Thursday, October 15, 2009
The Sacking of Rush
Conservatives will inevitably be livid over Rush Limbaugh being dropped from the ownership group seeking to buy the National Football League's St. Louis Rams.
Consider the seeming hypocrisy: The league has current players either implicated or found guilty in vehicular homicide (current Rams player Leonard Little and currently suspended Cleveleand Browns wide receiver Donte Stallworth), regular stabbing deaths (Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis who plead out of a murder charge), animal cruelty (yeah, you know who!), drug usage (too many to mention) -- and various other ethical and legal indiscretions.
Is it really the case -- given that "record" -- that Rush Limbaugh could be deemed persona non grata among owners? Is it really the case that those foul-mouthed rappers -- like Jay-Z -- can get ownership shares in basketball teams without a peep of protest from anyone? Is it really the case that any ownership group with Rush on it would be unable to get the necessary two-thirds approval from current owners?
The answers are yes, yes and yes.
To understand what is going on, realize that Rush and the NFL are unique in their respective fields.
The NFL passed baseball as America's national pastime years, if not decades, ago. The Super Bowl is annually the most watched TV program -- by far. This an $8 billion behemoth. (The Dallas Cowboys new stadium cost more than $1 billion alone.)
Meanwhile, with Howard Stern's abdication to satellite radio a few years ago, Rush Limbaugh is easily the most listened to -- and most influential -- talk radio host in the nation. With a daily audience of some 20 million, no one comes close.
Unfortunately, their brands are almost mutually exclusive.
The NFL is about conformity, control and image. Controversy is neither desired nor tolerated. Indeed, Roger Goodell, the commissioner in his third year has made discipline his watchword. Embarrassed by the multiple arrests coming out of Cincinnatti a few years ago, Goodell has cracked down. Suspensions for inappropriate off-field behavior has been swift and unsparing. The reason is obvious: He is overseeing a multi-billion dollar business and he cannot -- will not -- allow a bunch of athletes in the 20s and 30s ruin the public image of this golden goose.
Limbaugh, meanwhile, courts controversy. His image is big, bold and brassy. He sees himself as the truth-teller against a mainstream media beholden to left-wing biases and Democratic politics. He sees himself as a conservative, but not beholden to the Republican Party -- though he has many GOP guests and friends. He seeks the limelight and adopts a "bring it on" attitude when Democrats try to demonize him.
Ironically, his larger-than-life persona, of course, serves Democrats well, too: They get to deem him the "leader of the Republican Party," which helps their fundraising -- and his ratings. Of course, as several episodes this year have demonstrated, this can put the GOP in an awkward spot: Do Republicans agree with statements by Rush -- or distance themselves from them? Walking the fine line can be difficult.
On the surface, the Rush-NFL story seems to be about race: All NFL owners are white; more than 65 percent of the players are African-American. And black New York Giants players declared that they could never play for a Limbaugh-associated Rams team -- even though their former defensive coordinator is currently the head coach:
"All I know is from the last comment I heard, he said in (President) Obama's America, white kids are getting beat up on the bus while black kids are chanting 'right on,'" Kiwanuka told The Daily News. "I mean, I don't want anything to do with a team that he has any part of. He can do whatever he wants, it is a free country. But if it goes through, I can tell you where I am not going to play."
And this racially-charged incident wasn't a one-time thing. What Limbaugh can't escape is his ill-fated and brief time as an ESPN Sunday "NFL Countdown" analyst in 2003. That was when he infamously declared that Donovan McNabb wasn't "that good from the get-go" but was celebrated as a great player because the media and the NFL wanted to see "a black quarterback doing well." As it happens, McNabb was wrong on both counts -- his estimation of McNabb's talent and on the level of racial "boostering" in the media. That had been the case a few years before, but not then. It was an old story.
After the Giants players spoke out, Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith started soliciting opinions from other players.
But behind this black and white saga playing out in public, the real drama was going on in living color -- and the color was green.
It's not a coincidence that Goodell zeroed in on that 2003 LImbaugh's incident Tuesday when he made it quite clear that Rush's role with the ownership groups was exceedingly problematic. McNabb isn't just a good player; he's also a good person -- someone who's never been in trouble on or off the field. He is, yes, a role model -- the opposite of the bad boys that Goodell has been forced to discipline over the last few years (including McNabb's now-teammate, Michael Vick).
If Limbaugh could make race a feature of commentary on his first go around connected to one of the NFL's broadcasting partners, what could the league expect if it became partnered with him? Goodell could immediately envision weekly -- if not daily -- politically-charged comments coming out of Rush's mouth. Why not? That's what Rush does -- and does quite well. It's what his 20 milliion listeners expect. They don't listen to him holding his tongue on anything. And again, this has been one of his best years for having his message spread beyond his radio listeners. His statement that he hoped President Obama's agenda would fail resonated throughout the media; his speech before the CPAC conference was covered live by CNN and Fox: NBC's "Today" had a two-part interview this week. He is at his peak.
Goodell's nightmare would be regular headlines of, "NFL owner Rush Limbaugh charged the Obama administration with..." Even worse, the controversial Limbaugh brand would be attached to the conformist "American as apple pie" NFL -- just as Goodell would begin sitting down with the aforementioned Mr. Smith to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement with the players!
It's highly unlikely that Goodell even bothered to poll the owners on whether to let the Checketts-Limbaugh alliance continue. The NFL ownership is heavily Republican (ironically, late Rams owner Georgia Frontiere was one of the few Democrat owners); but they weren't any more likely to permit agreement with Limbaugh's politics imperil their golden goose -- any more than they would allow one of the privileged athletes playing for them.
And so, the Limbaugh-NFL union comes to an end before it even began. This was a potential merger of two hugely successful individual entities that were too big to succeed together.
On the bright side, they still get to remain number one -- separately, though still quite profitably.