Along the Tracks

Saturday, October 04, 2003

Rush to judgment

I haven't thought much about Rush Limbaugh's double-shot of trouble which grabbed headlines this week. The drug probe is just flat-out strange; I guess we'll have to wait and see what investigators find before anybody can really comment on it intelligently.

Rush's comments on ESPN's "NFL Sunday Countdown" are hard to defend. As someone a long distance (600 miles) from the Philadelphia media, I can't say I've got any direct insight into the treatment Donovan McNabb has received. Even so, it seems that the Philly talk shows and papers are traditionally very tough on all the sports teams. A little of that creeps into the national coverage when Philly teams are the topic - and I think I've seen quite a few stories critical of McNabb's play. This season in particular, the pressure has been put directly on McNabb's shoulders - and he has publically accepted responsibility for the team's poor play. He then responded last week against a very strong Buffalo team.

Is McNabb "great"? Is he overrated? It seems a little early to make that call - but this is the season he'll be judged by, as most observers believe the Eagles have all the pieces in place to be a Super Bowl contender.

The real question, it seems to me, is "Why would Limbaugh make such a controversial claim when he really has nothing to back it up?" I think he fell into a trap: Rush believes the media biases he comments on daily are also in effect in the sports world. In fact, that was his defense, in a nutshell - biased media gives breaks to black athletes. Yet the proof of this is woefully lacking. McNabb has taken his team to two NFC championship games in his first four seasons. That's impressive, and compares well with one Troy Aikman, the white quarterback who led the Cowboys back to dominance. Many will recall that, early in his career, Aikman seemed to be getting "a pass" while QBs like Steve Walsh and Steve Beurlein were better performers for the Cowboys, statistically speaking. Jimmy Johnson stuck by Aikman, and Aikman went on to win Super Bowl after Super Bowl and is a Hall of Fame shoe-in. His statistics were never gaudy, even in the best of years. All he did was win.

Rush was hired by ESPN for the lightening rod of controversy he would bring. Well, they got it. Yet the statement which was his undoing showed a lack of perspective on NFL coverage which, frankly, disqualified him on those merits alone from being a commentator.

For the longest time, black quarterbacks were denied opportunities in the league, and it was media and fan pressure which began to change that. Today, it's safe to say players are judged on their merits. Black coaches still face barriers thanks to the "old boys network" which shuffles people with experience around the various teams. Media and fan pressure will, eventuallly, have an effect here, too.

One last observation: I'm a big Minnesota Viking fan (and excited about the team's play so far this season). Most observers were skeptical four seasons ago when then head coach Dennis Green (who is black) allowed both of his Pro Bowl quarterbacks - Brad Johnson and Randall Cunningham (who is black) - to exit to other teams and named Duante Culpepper (who is black) the starter. Culpepper has been among the elite of starting NFL quarterbacks every season since.

Green, for his part, was fired after the Vikings failed to advance in the playoffs two years ago. He had taken the Vikings into the playoffs all but one year, and to two NFC championship games, during his tenure. He couldn't quite get the big prize every owner wants - a Super Bowl Championship.

Culpepper now has a former Pro Bowl quarterback (Gus Frerotte) as his backup. Green, despite a superb NFL coaching career, remains outside pro football.

Says a lot, I think.

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