Monday, October 06, 2003

Rush Limbaugh's Sports Soviet
Overcome by Counterrevolutionaries

ESPN "resignfired" Rush Limbaugh last week. Rush had criticized the sports media's coverage of Donovan McNabb, the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, saying that the media "overrated" McNabb and that "what we have here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback can do well - [of showing] black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well." Basically, Rush was suggesting that the sports media had been affected by the liberalized, affirmative-action mentality which gets people overly-excited about an ordinary guy's being in an OfficiallyOppressed[TM] group. (You know the hype I mean -- "DuBuque Hires First Gay Dog-Catcher: Film at Eleven!"). Rush said the media was making McNabb out to be a better quarterback than he is because of its vested interest in combined coverage of his spectacular performance and membership in an OfficiallyOppressed[TM] group. (You know the kind of story I mean, too -- "DuBuque's First Gay Dog-Catcher Collars As Many Dogs As Straight Dog Catchers: Film at Eleven!"). Rush was irked at how the media was so eager to "teach" us a lesson about all the good that comes of abandoning prejudice that it ignored facts about McNabb's less-than-magnificent quarterbacking.

Fair enough, I suppose. It's one thing to tell a science-worshiping bigot that monks played a critical role in the discovery of genetics or that the City of God's account of time adumbrates Einstein's theory of relativity, and quite another to pretend that Mendel discovered DNA or Einstein just stole everything from St. Augustine. Sometimes it is worth pointing out that Jackie Robinson was a damn good baseball player, or that Bob Hope became a Catholic, to tear down the false idea of "otherness" that prejudice maintains. But those helpful things aren't worth fakery, of appearing to give someone a free ride because he represents something besides his own ability to get the job done. Part of Bob Hope's "human-ness" is that he wasn't always a laugh riot (the "Road" movies are only one notch down from root canal on the List of Things To Be Avoided); we'll know racism is really dead when we can hear criticism of OfficiallyOppressed[TM] icons without mentally assigning memberships in the Klan or the Southern Poverty Law Center. As he usually does, Rush made some good points, points worth talking about. That's why I think ESPN was right to "resignfire" him.

When we're talking about the National Football League, we're not engaging in a philosophical discourse on anything so elevated as "athletics" and "sport." The NFL exists for one reason -- to make money by offering the public entertainment. The enterprise in which names like Unitas, Payton, and Butkus have become hallowed isn't really much different from the enterprise that honors names like David Copperfield, or Siegfried and Roy. Sure professional football looks like, and in some ways is like, "athletics." Our society has a positive genius for concocting Janus-like hybrids of crassness and piety. We've got lifelong politicians who've reluctantly accepted the people's call to run for (yet another) term in office, "Madonna" authoring childrens' stories because she cares so deeply about motherhood, and rebellious well-off musicians who "rage against the machine." In that cultural ocean, "professional athletics" is plankton.

But whether or not they can find the line between athletes and entertainers the people who turn to the NFL for diversion are following a time-honored American tradition. They want to have fun, to be excited, to enjoy the spectacle. This is a perfectly fine and innocent motive, however much we might want it to be occasionally directed at something more edifying than the sight of very large and very rich probationers shoving each other. That kind of innocence ought to be protected, cherished, because without it we can't really savor life. The NFL may be a circus, but even circuses encourage the same magnificent, guileless simplicity in their patrons. No one has any business using the center ring as a forum for denouncing species endangerment or vilifying the oppressive patriarchal stereotype that makes a lion king of the jungle. Rush didn't have any legitimate business using a sports show to hector us about the shabbiness of affirmative action and the politically-correct mendacity of big media. He was committing what I think is a mortal sin -- he was being "omnipolitical," just like the leftists who can't eat tuna on rye without holding a symposium on commercial net fishing and suffering dolphins. If Rush wants to talk politics, even meta-politics, then he needs his own radio show. He's got one, and so that's where his politics ought to stay.

Some people might think I'm naive. "But SAM," they'll say, "the liberal pagani have already taken over and politicized every nook and cranny of life, from marriage to kindergarten to the Nobel Prize! We can't let them get away with it! We have to answer back!" I'm not sure about that. Modern folks are past masters of "omnipoliticizing" things; they naturally make yard sales into socially-conscious events, and turn Girl Scout meetings into a Womens' Soviet. Politics, broadly thought of as society's intimate and total involvement with the thoughts and actions of every human being, is the modern person's weird counterpart to the Catholic faith and the Body of Christ. Modern people instinctively politicize everything because they simply can't imagine anything that's not politically symbolic. I don't see much point in joining them in a "race to the bottom," trying to make sure that the Red Girl-Scouts' Soviet is met by the White Tsarist Girls' Legion at the barricades of socially-conscious cookie selling. A political society that's intimately and totally involved with the thoughts and actions of every human being would be unbearably odious no matter what its particular goals might be. I was glad to see one practitioner of "total politics" removed from the game, even if I agree with him lots of the time and even if he was right about the coverage of Donovan McNabb.

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