America's Mishandling of the Donovan McNabb-Rush Limbaugh Controversy
[22 October 2003]
by Marc L. Hill

Rush Limbaugh

Donovan McNabb

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Like many Americans, I was swept up in the media frenzy that followed Rush Limbaugh's recent comments about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. Limbaugh, a new hire to the ESPN football crew, argued that McNabb was an overrated quarterback who has benefited more from a strong defense and a liberal media determined to see an African American quarterback succeed in the NFL than actual ability. True to form, Limbaugh had managed to rile up the nation and draw attention to himself while boosting Sunday NFL Countdown viewership to the tune of a ten point ratings increase. After my initial anger from Limbaugh's inflammatory and strategically articulated commentary subsided, I noticed a familiar development in the aftermath of the ordeal. While most people rightly rejected Limbaugh's comments as uninformed at best and racist at worst, there was a conspicuously absent public conversation about the larger role of race, both in the reaction to Limbaugh's commentary and in the mediation of African American athletic identity.

For the liberal community, the Limbaugh-McNabb controversy represented an opportunity to feast at the collective table of guilt, insecurity, and outright fear around issues of race in America. Instead of analyzing Limbaugh's comments and using them as a springboard for further discussion, the usual suspects (including vanity presidential candidate Al Sharpton) displayed the usual televisual opportunism and grandstanding that effectively shuts down substantive public discourse around race. In place of meaningful discussions that could help unpack the complexities, contours, and contradictions of racism in America and, more specifically, sports, the liberal community settled for shallow critiques that failed to take on the larger issues. For them, Limbaugh's unapologetic resignation following the rhetorical bumrush marked another victory for the Left. Such an approach, however, obscures the more insidious and pervasive aspects of American racism.

By engaging in self-righteous racial crusades whenever racist, sexist, or (to a far lesser degree) heterosexist thoughts are uttered publicly, the Left undermines its own purported political and moral project by tacitly suggesting that such acts are isolated and anomalous. This notion leads to the misguided idea that offenders like Rush Limbaugh and Trent Lott can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis until racism is effectively eliminated from the grammar of human activity. This is evidenced by the comments from several prominent political and sports commentators who naively (or perhaps mendaciously) commented that they "thought we were past all of this." Conversely, McNabb, who handled the situation with a level of poise and critical acuity that is typically downplayed by the media with respect to athletes of color, noted that he already knew that many people shared Limbaugh's view, and that his only surprise was the forum in which he said it. As a person of color, McNabb understands the multiple oppressions that people of color face on a day-to-day basis and realizes that, despite popular notions to the contrary, racism is a fundamental cog in the machinery of American life.

Many sports commentators jumped to the defense of McNabb based on his merit as an NFL quarterback. They argued that his status as a perennial Pro-Bowler, playoff winner (the Eagles have made it to the conference finals each of the past two years), and 2001-2002 MVP runner-up were sufficient evidence to refute Limbaugh's claims. While this may be true (although I would argue that McNabb's sub-par performances in big games and questionable throwing accuracy do make him a bit overrated), none of the commentators addressed the tragic irony that Limbaugh, a football lay person with no more expertise than the average weekend warrior, was able to use White privilege to procure a position that provided him a discursive space for questioning McNabb's abilities. Like the Affirmative Action debates, Black competence was placed at the center of discussion while White mediocrity remained uninterrogated. In the same way that the academic merits of athletes and the children of rich university benefactors remain unquestioned while regular Black matriculants are perennially scrutinized, the "Great White Hopes" of sports -- the highly touted and well paid Jason "White Chocolate" Williams, for example, is not even ranked in the top ten at his position -- are given a free pass while Black athletes are criticized in full public view.

I must admit that my immediate reaction to Limbaugh's comments was informed by my own experiences as a Black athlete. Like most basketball players attempting to make the transition from the playground to the organized game, I was indoctrinated into the racist dogma of sports that dichotomizes organized and playground styles of play, privileging the former on both performative and ethical grounds. A basketball player who was unwilling or unable to make this transition was not only considered incompatible with the organized game, but also labeled a "troubled" player who "lacked character." Despite the arbitrary and temporary nature of the distinctions (the jump shot, a marker of skilled and organized play, was considered playground foolishness fifty years ago), they nonetheless serve as crucial contributors to the constitution of athletic identity.

When transposed to professional football, this short-sided binary has contributed to the exclusion of Blacks from the quarterback position. Despite their overrepresentation (and rightfully so) at the "athletic positions" like wide receiver and running back, Black athletes have only recently been granted access to the stewardship of the teams who have depended on their athleticism for years. Prior to the recent increase in Black quarterbacks that has produced extraordinary talents like McNabb and Michael Vick, there was an implicit division of labor that placed White quarterbacks at the helm of teams composed primarily of Black bodies. This was due to the commonly held idea that the quarterback position required more intelligence and responsibility than the other positions on the field and was therefore best-suited for organized (read: White) players who were smart enough to remember plays and read defenses.

Although the idea of Black quarterbacks is no longer novel, a clear distinction is made between them and White quarterbacks through the transparent distinction that football experts make between "pocket" and "running" quarterbacks. While the running quarterback is viewed with respect or even awe for his ability to run out of the pocket to disrupt defenses and escape trouble, the pocket quarterback is constructed in the sports world as the smart, resourceful, and courageous leader of the team who is capable of using his mind instead of legs to achieve the same end. This creates a dilemma for Black quarterbacks like McNabb, who are often given the label of "running quarterback" irrespective of their actual abilities.

Although McNabb's running ability is indeed one of his strongest assets, he has openly resisted this identity both publicly and through his play. In fact, one of the biggest critiques of McNabb's play from the Philadelphia sports media (who have never given a free ride to anyone, Rush) is that he does not run as much as he should. McNabb has responded to this by saying that he wants to be considered a pocket, not running, quarterback. This is particularly problematic for McNabb, whose pocket play is average at best. Nevertheless, his understanding of America's historical propensity for calling Black intelligence into question through arbitrary and hegemonic (what Roland Barthes would call "falsely obvious") criteria has led him to sacrifice his own talents for a larger personal and social goal.

McNabb's active resistance to controlling athletic identities, while powerful and insightful, is nonetheless problematic. Although he attempts to reject the identity given to him by the football world and appropriating an alternate one, the very act of choosing between the identities of pocket and running quarterback tacitly reinforces the validity of the troublesome binary. Also, by attempting to be a pocket quarterback, something that he simply is not, McNabb provides empirical support for the arguments of commentators like Limbaugh. As Black feminist scholars like Patricia Hill Collins argue, a move beyond either/or identity politics is a pre-requisite for true self-definition. For McNabb and other Black quarterbacks, this means moving beyond the choices given to them and constructing alternate athletic identities that reflect their own talents and desires.

Regardless of one's perspective on Limbaugh's comments or the larger issue of racism in sports, there undoubtedly remains a need for a serious conversation where such perspectives can be articulated. But as the memory of this controversy is pushed to the back of our minds to make room for the next public outrage, I hope that we recognize the opportunity we've squandered. If we don't, we have no one to blame but ourselves.


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