King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Rush Limbaugh debates a trio of ex-jocks and gets smoked. Who said he'd be no fun as a football commentator?

By Salon Staff

Published September 8, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

Rush Limbaugh made his "official" debut on ESPN's "NFL Countdown" Sunday, and while he didn't look and act like a big fat idiot, he did show why he so rarely engages in debate on the radio show that's made him famous.

Michael Irvin pretty much routed him intellectually. Yeah, Michael Irvin.

The former Cowboys receiver impressed me as nothing more than a back-slapping buffoon in a sharp suit during his previous gig, on Fox's "The Best Damn Sports Show, Period," but he had no trouble trumping Limbaugh's arguments as Limbaugh made his second appearance on the ESPN show. Host Chris Berman called it an official debut without explaining why Thursday's show, before the season-opening game in Washington, was unofficial.

Limbaugh's role is to deliver a commentary, and then to challenge -- in the instant-replay sense of a coach challenging an official's call -- the panel up to three times a show. He can "throw his red flag" during a discussion to offer his point of view, which is presumed to be representative of the fans at home and fundamentally different from the former star players on the panel, Irvin, Steve Young and Tom Jackson.

On the radio, Limbaugh likes to pontificate, to preach to the choir that makes up his audience, and his highly challengeable statements are never challenged. It's not for nothing that his audience is known as Dittoheads. And it looked like that was going to be the drill Sunday as Rush delivered a commentary about Lions president Matt Millen being fined $200,000 by the NFL for not interviewing a black coach this offseason before hiring Steve Mariucci, who is white. Limbaugh made essentially the same argument I made in a column in July, that the league policy does nothing more than encourage general managers to keep any intentions to hire a white coach to themselves and invite blacks in for meaningless, token interviews.

Even though I agree with Rush on this one, I'm not sure he could have survived an open debate about the issue with the panel. As reader and sometime Salon contributor Bomani Jones wrote to me in July, "The notion that 'I already know who I want to hire' is on top of the list of excuses by the good-ol'-boy network. If we consistently wind up with people hiring 'people they already want to hire,' there will continue to be the recycling of retreads we've seen over and over again ... Somebody's gotta start being accountable for that stuff."

It was too bad, not to mention ironic, that the panel didn't get a chance to challenge Limbaugh. The "Countdown" panel is far more diverse than the NFL head coaching ranks, with two white men (Berman and Young) and two black men (Irvin and Jackson). Newsroom -- or TV show panel -- diversity isn't a good thing just because it's nice to have a few dark faces in the company picture but because people from different backgrounds are likely to bring a wide range of experiences and points of view into the discussion that might be absent when all the faces are the same color.

Do Jackson and Irvin agree with Limbaugh's view that the league's must-interview policy doesn't help minorities? I'd like to know. I'd have liked to see if one of them would challenge Limbaugh to come up with a better plan, because I have a hunch Rush, who I don't think is a racist, would like to see the NFL drop the rule and simply encourage teams to hire minority coaches. Individual responsibility over governmental intervention and all that.

And I'd like to see Limbaugh get into that debate because I think he'd lose it, the way he lost for the rest of the day when he and the panelists did mix it up.

His first "challenge" came during a discussion of Lawyer Milloy, the All-Pro safety cut this week by the Patriots and signed by the Bills, the Pats' division rival and opening day opponent. All three former players denounced the move, saying that New England coach Bill Belichick had ripped the heart and soul out of the team on the eve of the first game by cutting a team leader.

"This is the reason I am on this program," Limbaugh said with his trademark arrogance. He defended Belichick's move, arguing that the coach believes Milloy isn't doing the job anymore. "He's thinking, 'I'm not going to stay with someone just because of sentiment,'" Limbaugh said, adding that he'd "done some research" and learned that "the Patriots are not flat. They've had great practices this week." He said the Pats were professionals who should know the score, and they were going to beat the Bills.

Jackson persisted in his argument that players seeing a star get cut would take it to mean that they too were expendable, a deflating thought. "Don't all of you know that from the minute you get in this league?" Limbaugh asked, rhetorically. But then Irvin stepped in. "Jimmy Johnson used to say all the time, you have that totem pole, and if you're on the top of that totem pole, you can get away, and you're going to always be around," Irvin said. "If you're on the bottom, you're out of here. So everybody looks at that totem pole and says, 'I just gotta be like him and I'm untouchable.' And then they learn, hey, nobody's untouchable. And it does scare your football team."

