Now hereâ€™s a fast-moving story: Just a week ago, word leaked that Rush Limbaugh was part of an ownership group hoping to bid on the woebegone St. Louis Rams. Within three business days, the head of the players union, a current owner and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had all come forward with essentially the same message: â€œLike hell you will!â€ By yesterday, ESPN had confirmed that Rush was being dropped from the bidding group. And just like thatâ€¦
Well, what, exactly? What has been accomplished with this brief minuet of misplaced ambition and swift smackdown? For one thing, Rushâ€™s media profile clearly has bumped up an extra tick, as if he needed it â€“ though heâ€™s clearly sought it, considering his eagerness to sit down for an interview this week with the sworn enemy of all conservatives, the NBC/MSNBC juggernaut. (Maybe he felt the sticky, Nyquil-inebriated breath of Time cover boy Glenn Beck down his neck.) Meanwhile, the NFL suddenly â€“ and, for the most part, unwittingly â€“ has found itself politicized, with the usual crackpots insisting over the past week that they would never watch pro football again if Rush got the team (or if he didnâ€™t, depending on whether the pot was cracked on the left or right side). â€œI will NEVER go to a game OF ANY TEAM, WATCH ON TV, OR LISTEN ON RADIO to one more NFL game EVER,â€ wrote one typical rantboy, apparently convinced he could bring down the monolith all on his own. Just in case you were wondering which side this all-caps screamer was on, his message twice dared the NFL to â€œexhibit biasâ€ against Rushâ€™s â€œequal rightâ€ to buy a team. (Thus we arrive at a third result, this one inevitable: Conservatives now have one more reason to feel aggrieved, and one more excuse for twisting the language of civil liberties to suit their agitation.)
All those outcomes are ephemeral â€“ weâ€™ll forget about them as soon as the next temporary outrage presents itself. But weâ€™re also left with a lesson in resume building â€“ more specifically, a primer in careers that donâ€™t function particularly well as precursors for (and may even serve as disqualifiers for) other careers. Indeed, this episode may well serve as a What Color Is My Parachute? for hyperpartisans on both sides of the political divide. (Note to Rush: the colors of your parachute apparently arenâ€™t blue and gold.)
I have a bit of personal experience in this realm, having worked in media relations for the ACLUâ€™s Arts Censorship Project during the early 1990s. My job required me to publicly defend (enthusiastically, I admit) a crucifix submerged in urine, a naked woman smearing her body with yams, rappers who fantasized about killing cops and George H.W. Bush, and a woman who inserted a speculum onstage and invited patrons to come have a look. Of course, none of the above descriptions fully describe the cultural artifacts whose right to exist the ACLU (and I) were defending at the time, but that hardly matters in the field of, say, opposition research. And so I quickly realized, the first time my name appeared in the Washington Post alongside â€œPiss Christâ€ or â€œCop Killerâ€ or Annie Sprinkle, that I ought never develop a taste for high elected office.
Similarly, Rush Limbaugh should have understood last autumn, as he cackled his way through â€œBarack, The Magic Negroâ€ on the air, that future team ownership in a league thatâ€™s 60 percent African-American was not in the cards.
Now, itâ€™s entirely possible that La Limbaugh was merely looking for a place to stash part of his prodigious fortune, and that he had no intention of being anything more than a silent partner in Dave Checkettâ€™s ownership group. (Of course, Checkettâ€™s own record as owner of Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks and Rangers is more than a bit â€¦ well, checkered.) Even so, Rushâ€™s previous involvement with the NFL should have clued him in that his brand of provocation is unwelcome there. I mean, come on! He didn’t last four weeks on ESPNâ€™s pregame show back in 2003, before he pissed off the entire Players Association (and got himself fired) by calling Donovan McNabb an affirmative-action deadbeat.
