SBJ/November 10 - 16, 2003/Opinion

Truth’s more gray than black-white

Rush Limbaugh made national headlines when he asserted on ESPN that Philadelphia Eagles all-star Donovan McNabb is overrated, because "the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well."

Just a week later, on another pregame show, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman Warren Sapp called the National Football League a "slave system" because officials had fined him for bumping a referee. "Make no mistake about it," Sapp added, "slave master say you can't do it, don't do it. They'll make an example out of you."

Both statements were baseless and irresponsibly inserted race into a situation where it was irrelevant. Limbaugh's remark ignited a media firestorm, and he was forced to resign from ESPN. Sapp's comment not only was largely ignored by the mainstream press, but the new NFL Network went ahead with plans to hire him as a host of one of its programs.

The widely divergent reactions highlight the double standard involved when it comes to the public discussion of race. They also show the continued inability of society to address this issue forthrightly. That is apparently true even in the sports world, which has always been thought to be a trailblazer in dealing with the subject.

Both cases should have been treated more similarly and less at the extremes of the discipline spectrum. The networks, the public and the rest of society should not always overreact in a knee-jerk manner to racial remarks made by a member of the majority. And they should not totally give a pass to comparable comments from those in the minority.

Corporate exile should not be the automatic punishment for a highly controversial — and even highly misguided — statement about race. In fact, the best way to rebut Limbaugh's misguided idea would have been to have him defend it to the others on the ESPN set, not to banish him completely.

Instead, the network took the path of least resistance. But by going into crisis management mode to protect its corporate image, ESPN lost an opportunity to provide the public with a real case study on race relations and sports. The decision to cut and run sends a message that ESPN doesn't think its audience can handle such a conversation.

Most viewers would accept that there should be some kind of double standard for members of a majority and minority. The challenge, of course, is demarcating that fine line. But isn't wrong to not even try?

For example, how difficult is it to figure out what side of the line Sapp's comments were on? So, why aren't the media holding Sapp, who by the way earns $6 million a year in that "slave system," as accountable as they are Limbaugh? Throwing around loaded racial words so recklessly can only compromise efforts to address real race relations problems in the country.

Last year, former-player-turned-television-commentator Charles Barkley charged that organizers of the Masters golf tournament had lengthened the fairways of its Augusta course in an attempt to keep an African-American, Tiger Woods, from winning another title.

It was an unsubstantiated and inflammatory statement that should have provoked a public outcry and at the least a strong condemnation from Barkley's employers at TNT. Neither occurred. It was dismissed as just "outspoken Charles Barkley being Charles Barkley." But that's as silly as ignoring Limbaugh's contention about McNabb as just "Rush being Rush."

The sports world has often been a leader in helping society address race relations. And it therefore is missing an important opportunity by continuing to take a pass in dealing consistently and clearly with irresponsible comments made by some of its most high-profile members.

John D. Solomon, a New York-based journalist, writes frequently about sports and society.

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