Not content to sit idly by while Fox Sports opens telecasts with war-porn footage of an aircraft carrier (one half expects to see “War On Terror” swoop in under the NFL logo), ESPN has added Rush Limbaugh to its Sunday morning pregame show, Sunday NFL Countdown, a two-hour marathon that seems to go on as long as the Iraq war did. The hope is millions of “dittoheads” will blindly follow Rush to ESPN, although it’s likely his core audience already watches football, when not strip-mining or smacking Hillary Clinton piñatas. Yes, he sat to the right of host Chris Berman Sunday during his first TV gig since his poorly conceived talk show a decade back, albeit off camera for much of the proceedings, interrupting only after too much time had passed between tiresome Berman puns on the pigskin uses of Limbaugh’s first name.
As when corporate cousin ABC hired Dennis Miller (and passed on Limbaugh) for Monday Night Football in 2000, a steady drone of ESPN executives and PR types have stayed on message, insisting Rush is a huge football fan and knows the game. Based on what, exactly? His high-school football experience, where he supposedly injured a knee that kept him out of the Vietnam War? His friendships with NFL owners, who have invited Limbaugh to gorge at the buffets in their private boxes? The fact he can easily afford Direct TV’s Sunday Ticket?
Limbaugh’s performance so far hasn’t exactly shown him to be the second coming of Amos Alonzo Stagg. His role is to interrupt when he disagrees with what someone has said, which is pretty much the job description of just about everyone in sports television these days. His so-called “challenges” (a labored attempt to make the show seem like the sport it covers) included a confusing defense of Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey—namely, that “Shockey isn’t gonna outsmart anybody.” On Thursday night, he called the ex-players on the show for going easy on Jets QB Vinny Testaverde because they like him personally, which is true of everyone in the media, actually.
Perhaps most predictably, Limbaugh sided with authority in a couple of coach/player debates, most strongly defending Patriots coach Bill Belichick for the controversial cutting of team captain Lawyer Milloy. Rush announced, “Belichick always gets rid of guys a year too soon, and therefore never faces massive rebuilding.” Ask Cleveland Browns fans about that one. The tone indicated approval in the same manner Rush would applaud General Motors eliminating an assembly plant in order to “get lean.” Unfortunately, it is patently wrong—despite Rush’s claim of “research” on the topic, the truth is Belichick wanted to keep the popular safety, but he irked Milloy by threatening him with release if a new contract couldn’t be hashed out. Enraged, the player cut off negotiations, bolted to Buffalo days before the opener, and exacted revenge with a sack and a tip to another player, who intercepted, leading to a 31-0 whipping of Milloy’s former team *. Limbaugh had confidently made New England his lock of the week.
Earlier, Limbaugh decried the current NFL charade of giving black coaching candidates token interviews without providing anything resembling a solution. What’s surprising is that he bothered to broach the subject of African-Americans in sports—this is the man who, according to the Boston Globe, once told a caller, “They are 12 percent of the population. Who the hell cares!” Unfortunately for Limbaugh, the rest of the studio cast on Countdown is 50 percent black, including former Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin, who pursued a decidedly non-conservative lifestyle as a player.
Does anyone believe it is a coincidence that ESPN hired Irvin, the man nicknamed “Playmaker,” just as the network debuted a shock-value fictional series of the same name? Regardless, Irvin is a strong choice for the role, much better than the departed Sterling Sharpe. Brash, funny, and unafraid to knock the game’s sacred cows (Sunday he declared Brett Favre all but finished, hours before the Packer legend threw four interceptions in a home loss against Minnesota), Irvin brings a streetwise, no-BS edge to the show and seems to think more like an average fan than Limbaugh does.
And Countdown already features an arch-conservative on the set—former QB and devout Mormon Steve Young, a red-state favorite who regularly adds insight to the telecast. Unlike Limbaugh, whose relentless liberal-bashing always seems to carry a scintilla of a wink to convey that it’s all just entertainment, Young actually lives and breathes the pious ethic Rush claims the country so sorely lacks.
The NFL pregame show, domain of the agoraphobic and the family-averse, seems an odd place for publicity stunts aimed at attracting “casual” fans. Have you ever heard anyone angrily denounce something uttered on a pregame show? The dirty little secret that haunts decision-makers at the networks is that for all the time and money spent hyping up these programs, most of the fans they are striving so hard to attract are busy arranging that day’s lunch menu while they air. Sure, the living room television is likely set to ESPN or Fox or CBS, but the only people paying strict attention are gamblers hoping for a late-breaking injury or weather update. That makes the information men, especially ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, the critical players. Yet Mort, who combines peerless league contacts with a strong camera presence, has seen his face-time cut in favor of Limbaugh’s “average fan.”
As I’ve explained before, ESPN will likely continue to value the garish over the meaningful. Perhaps the network missed a big opportunity on Thursday night before the opener, when two celebrities the network currently favors were on hand in the nation’s capital. Imagine the buzz if Limbaugh and Britney Spears had kissed on the Mall.
Correction: Sept. 8, 2003. This article originally stated that Lawyer Milloy had an interception in Buffalo’s season opener against the Patriots. He did not intercept, in fact; he tipped a pass to another player, who intercepted it. (Return to the corrected sentence here.)