz on the field. It may sound nice metaphorically to some black people, but things are not quite that simple. First, every quarterback has to have some ability to improvise, to change plays at the line of scrimmage, to make something out of busted play. Some of the best stay-in-the-pocket, white quarterbacks in the business, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Dan Marino, Roger Stabauch, were very good at making up plays on the fly. Some of them called their own plays. Few quarterbacks today do that. Second, the scrambling black quarterback is rarely seen as a great quarterback. As Don McPherson, who preceded Donovan McNabb at Syracuse, said in an article by Richard E. Lapchick, "I played at Syracuse at a time when being a black quarterback had become more acceptable. But the stereotypes still remained. As a player, people still remember me as a great runner and scrambler. I had not dented their image of the physical vs. intelligent black athlete."

(I must mention here Oliver Stone's 2001 football film, "Any Given Sunday," presents a brutal, unsentimental satire of sorts about the conflict between a young black scrambling quarterback (Jamie Foxx), an aging white quarterback who is immobile (Dennis Quaid), and their white coach (Al Pacino) who all play for a team owned by a young white woman played by Cameron Diaz, who inherited the team from her father. Stone bluntly gives us football as a modern-day gladiator show, hardly an original view or even an especially compelling one, but it does rather frankly present football as an cultural parable about black masculinity as a form of entertainment, white femininity as a social lure, and white male power as unstable form of dominance with the coach as a hustling auteur, on the lookout for any new team owner to serve as his producer. Of course, the egotistical black quarterback, "cocky" being an obvious but unspoken double entendre, winds up learning something from the old white veteran and everyone winds up respecting one another, as black and white styles of leadership learn to live side-by-side with each other on the athletic field. But nothing is that simple either.)

Jesse Jackson's point about how difficult it was in the past for blacks to play this position in the NFL is certainly true. It was extremely difficult in the 1970s and well into the 1980s. But that does not mean that since the 1990s there has not been a real interest in some sportswriters to see black quarterbacks succeed. Certainly, no one can say that blacks must perform at a superhuman level these days to keep the position: Rodney Peete, Jeff Blake, and Tony Banks are average black quarterbacks who are managing to stay in the NFL and who have been starters for most of their careers. So, today, it cannot even be claimed that a black quarterback has to be twice as good as a white one to get the job.

Jackson is right that Limbaugh means to use Affirmative Action as a slur. All conservatives do and they have been effective with this strategy but it would not have succeeded nearly as well as it has had not some blacks themselves felt to some degree that Affirmative Action stigmatizes them as a maimed, victimized people in constant need of encouragement and compensatory aid. Affirmative Action might be making up for a past of unfairness and mistreatment but who really wants to be the poster child for deprivation and a past burdened with insult and injury. That fact cannot be escaped if we are to understand why Affirmative Action exists as a social policy built both on victimhood and on the half-hearted acknowledgment of a social and political crime. The problem with Affirmative Action is that it blends the lowliness of political patronage with the high-mindedness of justice.

Jackson wrote in his piece: "Once African Americans or Latinos or women are allowed to compete, they do just fine." But this is terribly simplistic and does not address the fundamental question of the nature of the competition or the epistemology of competition itself, both of which are attacked by leftists like Jackson when it is convenient for them to do so, and not without reason. Everything is not "just fine" when people are "allowed" to compete. For advocates of Affirmation Action, the policy itself is of limited utility in just allowing people to compete; there must assurances that some will succeed. For what the advocates of Affirmative Action desire most, and this seems sensible if one understands that the rewards of a society are not distributed accidentally or fairly or to those who most deserve them, is a result that would have obtained if racism had never existed. Since no one knows what that result would have been, one can only push for the maximum number, the greatest diversity, that can possibly be gotten. That is why Affirmative Action, as a spoils game, does not ever produce satisfaction for those who benefit from it but simply breeds a psychic and political restlessness and a demand for more.

Jackson's last point about Limbaugh's obsession with the liberal media is well-taken in that Limbaugh himself is proof that conservatives certainly have access to the airwaves and to print. Also, it is true, as many liberals have pointed out, that no one as left as Limbaugh is right is on the air. On the other hand, the liberal view has its outlets, powerful ones, as Jackson himself is aware, from certain private foundations, Rockefeller, McArthur, and Mellon, to name only a few, to many important newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, magazines like Harper's, the Nation, and American Prospect. And if the hiring of Limbaugh shows the influence of conservatives with the media, the resignation of Limbaugh shows the muscle of liberals. So, the whole affair, from this vantage point, seems something of a wash.

