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Rush Limbaugh, Gays, Christians, Tebow and a World Turned Upside Down

05/01/2013 02:23 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2013
  • Jonathan Weiler Director of Undergraduate Studies in Global Studies, UNC Chapel Hill

Yesterday, Rush Limbaugh lamented that if only Tim Tebow were gay (as opposed to avowed in his faith), he would be able to land a job with an NFL franchise, a dig, of course, at the media attention that Jason Collins has received (though later Limbaugh said that even being gay wouldn't suffice, because being an avowed Christian is such a "burden" in our society today).

Limbaugh, the one-time ESPN commentator, didn't comment on Tebow's performance on the field or whether he is fit to play quarterback in the NFL since that is, evidently, beside the point. Instead, he used Jason Collins' announcement on Monday that he is gay as an opportunity to feel sorry for himself and stoke resentment among his followers that Christians are somehow persecuted in a country that has among the very highest rates of church-going and Christian religious affiliation of any wealthy country in the world and in which every single President in American history (and most Supreme Court Justices, Senators and so on) has been Christian (idiocy from some about the current President's religiosity notwithstanding). I know, I know -- sometimes, during the Christmas season, people are greeted with a "happy holidays" rather than "merry Christmas," which is, admittedly, tantamount to Christians being thrown to the lions in ancient Rome.

So Tebow yesterday was the vehicle for Limbaugh to blabber on how about how hard it is to be Christian in a Christian-dominated culture and society and to lament that an historically persecuted group somehow holds all the power in society -- in this case gays.

This is, of course, not new territory for Limbaugh. His Tebo comments brought back memories of his short-lived stint at ESPN in 2003, which ended after Limbaugh claimed that then Eagles' quarterback Donovan McNabb was getting the benefit of the media's "social concern" for a black quarterback and was receiving undue praise as a result of his race.

In light of Limbaugh's antics yesterday, here's a friendly reminder about how Limbaugh goes about bathing himself in self-pity by inverting reality. I wrote this in early 2005 about the McNabb episode, on the eve of Super Bowl XXXIX, when McNabb's Eagles were getting ready to play the Patriots:

According to Media Matters, Rush recently fielded a phone call in which he acknowledged that McNabb had had a great 2004 season, but stood by his comments, made early in the 2003 season. Here's what Limbaugh said in 2003:

"He's overrated...I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well...There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."

A firestorm erupted after this comment, prompting ESPN to end the short-lived Limbaugh experiment. ESPN's cravenness aside (what did they expect him to do on the program?), the implication of Limbaugh's claim is this: that white quarterbacks have not gotten undue credit for the play of their team's defenses....that unlike blacks, white men sink or swim on their merits. Is this true with regard to quarterbacks?

Let's start by talking about John Shaffer. Shaffer was the quarterback at Penn State University in 1986 when that school won its second national championship, after upsetting the University of Miami in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's night, 1987. Shaffer was lionized (sorry for the pun) for his grit and his winning ways, and it was common to hear people refer to the great won-loss records of his teams going back to the seventh grade. But, here's the dirty little secret about Shaffer: he sucked. Big time. For his college career, he completed fewer than half his passes and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. That's a frankly pathetic record for a quarterback at an elite school surrounded by future NFL players. In the championship game itself, Shaffer threw for 53 yards, a laughably low total. The reason that Penn State won was their defense, which was great all season and intercepted Miami's Heisman trophy winning quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, five times in the championship game. Shaffer, by the way, is white.

How about a couple of other examples? Tom Brady, now deified as the second coming of Joe Montana, won the most valuable player three years ago in Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots' first championship. Why? Well, Brady threw for 145 yards in that game. That's one of the lowest totals in Super Bowl history for a winning quarterback, and the second lowest in the last thirty years. True, Brady led the Patriots on a nice game-winning field goal drive in the final minute. But, the real story of the game was the Patriots' defense, which held the high-scoring St. Louis Rams to just 17 points. Brady, by the way, is also white. So is Jim McMahon, a good, tough QB who happened to lead the offense of the 1985 Chicago Bears, a team that had perhaps the most ferocious defense in football history; McMahon got credit as a "winner," of course, and as the heart, soul and leader of that team, though his statistical performances never put him among the NFL's elite quarterbacks. Let me assure you, there are many more examples to choose from.

Here's the point: quarterbacks have always gotten credit even when their performances were mediocre or worse but they happened to play on teams with great defenses.

For guys like Limbaugh, it's not slavery or Jim Crow that constitute among the greatest crimes in American history. No, it's the liberal response to those crimes that really imperils our civilization. From this warped historical perspective, it often follows that ill-informed, frankly cowardly race-baiting is dressed up as a courageous rejection of political correctness. The fact is that McNabb was a good quarterback when Limbaugh made his comments. Actually, as Salon.com's great sports columnist King Kaufman pointed out at the time, according to Football Prospectus, McNabb was the best QB in the NFL in 2002, using a purely statistical analysis that did not consider skin-color. But, the larger issue is that because of the nature of the sport, quarterbacks have often gotten credit for team performances that had little or nothing to do with their own talents. Limbaugh's fantasy quarterback meritocracy, like the larger white meritocracy he's certain existed before 1965 or so, is a canard. The only reason McNabb got singled out for the same treatment that white quarterbacks have always gotten is that he's Black. This isn't a "media" issue, as Limbaugh has maintained. It's a Limbaugh issue.

A couple of codas here. First, Brady has, of course, gone on to become one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. That doesn't change the silliness of having awarded him the MVP in Super Bowl XXXVI (his MVP award for SB XXXVIII was well deserved). By the way, McNabb's last season in the NFL was 2011. He started six games for a terrible team that finished the year at 3-13 and was replaced mid-season by Christian Ponder. Had he qualified, McNabb would have finished in the middle of the pack in terms of quarterback rating, ahead of Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton. In other words, he was still a decent quarterback when, at age 35, no team in the NFL thought him good enough to play another down. This in a league in which there is a constant complaint about a lack of depth at the position. There are a lot of quarterbacks still drawing paychecks in the NFL whose performance is clearly inferior to McNabb's. My guess is that, were McNabb white and avowedly religious, Limbaugh would be using this as exhibit A for the unfair treatment of him and his kind.

It is true that we've come a long way as a society in rejecting the mindless prejudices that have long relegated gays to the closet, legally and socially. But it's a joke to argue, as Limbaugh does, that the Tim Tebows of the world are unfairly persecuted in comparison with the Jason Collins of the world. Yes, it's true that citing the bible as justification for spouting prejudice is far more likely these days to draw intense criticism. Get over it. If that's your biggest grievance -- that people might be mean to you when you say ignorant or hateful things -- you really don't have much to complain about.