A Bad Fit
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So, an icon of the radical Right wants to own an NFL franchise. Forty years ago it might have seemed a perfect fit. Richard Nixon was courting his "silent majority" in part through his very public enthusiasm for football. Conservative champions of football proclaimed it a bastion of traditional values against the outrages of hippies, black militants, and anti-war protestors -- "the kooks, the crumb-bums, and the Commies," as Max Rafferty, the superintendent of public instruction in California under Governor Ronald Reagan, memorably put it. Not to be outdone, from the radical Left came the charge that football was fundamentally fascist and imperialistic -- an expression of the mindset that led to our misguided venture in Southeast Asia.
That was then, this is now. The NFL and conservative icons no longer seem a natural fit, and the truth is that they never were. (Football over the years has meant pretty much whatever we have wanted or needed it to mean at the time.) Despite baseball's much-celebrated pastoralism and football's violence -- baseball inspires poets, football supposedly inspires men who like to paint their faces and get in fights -- football is no more conservative than baseball (or basketball, soccer, golf, tennis, or any other sport). All sports are "conservative" in the sense that they are fundamentally Darwinian, with winners and losers, but beyond that basic fact sports are too layered to be squeezed into crude Red State or Blue State stereotypes.
The NFL came of age during the era when football was aligned with tradition and anti-radicalism, and Pete Rozelle aggressively promoted that relationship. Air Force flyovers and superpatriotic pre-game and half-time shows became essential elements of the Super Bowl spectacle at a time when they placed the National Football League on one side of a gaping political and cultural divide. But military displays have largely disappeared from the Super Bowl in the last few year -- or more precisely, when a majority of the American public turned against our misguided venture in Iraq. The NFL is no longer interested in staking out a political position; it wants to embrace everyone and offend no one. That's good for business.
NFL fans love or hate Jerry Jones (as they loved or hated Al Davis back when he mattered), but on football terms. They don't love or hate him for his views on immigration, the torture of prisoners, or the current resident of the White House. Love and hate are both good for the NFL, but only on football terms.
Which brings us to Rush Limbaugh. Has any NFL owner ever publicly wished the President of the United States to fail? As careful as the NFL is to select only sponsors whose brands enhance or complement its own, I have a hard time imagining that it would want to entangle its brand with Rush Limbaugh's. Limbaugh is a divisive rather than uniting figure; the NFL is all about coming together behind the teams and the league. On ESPN in 2003 Limbaugh accused the sports media of a kind of affirmative action in giving Donovan McNabb too much credit for the Eagles' success. The NFL is two-thirds African-American on the field and struggles to get at least a little bit closer to that mark on the sidelines and in the front office.
Aside from the collision of brands, imagine the practical consequences of Limbaugh's running the Rams. I would not foresee any free agent stars signing with the Rams for the chance to play for the scourge of wimpy liberals, but I can imagine that some would sign with anyone but St. Louis because of him. Whose coaching staff and front office would receive more scrutiny, and more criticism for any perceived failure to honor the spirit of the Rooney Rule? Limbaugh's bid would have to be accepted not just by the Rams' current ownership but also by the rest of the league's owners. It's hard to imagine them wanting the distractions that Limbaugh would bring.
On the other hand, it is also hard to believe that Limbaugh would have gotten this far without having sounded out the commissioner and some of the current owners. The only terms that I can imagine that would make his bid acceptable, would be some kind of agreement not to embarrass the league or embroil it in controversy. Presumably, this would include giving up his role as conservative provocateur. Like Democrats going to war, wouldn't it be something if Limbaugh became the owner of the most diverse franchise in the NFL in order to prove that he's not what he's assumed to be?
I still can't see it happening.
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