I would point out for the everlasting record that so-called serious people who discuss serious issues in a serious way for serious paychecks still believe that Rush Limbaugh knows what he's talking about. I also would point out that he lasted less than a month on ESPN, where he attempted to fit Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and my sportswriting colleagues onto the back of a couple of his old, battered -- Affirmative action! Liberal media! -- hobbyhorses. It seems sportswriters know a grotesque public charlatan when they see one; after all, many of them have covered boxing.
It's a good time of year to examine the sports-politics coNFLuence. All of the sports come together: The World Series is upon us, the NFL season is winding into its cold-and-fracture phase, and hockey and basketball are hitting the quarter pole. Also, in case it got by you, we're a year out from an election in which we will determine if we're to be governed for another four years by a man who once traded Sammy Sosa for a bag of magic beans -- and who has since traded the international credibility of the United States for far less than that.
It's plain to me that over the coming months, the people covering sports will inform and entertain their audiences far more honorably than will most of the media superstars who cover politics. Sportswriters endure lots of jokes about working in the "toy department‚" but let it be said that they laughed Limbaugh out of their universe in less time than it took his maid to score down at the Gas-n-Sip. The elite political media, though, are still impressed by the likes of him. And don't you doubt that after he waltzes out of Rehab Mansion, he'll be given license to pick right back up where he left off. Political journalism in this country is a whorehouse with 500 piano players.
Why the difference? Because every day, sportswriters are dealing with a genuine meritocracy. In the NFL, daddy's rich buddies cannot bail you out when Warren Sapp comes to sit on your head. In baseball, you actually have to hit a triple to earn your way to third base. There was a damn good reason why George W. Bush was first a cheerleader and then an owner.
Every so often, in an attempt to pretend that they are just regular Joes and Jills, modern movement rightists come a-wanderin' into sports, often with hilarious consequences. Back in 1996, Fred Barnes wrote a lengthy essay in The Weekly Standard on what he called a "taxonomy of liberal and conservative games." The piece glistened with gems of hard-bitten barstool acuity.
For example, "That brings us to basketball, the sport that went from liberal to conservative." Why? Because the sport has moved from Bill Bradley to Charles Barkley. It is to marvel. Yes, the NBA -- a living symbol of all those virtues limned so well by Bill "Sportin' Life" Bennett in that big, heavy book that he forgot on top of that slot machine at Caesar's Palace. Actual sportswriters haven't stopped laughing at this nonsense yet. But Barnes' spurious mooing on the topic of the NBA is not much more spurious than his mooing on Bill Clinton was. Where's the toy department now?
Confronted with an authentic meritocracy unmarred by the inherent disadvantages of race and class, the modern rightist is lost. Oh, put together a gerrymandered one, based on hereditary privilege, white skin and a network born of mommy's iNFLuence and daddy's checkbook, and the rightist is first in line for the kind of ideological affirmative action that has allowed Peggy Noonan to read the minds of dolphins.
Or the kind that caused ESPN to hire Limbaugh in the first place. Once there, Limbaugh beheld a world that didn't fit easily into the tinhorn categories that had made him rich. He found himself confronted with colleagues and with an audience that realized that he didn't know enough about football to throw to a cat. As truthless on Donovan McNabb as he ever was on Newt Gingrich, Rush found there were consequences for being an empty blowhard this time. The games flowed on without him, and he went back to a familiar place, at least for a couple of weeks, where he could stand under the red glow of the Tiffany lamps, hopping from one foot to another, waiting for his turn at the piano bench.