McWhorter's skepticism about Affirmative Action shapes his remarks. McWhorter claims that Limbaugh's remark about McNabb being overrated because of the color of his skin is not racist in the least. Yet it is difficult to see how one can be so sure of that. Why is it not reasonable to think that Limbaugh thinks that blacks are not capable of being quarterbacks because of their race and that white liberal journalists and a liberal NFL establishment prop them as something good for the country? We do have evidence that Limbaugh said things in the past that can be reasonably construed as racist. So, it is not necessarily unfair of people to be suspicious of his motives. Naturally, one cannot say for sure that Limbaugh means something racist here but one also cannot say for sure that he doesn't. What if Limbaugh were to say about a noted black doctor or scientist or, heaven forbidden, a black public intellectual or scholar like, say, Cornel West or Henry Louis Gates, has the reputation he or she has because whites have created that reputation for political reasons, because it is good for the country to show that there are some smart black people. Placing the comment in a different context might illuminate it a bit differently and might even strike McWhorter a bit differently if it were black intellectuals and not black quarterbacks, although he still might basically agree with it. Indeed, historically, it has been said about blacks in every place that blacks have appeared where they weren't expected that they didn't truly deserve to be there. Affirmative Action was meant, among other things, one supposes, to put blacks in unexpected places and to say, one hopes, that they deserve to be there. For those who dislike Affirmative Action, it seems only to have placed blacks in unexpected places only to be more suspect than they were before.

And even if what Limbaugh said is true, why is it bad? What harms has been done to anyone, including McNabb, or to professional football, if he is indeed overrated because of his race? Is it likely to do bad things to the psyche of black people? Maybe, if one feels stigmatized by Affirmative Action. But black people were horribly stigmatized in this country before Affirmative Action. Affirmative Action can hardly be stigmatizing them worse than they were before since it is operating on the basic assumption that they have something valuable to contribute to the society in which they live. Is it likely to do bad things to the psyche of whites? Maybe. But since they are likely to think whatever they are going to think ideologically when they see a black person in a place where he or she is not expected, why worry about it? Nothing can change the reality of that black person's presence no matter what anyone thinks. Even if Donovan McNabb was given his job over a more qualified white, which is not likely and is impossible to prove, he can't keep it long if his team doesn't win under his leadership. It would not be feasible for the coach, who would face enormous public pressure to make a change if McNabb's performance does not improve substantially this year, nor for the owners who would feel the effects of an inadequate McNabb more immediately in game attendance and over the long run, despite the new stadium in Philadelphia, in ticket sales. No black person in sports can be over-esteemed indefinitely, if he occupies a key job that someone can do better. Few black athletes, indeed, are over-esteemed as it is, since, by and large, blacks are overachievers in the sports in which they have any sort of public profile. There is, for instance, no question that blacks have attained a standard of excellence in playing football that is remarkable, indeed, unmatched by any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. The problem seems to be that no one knows quite how to take that. Is it a sign of racial progress that a game dominated by blacks is more popular than it has ever been? Or is it a sign of racism that blacks are relegated to the role of highly-paid entertainers? No one seems to know for certain. So, why is this overrating stuff bad? After all, didn't most people, as Barra said, want Jackie Robinson to succeed because of his race. Was his success tainted because of that? Well, perhaps it was. Dodger vice president and general manager Branch Rickey, who signed Robinson, wrote in his book, The American Diamond, about Robinson's election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, "The Baseball Writers of America elected him to the Hall of Fame on merit. It is unfair to them and without due honor to Robinson to say that the vote was determined by color." Rickey wouldn't have written that if there was not some fairly persistent belief in many quarters that Robinson was elected to the Hall of Fame because he was the first black player or because of the conditions he had to endure and pressure that he had to bear in order to play. Yet, even if race played a role in Robinson's election to the Hall, why is that bad? Perhaps race should have played a role as it clearly affected his career as an athlete?

So, how bad can it be to over-esteem someone? How can anyone be sure in many instances if any particular person is being overrated, anyway? Casual fans will not care in the end, and passionate followers will know and can debate it, something that sports fans love to do. So, specifically, how is it bad? Perhaps it means that whites can continue to exercise a certain kind of superiority over blacks by, indeed, constructing and deconstructing them, as the sports promotion and media industry do? Or is it the only way blacks can be made visible in the culture, that the same machinery that makes whites mythological and can now make blacks mythological, too? We might call it the grandiose language of entertainment criticism in the public sphere. Isn't the whole business of the over-estimation of Donovan McNabb not even a real problem worthy of public attention? The answer to that is yes and no. Of course, the answer is no. Black people and the American public generally have more important matters to deal with. This is obvious: black male incarceration rates, the rising tide of AIDS among black people, particularly young men, for whom it is the number one cause of death, the problems with schools, problems with the high rate of out-of-wedlock births, and so forth. But that is only one answer.

