Limbaugh's comments touch off controversy

Updated: October 1, 2003, 7:09 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

PHILADELPHIA -- Donovan McNabb has been to three straight Pro Bowls and two consecutive NFC championship games, and was runner-up for NFL MVP in his first full season as a starter.

Still, commentator Rush Limbaugh saw fit to question the quarterback's credentials.

Before McNabb led the Philadelphia Eagles to a 23-13 victory over the Buffalo Bills, Limbaugh said on ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown" that McNabb is overrated. However, Limbaugh injected his comment with racial overtones that have set off a controversy.

"Sorry to say this, I don't think he's been that good from the get-go," Limbaugh said. "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."

ESPN released an official statement Wednesday night.

"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," the statement read.

Earlier, ESPN executive vice president Mark Shapiro came to the conservative Limbaugh's defense.

"This is not a politically motivated comment. This is a sports and media argument," Shapiro was quoted as saying in a USA Today column published Wednesday. "Rush was arguing McNabb is essentially overrated and that his success is more in part [due] to the team assembled around him.

"We brought Rush in for no-holds-barred opinion. Early on, he has delivered," Shapiro told USA Today.

ESPN spokesman Dave Nagle said Tuesday that Limbaugh doesn't do interviews.

"It's sad that you've got to go to skin color. I thought we were through with that whole deal," McNabb told the Philadelphia Daily News.

Limbaugh's remarks could be considered as untimely as they are thought to be out of bounds. He is scheduled to be in Philadelphia on Thursday to give a keynote address at the three-day National Association of Broadcasters radio convention.

Nagle said that with Limbaugh on the show this season, ratings for "Sunday NFL Countdown" are up 10 percent overall, and 26 percent among the 18-to-34 male demographic. Sunday's show drew its biggest audience in the regular season since November 1996.

Limbaugh is best known as the radio host of the conservative politically focused "Rush Limbaugh Show," which is syndicated in more than 650 markets worldwide.

He spent most of the 1990s assailing then-President Clinton and now spends Sunday mornings talking football, a job he called "the fulfillment of a dream."

A decade ago, there were few black quarterbacks in the NFL. This season, 10 of the 32 teams will have started black quarterbacks in at least one game.

Seven black quarterbacks started NFL games last weekend and two of the best, Michael Vick and Daunte Culpepper, were out because of injuries. The veteran Rodney Peete also has started a game for Carolina, meaning that when Vick returns from his broken leg, he'll be the 10th to start a game this season.

"I think the Philadelphia Eagles and the city of Philadelphia are very lucky to have Donovan McNabb," Eagles coach Andy Reid said, calling his quarterback "the best in the business."

McNabb got off to the worst start of his career this season and was the NFL's lowest-rated starting quarterback after losses to Tampa Bay and New England. He was criticized heavily for his bad start, which came after a subpar effort in Philadelphia's 27-10 loss to the Buccaneers in January's NFC title game.

Still, the Eagles are 36-22 in games he started.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.