[26 October 2009]
Though it was never likely in the first place, Rush Limbaugh’s failed bid to purchase the St. Louis Rams should have been allowed to go forward. Before the comments begin to fly, let me be clear. This is no way an apology for the conservative demagogue’s ideological leanings, nor is it a defense of amoral free-marketry. On the contrary, I find Rush’s megawatt opining to be distasteful, vainglorious, and just downright wrong. And while he no doubt would argue that unfettered commerce should decide who’s allowed to own a team in the NFL, intense government oversight in the US is only now beginning to correct for the widespread destruction caused by financial institutions that were left to their own devices.
Ironically, it is precisely my disagreements with Limbaugh that compel me to insist that he be allowed a seat at the owners’ table. At the same time, these qualms go a long way toward explaining why such a scenario was unlikely to ever unfold. This is not to say that progressive opposition is responsible for keeping Rush out. Although the left’s blogosphere was certainly up in arms about the prospect, that same opposition did little to slow his brief appointment by ESPN to the Monday Night Football broadcast team in 2003.
Soon enough, however, Rush managed to overstep the bounds of acceptable commentary when he insisted that the media was giving preferential treatment to Eagles’ quarterback Donovan McNabb simply because he was black. ESPN quickly accepted Limbaugh’s “resignation” in the wake of the ensuing controversy, but the outrage lingered. Both Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, whom Limbaugh calls “race hustlers”, came out in opposition to his ownership bid, as did NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith. And so, the temptation is to see his being dropped from the bid—headed by Dave Checketts, who’s had ownership and management stakes in the St. Louis Blues hockey team and the New York Knicks—as a blow against racial insensitivity.
The reality, of course, is not quite so rosy. As many others have pointed out, Limbaugh’s original dismissal from ESPN and his exclusion from the bid group now are purely financial decisions by those in charge. Neither ESPN nor the NFL wants to risk offending sponsors, whose dollars determine the core success of both organizations. In many ways, keeping Limbaugh out is a win-win for the league, whose owners avoid a loss of sponsorship revenue at the same time they improve their image by ostensibly standing up to Limbaugh’s “divisive” politics.
At the very least, the league’s ownership group avoids association with a brash and overt conservative. And this, unfortunately, is why we would all be better off if Rush was given entry to their club. Despite his backwards views on race (and economics, and social issues, foreign relations, the environment, et al), having Rush as an NFL owner would draw attention to the rest of the company that might keep him. And this, of course, is precisely what the owners want to avoid.
There remains a persistent fiction about professional sports owners in America which holds that they’re merely rabid fans (just like the rest of us) who just happen to have the fortune needed to afford their own franchise. (Clearly, we’re not motivated to ask with any great interest about the historical business practices that put them in the position to buy.) When that fiction is not being circulated, there’s something even more pernicious about the controlling financial interests of our sports teams: silence.
Professional owners are, by and large, invisible. They sit shrouded in the polished gloom of a luxury box (when they do attend the games), looking down on the games like miniature caesars. Rarely do they make an on-screen appearance and even less frequently do they appear in any substantial media coverage (other than highly choreographed charity events).
Of course, there are notable exceptions to this rule, that being those whom occasion controversy and court the spotlight in the image of fervent enthusiasts; their drive for success in business translates to a love of their teams. George Steinbrenner’s iron-fisted rule of the New York Yankees was often couched in terms of his financial acumen (earning him the corporate nickname “The Boss’). Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban—who own the Dallas Cowboys and Mavericks, respectively—are fixtures on the sidelines of their teams’ games (where the cameras are), showcasing their devotion.
And yet even these (and a handful of other) more visible owners, earn their renown strictly from a personal standpoint. If someone has a beef with Jerry Jones, for example, it’s likely about his plastic surgery, or his micromanagement of the team.
Rarely, if ever, has any professional sports owner been taken to task for his political affiliations. And the pronoun is used here advisedly. The fact is that professional sports ownership remains one of the last, unchallenged bastions of the rich, white male. And it remains so precisely because of the owners’ ability to shift the focus away from themselves and onto the players and games.
Now that sounds perfectly reasonable. After all, sporting events are generally far more compelling than balance sheets and tax shelters. But still, if the furor surrounding Limbaugh’s possible entrance into the league has to do with this political disposition, it’s laughable to suggest that the rest of the owners don’t share his views to a large extent.
A few statistics might help illustrate this point. The average price for an NFL franchise is in excess of a billion dollars. The top ten richest owners in the league are all billionaires. There are precisely no black majority owners, despite the fact that two-thirds of league’s players are black. Of course, those employees are compensated with above-average salaries for their work, which can hardly be said to compare with the revenue they generate for their owners. The economic and racial imbalance of the NFL, however, is rarely challenged. Instead, we are treated to exhausting coverage of Brett Favre or heated debates about the wildcat offense.
The relative invisibility of league owners, in a direct way, helps to steer discussions away from substantive issues of race and politics. It perpetuates the false notion that professional sports somehow exist in an apolitical vacuum and are an escape from social realities, rather than a way of examining them. It’s finally much easier to sit back and enjoy a game than to think about who might be benefitting (as when owners manipulate public sentiment into forking over tax dollars to support the spate of recent new stadia around the league) from all of this hoopla.
A different kind of hoopla, really, is what is needed: the kind of hoopla that Rush Limbaugh’s career is predicated on. By bringing him into the league, more would realize the kind of unchecked privilege that is sustained by their ticket, concession, and merchandising money. Doing so would also give the lie to the notion that professional sports owners are apolitical “fans” of the game, disassociated from their business practices or the conservative philosophy that must always be mobilized to protect and increase vast stores of wealth.
Limbaugh—fat, pasty, be-suited and chomping on an unlit cigar—is a mascot for the sensibilities that dominate pro sports owners and their behavior. And sadly for the rest of us, that is precisely why they’ll never let him join their club.