Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Athletics, Race and Limbaugh

The internal NFL opposition to Rush Limbaugh as a  potential owner of the St. Louis  franchise was a good thing. The fact that the bidding group dropped him was even better. It represents one more chapter in the long history where America plays out its cultural and moral issues through sports.

Sports can nudge and push the moral dimensions of American race relations. All sports teams have histories of reactionary owners. In one of sports' finest moments, however,  Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to a contract to play professional baseball. Together they plotted to  break the color line in America's most popular pastime. The brutal and heroic journey of Robinson generated immense uproar, confusion and  cultural progress. American sports has never been the same. This is the way owners should act. To have accepted Limbaugh's would have dishonored the NFL and the pathfinding role sports can sometimes play in the culture wars.

Limbaugh expounds an especially dangerous rhetoric for American sports and race relations. He attacked with a double-edged sword. If black males do succeed at exceptionally high rates in sports, he insinuates that this is where they belong in a world of physical intelligence and violence and force. When he carps that the African-American players can't really play the "smart" positions, he reinforces this insidious approach. On the other hand, if they do not earn this by "merit," then their preponderance represents one more episode of discrimination against beleagured whites. Either way he intimates African Americans do not really belong in mainstream American middle class or professional society. He turns the victory of talent and persistence into a social cage.

Many American ideals and myths around race and difference play out in sport. The core of the ideal is the vision that players of different ethnicities and races can meet together in common respect for talent and achievement. As a team they unite their talents around a common cause of action. It's the same ideal and myth that makes the military so central to integration and the American racial fault lines.

Because many Americans invest identity and morality in their sports competition excluding black players was central to cultural notions of white superiority. College basketball and football exemplified it in coaches like Adoph Rupp at Kentucky and Bear Bryant at Alabama.  Ultimately it was not moral suasion but competitive disadvantage that lead coaches like Bryant to change and recruit black athletes. But the competitive pressure could not exist unless owners and leaders permitted players to play.

Today the ideal and the myths are alive and frayed. The fraying occurs from the preponderance of extraordinarily successful and talented black athletes in professional football and baseball. The talent represents the triumph of a great experiment in integration, an extremely transparent meritocracy, where talent almost always wins out since it is tied to winning which is tied to money.    This is America after all. Money drives action. The battle continues at the level of coaches and ownership. It was the opted self-adopted NFL Rooney rule that forced owners to interview African American candidates for coaching positions. In  football instant, the rule transformed the knowledge and hiring profiles of owners.

More interesting the NFL Players Union voiced their opposition to Limbaugh's bid. Successful black players often remain apolitical to protect their marketability. Teams encourage this to preserve their ability  to attract fans regardless of affiliation. In fact, sport affiliation is one those crucial American identities that can cut across political affiliation. The Limbaugh case broke that reluctance.

But the opposition of owners and voice of the union represented the right voice and the right step. But the battle to live up to ideals is far from won. The ambiguous  role of sports as a surrogate for American morality dramas continues.

(Pictures courtesy of: Library of Congress; synstuff)

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me that all the negative vibes this blowhard (Rush Hudson Limbaugh A.KA. Jeff Christie) has been spewing over these many years has come back to blow back on his face (A classic “Blow Back”). He always tries to give off the airs that he can have anything he wants but as we all witness those with more money and more influence tossed him aside like sack of potatoes and the ultimate insult was that it was done in public (money don’t buy you everything butterball).

    Now of course he blames everyone else (Michael J. Fox, Perez Hilton, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Sonia Sotomayor, Hillary Clinton, Olympia Snowe, ESPN, NFL, the media, basically people of color, the handicapped, women and gays) when of course all you have to do is listen to his show and plainly hear his daily prejudices filled sermons. So NFL, I salute you decision, job well done. And to the whaling cry baby perched on his self made pedestal, quit your whining it was your own fault. You are reaping what he has sowed, KARMA, "Palin and simple" like his followers. Don’t we all feel better?