In 1990, Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt opposed Republican incumbent Jessie Helms in North Carolina's Senate race. Gantt, an early civil rights leader and Mayor of Charlotte, ultimately lost the election, thanks in part to a racially charged advertisement from the Helms campaign. The now infamous ad, “Hands,” depicted a white man crinkling up a piece of paper after losing his job to a minority, implying, of course, that unfair racial quotas were to blame. Written by Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, the ad would go down in political history as one of the more egregious (and successful) exploitations of white resentment for political gain.
When asked to endorse Gantt for the Senate seat, NBA legend and North Carolina native Michael Jordan refused, stating, “Republicans wear sneakers, too.” The implication was clear, and the message came through loudly: As an avid businessman and superstar athlete, Jordan was happy to shelve his politics—and self dignity, for that matter—in favor of merchandise sales.
Flash forward nineteen years. Last week, conservative radio personality and former ESPN NFL commentator Rush Limbaugh announced interest in buying the beleaguered St. Louis Rams. Rejecting Michael Jordan-style political ambivalence, players across the league openly expressed dissatisfaction. Mathias Kiwanuka of the New York Giants, for example, was quoted as saying:
"I mean, I don't want anything to do with a team that he has any part of. He can do whatever he wants, it is a free country. But if it goes through, I can tell you where I am not going to play […] I am not going to draw a conclusion from a person off of one comment, but when it is time after time after time and there's a consistent pattern of disrespect and just a complete misunderstanding of an entire culture that I am a part of, I can't respect him as a man."
Kiwunaka was not alone. In 2003, Limbaugh resigned as an ESPN commentator after making racially charged remarks about Donovan McNabb, suggesting that the Pro Bowl quarterback only reached stardom due to the media’s irrational desire for “a black quarterback [to] do well.” Current players, like New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott, have not forgotten these statements:
“It’s an oxymoron that he criticized Donovan McNabb. A lot of us took it as more of a racial-type thing. I can only imagine how his players would feel. I know I wouldn’t want to play for him. He’s a jerk. He’s an —. What he said (about McNabb) was inappropriate and insensitive, totally off-base. He could offer me whatever he wanted, I wouldn’t play for him. … I wouldn’t play for Rush Limbaugh. My principles are greater and I can’t be bought.”
In a league that’s between 60 and 70 per cent black, it’s more than a little insulting to imagine a man that once suggested the NFL “all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons” could become a team owner. In fact, it’s absolutely outrageous. That a man with such overt, explicit contempt for African Americans could purchase and control an organization that profits from the labor of black athletes signals far too much historical baggage to be appropriate. Sports hold a special, unifying place in American culture, and as a result shouldn’t be a venue that rewards bigotry and divisiveness. Limbaugh’s disrespect of the league, its players, and African Americans in general are all legitimate grounds to oppose his involvement with the NFL—all opinions, I might add, that exist above and beyond any objection to his political views.
Given Limbaugh’s long history of racially charged remarks, it’s not surprising that players were offended by his announcement. But what is surprising is the public nature of their comments. Normally, team owners work to thwart political activism and diffuse dissent among their players. Bad for business, per the Jordan model of merchandise sales. But with the controversy over Limbaugh’s announcement, professional athletes may be moving toward a new model of political discourse, rejecting the Jordan template and re-embracing self dignity. The recent news that Limbaugh was officially dropped from the group bidding to buy the Rams only underscores the potential power of civically engaged professional athletes. Maybe this is the dawn of a new era—an era of renewed self-respect, moral integrity and civic engagement—in professional sports.
Tony Kornheiser of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption made this very point earlier in the week, suggesting, “We are out of the Michael Jordan era where everyone wears sneakers, and back to the Jim Brown era of social activism.”
No complaints here.