Full disclosure: I hate the Philadelphia Eagles. Always have. I grew up in Arlington, Texas, and even before Jerry Jones built a colossal monument to football (and to Jerry Jones) right in the middle of our town, my family worshipped the Dallas Cowboys. According to tradition, Cowboys fans are supposed to hate the Redskins most of all. But so many other objectionable things come streaming out of Washington that I never could muster the same antipathy for its football team. No, I reserve the full measure of my wrath for the Birds.
My hatred for the Eagles can cause me to underestimate the team. Last year, for instance, all the Cowboys needed to do to make the playoffs was beat the Eagles in the last game of the regular season. No sweat, I thought at the time. The Eagles’ offense had managed to hang only three points on a mediocre Redskins team the week before. But I overlooked the fact that Philadelphia had won three straight leading up to that game and was peaking at the right time. In other words, I convinced myself that the Eagles were a terrible football team because I wanted them to be a terrible football team. The Cowboys lost 44–6, and the Eagles advanced to the conference finals.
In 2003, after the Eagles got off to a rocky 0–2 start, Rush Limbaugh, early in his brief stint as a commentator for ESPN, made some remarks about Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb that got him into trouble.
His comment started out innocently enough: He called McNabb “overrated.” No big deal. Professional athletes are labeled “overrated” or “underrated” every day on sports talk radio and television. It happens for all kinds of reasons. For instance, just the other day, ESPN columnist Bill Simmons laid out a theory
of why Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is overrated:
Well, the name “Tony Romo” . . . I mean, that’s a great name. That sounds like the name of someone who is going to be such a smash hit, he’ll end up winning a couple of Super Bowls and opening a chain of BBQ restaurants. I want to root for “Tony Romo.” I want to believe that “Tony Romo” is going to come through on this game-winning drive. I want “Tony Romo” to plow through a series of hot actresses and singers. I want “Tony Romo” to stay single past retirement, develop a drinking problem and eventually hit on a sideline reporter during a live telecast before entering rehab. These are the things that “Tony Romo” should do.
This is why we projected talents for Romo that he didn’t actually have.
The controversy over Rush’s comments wasn’t that he thought McNabb was overrated, but why he thought that. “I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL,” Limbaugh said. “The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.”
In other words, the media overrated McNabb because they wanted him to be great, just as I have occasionally underrated him because I want him to be terrible. The week after Rush made his comments, which led to his resignation from ESPN, sportswriter (and Eagles fan) Allen Barra came to his defense with a piece in Slate. In it, Barra explained why Rush’s analysis was correct:
So far, no black quarterback has been able to dominate a league in which the majority of the players are black. To pretend that many of us didn’t want McNabb to be the best quarterback in the NFL because he’s black is absurd. To say that we shouldn’t root for a quarterback to win because he’s black is every bit as nonsensical as to say that we shouldn’t have rooted for Jackie Robinson to succeed because he was black. (Please, I don’t need to be reminded that McNabb’s situation is not so difficult or important as Robinson’s — I’m talking about a principle.)
Looking back on the 2003 episode, I wonder whether these comments would even be controversial if they had been uttered after the election of Barack Obama. In February of 2008, liberal writer Gary Kamiya wrote a piece for Salon titled, “It’s OK to vote for Obama because he’s black,” in which he echoed Barra’s reasoning.
White enthusiasm for Obama is driven by his race. But there’s nothing wrong with that fact. Those who criticize it are simultaneously too idealistic and too cynical: They assume that it’s possible to simply ignore Obama’s race, while also imputing unsavory motivations to those who are inspired by it. The truth is that whites’ race-driven enthusiasm for Obama is an almost unreservedly positive thing — both because electing a black president is a good thing in its own right, and because of what that enthusiasm says about race relations in America today.