There may be a social science concern that over-esteeming Donovan McNabb would be one more reason for young blacks to consider a sports career, apparently something that the black community has something like mixed feelings about. In the March/April 2000 issue of Society, black sociologist Harry Edwards wrote about, indeed, rather personified this ambivalence in his essay, "Crisis of Black Athletes on the Eve of the 21st Century," where he begins the article by speaking about his long-standing opposition to the black community's preoccupation with sports as a career route for its young people, particularly young males. It has made people think that blacks are genetically predisposed to sports and, conversely, intellectually deficient. And it has drained both talent and institutions from the black community by moving people into sports disproportionately and away from fields like law, medicine, politics, and the like. I have found this view problematic for two reasons. First, black religious tradition, from the Nation of Islam to black cults like Bishop Johnson, Daddy Grace, and the like to black mainstream religious expressions like Baptist and Methodist denominations, have all condemned popular culture and have never supported or encouraged sports as a career or professional pursuit. Second, it is not necessarily the case that blacks who pursue becoming athletes would have become doctors or lawyers if they had been directed in another way. The pursuit of high-level athletic career is akin to becoming a professional dancer or concert musician. Would a dancer or concert musician redirected become a doctor or lawyer or simply a frustrated person? Whatever the concerns about the original thesis, Edwards actually argues just the opposite in the essay. Things have become so bad in the black community and the presence of blacks in high level have become so threatened by NCAA Propositions 48 and 42 that blacks must re-assert an interest in sports. "Far from de-emphasizing or abandoning sport, or simply allowing our involvement to wane, black people must now more than ever intelligently, constructively, and proactively pursue sports involvement. . . .

"Today it is desirable, even necessary that black youths and black society as a whole continue to harbor dreams of achieving excellence in sportsthere is much to be learned and gained from both the challenges of sports competition and the experiences of meeting those challenges."

So, the Harry Edwards of the 1980s and early 1990s might have been opposed to the idea of promoting Donovan McNabb or at least skeptical of it if he were not as good as writers and commentators were claiming he was. Edwards might even have suggested that something like a conspiracy was behind the touting of McNabb as part of a larger pattern of what he called in his article "media propaganda portraying sports as a broadly accessible route to black social and economic mobility." The Harry Edwards of 2000 might think that promoting McNabb as a black quarterback to be a good thing for the black community, another role model, another form of encouragement for black men to enter sports as a profession. Clearly, what has happened is that Edwards has moved from an essential leftist position about sports as a form of white hegemony that perpetuated black oppression by channeling their range of choices to a more conservative view of sports as something socially and politically constructive for an oppressed group of people to gain agency and economic empowerment, a view similar to white conservative sports commentator Steve Sailer. (Sailer wrote about the McNabb/Limbaugh controversy, discussing the average IQ of each position in the NFL. Sailer is quite fixated on IQ and has been attacked in some liberal circles for his association with right-wing think tank that fund IQ research. Sailer asserts that higher IQ positions in the NFL have historically been dominated by white players. Sailer, however, makes the interesting point that, over the years, blacks has been shifted from the quarterback position because it was possible for them to be switched, a sign of their superiority as athletes and of the intelligence of NFL coaches to use a player where he can do the most good.) This is why I say that the answer to the question of whether the assessment of Donovan McNabb's performance is important is both yes and no.

But clearly the entire concern here, taken broadly, and beyond social science-type issues, is three-fold: first, what are the politics of the making of the reputation of any black sports figure; second, what does competition between blacks and whites mean; third, how can one produce some principle of equality in an enterprise like sports which is not only expected but indeed designed to produce and even celebrate inequality. It is interesting that Affirmative Action advocates constantly use the metaphor of a level playing field, which suggests some analogy to sports. But people who know sports well, know that coaches and athletes are not looking for a level playing field. They are looking for an edge, an advantage. Home field advantage, efforts by a side to shake up their opponent psychologically, unequal match-ups such as in football having a wide receiver covered by a linebacker who is not nearly as fast or forcing a cornerback to tackle a fullback who is far bigger. I once coached a boys' baseball team and before our first playoff game, the coach of the opposing team forced all my players to have their shoes examined by the umpires to make sure they weren't wearing metal cleats. He didn't do this because he was afraid that some of my players might be wearing such cleats; he knew they weren't because we had played two games against each other earlier in the season and there was never a problem with this issue. He did this to shake up my boys and to make me mad, to gain an edge. It may have worked because his team won the game. Intimidation is essential in sports performance. Hockey, the most physically demanding of all team sports, is also all about intimidation. But other sports have their share of it, from the below the rim battles in basketball to the brush-back pitch in baseball. What else is the doping crisis in track and field or the general problem of drug taking in high level sports but people seeking to create an un-level playing field? Why are so many prizefights mismatches? Why was Sammy Sosa using a corked bat? Why do some baseball pitchers doctor baseballs? Why are there such problems with college recruiting? Why is there so much cheating in sports? You win in high level sports competition, in most sports competition, by taking every advantage you can of your opponent. Everyone understands that all are playing under the same rules, and it is the stress and pressure of that realization that makes everyone seek an edge because no one likes the uncertainty of equality, its meaninglessness. For the whole point of the competition is winning, which grants meaning. And we all know what winning is: the definitive, seductive dramatization of an unequal outcome.




Gerald
Early
EARLY LECTURE