Rushing to Judgment: NFL and Media Reality

Robert Alt

October 1, 2003

By now you’ve heard the disheartening news (probably multiple times): Following cries of racism, Rush Limbaugh resigned late Wednesday from his post as a part-time ESPN commentator. Yet even the most cursory review of his comments suggests that his words did not target any suspect class, unless network executives perpetually wallowing in white guilt have achieved minority status.

The media’s rapid response to the news betrayed their obvious glee. CNN featured the headline on its website, “Is Rush Racist?”—and the network led with the Rush story ahead of its ordinary litany of trumped-up scandals du jour. Then the other shoe dropped: Word got out that The National Enquirer was about to report that Limbaugh was a pill popper. Demonstrating the height of journalistic integrity, the networks offered this information as if it came from the newspaper of record (which paper, as luck would have it, featured that very story on its website). Not to miss out on the fun, presidential wannabes Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, and Al Sharpton called for ESPN to sack Limbaugh, and the NAACP referred to his remarks as “bigoted and ignorant.”

Rush makes his living driving network executives and Democratic presidential hopefuls into fits, but this was different. What exactly did Rush say to cause all this commotion? In his Sunday commentary, Rush argued that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is overrated. While many have disputed this assessment, it is Rush’s reason for believing that McNabb’s performance has been exaggerated that generated the controversy. Specifically, he said:

“I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well… There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.

First, it is useful to note what Rush did not say. He did not say that African Americans are less qualified or less capable of performing at quarterback. Nor did he say that McNabb’s alleged poor performance correlated with his race. Rather, he suggests that McNabb has a better reputation than perhaps he deserves because the media wants black quarterbacks to do well—that is, because the white establishment wishes black athletes well. Of course, this is not the first time that statements like this have been made. For example, to this day it is debated whether Larry Bird deserves his reputation as among the best basketball players of all time, or whether his status is overrated because he is white.

Sports have long been an area where African Americans have enjoyed great success as a result of merit, and, at least recently, reduced institutional barriers to entry. Indeed, from a strictly statistical perspective, African Americans are overrepresented in the NFL compared to their percentage of the U.S. population. This staggering success has largely been a function of (my old professor at the University of Chicago’s Law School) Richard Epstein’s law: in a competitive workplace, employers who discriminate based upon arbitrary characteristics such as race will lose—in this case both games and revenues.

Despite the general success of black athletes in the NFL, there remains the perception that there is a statistical imbalance in the number of black quarterbacks. But this may be more perception than reality. A quick review of the league shows that in 2002, there were 8 black quarterbacks starting out of a possible 32 spots. In 2003, the numbers remain the same (although there would actually be 9 starting black quarterbacks if Michael Vick was not on the injured list). At 25 percent, this would suggest that African Americans are again overrepresented in the position of quarterback compared with their representation in the total U.S. population.

Whether the number of black quarterbacks represents a perceived or real deficit in black “representation” is largely irrelevant, however, because the public wants to see more black quarterbacks. A study produced by economists at Duke University found that Monday Night Football games featuring at least one black quarterback generate significantly higher ratings. And when they say significant, they mean it. In 1998, for example, an average of two million more viewers tuned in on Monday nights when at least one quarterback was black. This difference translates into millions of dollars in advertising revenues. While they considered that this viewer preference may be a proxy for other player or team attributes, the study concludes that the difference is motivated by viewers exhibiting “a taste for diversity.” The moral of the story is simple: The NFL and the networks have a strong financial interest in promoting black quarterbacks. Or, to use the words of El Rushbo, the media is desirous of successful black quarterbacks.

But one does not need a regression analysis to see that Americans cheer black achievement. That Rush suggests that this cheerleading may be unwarranted as applied to a specific athlete cannot negate this truth, and should not be used to cast Limbaugh as a racist.

Robert Alt is a fellow in Constitutional Studies and Jurisprudence at the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.