Who was right? Bills 31, Patriots 0. The Patriots looked horrible and out of sorts. Lawyer Milloy was one of the stars for the Bills.

Limbaugh's second challenge came during a discussion of Bill Parcells coaching the Cowboys. The former players were arguing about whether failing in Dallas would damage Parcells' legacy when Limbaugh challenged Young's view that it would. "Let me tell you where you're wrong about Parcells and his reputation," Limbaugh said to Young. He said that reporters so idolize Parcells that he could go 0-16 for three years and still be the greatest coach of all time in their eyes "as long as he picks up the phone and returns their calls."

The comment -- like all of Limbaugh's characterizations of "the liberal media" as a single, unthinking entity -- was so ridiculous on its face that Young didn't have to smash home a return winner, but he did: "It's not going to tarnish everything he did, but it matters if you lose."

Limbaugh's final challenge was during a discussion that followed an interview with Jeremy Shockey, the Giants' dumb tight end with a penchant for making homophobic comments. When Limbaugh "threw his red flag," Young was talking about being tired of the stereotype of football players being boorish, egocentric oafs, though his point was unclear. But before Limbaugh could speak, Irvin said, "Jeremy Shockey may be outsmarting us all," which got derisive laughter, but Irvin went on to explain that he meant Shockey's schtick was right out of Marketing 101, and sure enough this very show had presented features on future Hall of Famers Parcells, Ray Lewis, Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith -- plus a certain second-year tight end with a big mouth.

It was a good point, but it allowed Limbaugh to get off the best line of the show, which isn't saying much. "Michael, I'm sorry," he said. "Jeremy Shockey is not outsmarting anybody." It wasn't clear to me what his challenge was about, though. Something about how our popular culture creates guys like Shockey.

Irvin, by the way, made another good point when he called Shockey on his bullshit about the anti-gay remarks. Shockey had tried to pass himself off in the new interview as a tolerant guy who was simply caught off-guard, a small-town boy from Oklahoma unused to dealing with the kinds of things that go on in New York and the high-powered media hanging on his every word. "That small-town boy went to Miami first," Irvin said. "You don't think he learned about the media? Miami's a pretty big school." Young and Jackson said Shockey had "learned his lessons" and wouldn't say anything controversial for the rest of the year. Irvin said, "I guar-own-tee you he will." I'm with Irvin.

I was pleasantly surprised by Irvin, who showed an independence of thought and an ability to frame arguments and think on his feet that I hadn't expected after watching his work on Fox. (His interview with his buddy and former teammate Smith, though, was typically facile.)

Limbaugh eventually tried to dismiss Irvin's point about Shockey being a smart marketer by saying the Shockey phenomenon has nothing to do with the player but is merely a result of the New York media not having had any football players to get excited about in years. Irvin jumped on that: "They've had Michael Strahan, Tiki Barber. They've had good players, they just haven't been part of the crossover" into popular culture. Limbaugh had no answer for that. Wouldn't you love to have someone sitting next to Limbaugh and arguing with him on his radio show? Unless that someone were a mental pygmy, it'd be a slaughter.

The idea of a non-jock challenging the assumptions of the three ex-players is a good one. Star athletes are different from you and me. They approach the game differently, and while it's interesting to hear their point of view, it's also interesting to hear from someone whose worldview wasn't formed on a playing field they were dominating. Even a non-star ex-jock would add some texture to the discussion, but a reporter, perhaps a football equivalent to the role Peter Gammons plays in ESPN's baseball coverage, would be even better.

Limbaugh has toned down his boorishness for television, and he is certainly a broadcaster of the highest caliber. His problem is he just isn't the intellectual equal of the former players. Rush can make like he's bringing the voice of reason to the party all he wants, but when someone actually gets a chance to argue with him, he comes off looking like a chump. The liberals who vowed to boycott "NFL Countdown" when Limbaugh came on board might want to tune in for the fun.

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