During Black History Month, with the 28 Black Stories in 28 Days series, USA TODAY Sports examines the issues, challenges and opportunities black athletes and sports officials face after the nation’s toll in 2020.
In 2003, the late Rush Limbaugh said something extremely racist.
Limbaugh saying something shamefully offensive was not unusual. But what happened that day remains one of the great edifying tales for the world of sport, should never be forgotten, and this lesson is relevant today.
It is that extremism can not only reach the darkest corners, but also shine in the blazing light. It can happen right in front of us, including on the ESPN set.
That day, Limbaugh launched an incredibly racist rant about quarterback Donovan McNabb.
“Sorry to say that, I don’t think he was that good from the start,” Limbaugh said. “I think what we’ve had here is a bit of social concern in the NFL. The media has been very keen for a black quarterback to do well. There is some hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for this team’s performance that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team. “
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It just wasn’t true. By that time, McNabb had played in two consecutive NFC title games and was a three-time Pro Bowler. McNabb was a flawed quarterback, but he was solid.
Shortly after his remarks, Limbaugh was fired. But the timing was important as it was ESPN’s first incident to incorporate racial extremism. It was also one of the earliest integrated sports conspiracy theories.
It can’t be said how amazing this moment was. For most of its existence, ESPN has gone out of its way to be non-offensive. Limbaugh was a drastic change in that approach, and he delivered what the network wanted, which was a sour commentary.
After Limbaugh’s remarks, USA TODAY quoted Mark Shapiro, then executive vice president of ESPN, as saying, “This is not a politically motivated comment. It is a sporting and media argument. Rush claimed that McNabb is essentially overrated and that his success is more in part. (due) to the team gathered around him. “
“We turned to Rush to get a wholehearted opinion. Right from the start he delivered,” Shapiro said.
Limbaugh, however, was not making a media case. He was promoting racism.
On his radio show, Limbaugh did this all the time, and you can even draw a direct line from Limbaugh to the attacks on the Capitol last month. And while the sport has always been filled with ugly bigotry and white supremacy, and while we’ve even seen horrific moments from sports broadcasters before, Limbaugh’s remarks were significant because of the platform he was on. made them.
Fortunately, mainstream sports media have been exempt from any Limbaugh-type figures ever since.
But looking back, it was closer than we maybe thought, and with the future, it’s closer than we want to admit.
Of note, Limbaugh made his comments as black quarterbacks, long discriminated against, were starting to gain a foothold in professional football. In October of this 2003 season, ten of 32 teams started a black quarterback in at least one game, according to the Associated Press.
It is also not a coincidence that Colin Kaepernick’s movement has taken hold, it has faced relentless attacks from the right. The whole sporty version of the Black Lives Matter movement did it. As this movement develops, no one should be surprised if there is another attempt at a sports version of Limbaugh.
Would you be shocked if Fox tried to use Tucker Carlson as an NFL analyst?
The intersection of sport and politics has grown, and for some, the vitriol that has developed in politics would be welcome in sport.
“It’s sad that you have to switch to skin color,” McNabb told the Philadelphia Daily News in 2003. “I thought we were done with this whole thing.”
We weren’t. We are not.
And that’s part of the Limbaugh sports lesson. We must not forget that.