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This is a league so buttoned-down, so starched-collared that it penalizes players for excessive celebration and for showing their faces (i.e., removing their helmets) on the field. This is a league whose most valuable assets are not flashy players, but Napoleonic coaches; the league that invented the modern â€œhardâ€ salary cap, and maintains it with brute force; a league that has spent three decades obsessing over how to keep its one renegade owner, Al Davis, in line. What genius thought a mouthy wild card like Limbaugh would be welcome in the No Fun Leagueâ€™s old-boy network?
Apparently the same type of genius who’s been accusing the NFL of hypocrisy this week, and using Michael Vickâ€™s presence on the Eagles to do so. (Do conservatives really want to equate Limbaugh with Vick, in the category of degenerate embarrassments the league should be willing to tolerate?) But, of course, Vickâ€™s role on the Eagles is far different from Limbaughâ€™s hoped-for role on the Rams â€“ if not in terms of each manâ€™s short-term impact on the NFLâ€™s image, then in Limbaughâ€™s potential impact as an employer on the NFLâ€™s competitive balance.
I certainly wouldnâ€™t defend Vickâ€™s actions â€“ and neither would his fellow players â€“ but team (and union) loyalty dictate that neither Vickâ€™s teammates nor his rivals would ever attempt to drum him out of the league. On the other hand, no such loyalty binds the players to the owners, who may be considering a lockout after next season. And with 31 other teams to choose from â€“ and with Limbaugh no more able to offer outrageous salaries than any other owner whoâ€™s bound by the salary cap â€“ itâ€™s easy to imagine many, if not all, of the best players and coaches simply refusing to work for him. Just think of the PR (and, potentially, legal) quandary the Rams and NFL would face the first time a high draft choice refused to accept being selected by Limbaughâ€™s team! How would such a scenario affect the quality — and attendance — of a team that’s already 0-for-its-last-15 and 5-32 since 2007?
Last weekend I heard an ESPN Radio jock dismiss this possibility, saying that players â€œbecome conservative as soon as they become richâ€ and that they would find Limbaughâ€™s money â€œas green as anyone elseâ€™s.â€ Not four hours after those comments, ESPN reported that the head of the NFL Players Association, DeMaurice Smith, had come out against Limbaugh’s bid. â€œSport in America is at its best when it unifies, gives all of us reason to cheer, and when it transcends,â€ Smith said. â€œOur sport does exactly that when it overcomes division and rejects discrimination and hatred.”
In other words, a figure like Limbaugh whoâ€™s so antithetical to mainstream values (not to mention the NFLâ€™s make-no-waves mantra) need not apply. The quick rejection of his ownership bid happened to come the same week that ABC has begun to panic about the precipitous ratings decline for the current season of Dancing with the Stars, whose biggest â€œstarâ€ has been Limbaughâ€™s fellow conservative icon, Tom DeLay. Out of sympathy for the Hammerâ€™s currently aching feet, I wouldnâ€™t dream of using the coincidence of their downfalls to make broader statements about the state of conservatism or the GOP. I would, however, suggest that both menâ€™s failure to transcend their success in the world of right-wing hucksterism points to the minuscule size (and general distastefulness) of that world. A lot of us worry that a few million dittoheads (or even 70,000 teabaggers rallying in D.C.) are merely the serrated edge of a larger movement worth fearing in the coming years; the speed with which the extraordinarily popular NFL dismissed Limbaugh, and the mass channel-changing that greeted DeLayâ€™s appearance on one of TVâ€™s most-watched shows, seem to argue otherwise.
To which I can only answer: I donâ€™t particularly want to watch Barney Frank do the cha-cha, either. As for Keith Olbermannâ€™s success on Football Night in America â€¦ well, thatâ€™s a whole different kettle of fish, isnâ€™t it? Heaven forbid the owners attempt to trim the playersâ€™ health care benefits! Keith might try to “call in Richard Wolffe” — and frankly, I’m not sure one more guy can fit on that overcrowded studio set.