By 2003, Rush Limbaugh was already infamous as a racist and misogynist who used his nationally syndicated radio show to refer to feminists as “feminazis,” mock gay men who died from AIDS, and falsely blame the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing on “Middle Eastern terrorists.”
ESPN hired him anyway.
“His acute sense of what’s on the minds of his listeners, combined with [an] ability to entertain and serve as a lightning rod for lively discussion, makes him the perfect fit for this new role,” Mark Shapiro, then the network’s executive vice president of programming and production, said when the right-wing talk show host joined “Sunday NFL Countdown,” ESPN’s popular pregame show.
Then as now, NFL rosters were majority Black. (It was also the inaugural year of the Rooney Rule, which mandates that teams must interview at least one candidate of color for head coaching and senior football operations roles.)
Limbaugh was not a perfect fit. In his fourth week, he claimed Donovan McNabb, then the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback, received too much credit for his team’s success because “the media has been very desirous that a Black quarterback do well.” After a swift backlash, Limbaugh was forced to resign.
He got what he deserved. So did ESPN.
To be clear, Limbaugh wasn’t hired in spite of his bigoted provocations — he was hired because of them. In his toxic comments, executives heard an “ability to entertain,” as if racism, homophobia, and sexism were nothing more than a surefire shtick. He was Archie Bunker on steroids with a massive audience who found in his nastiness a salve for their mediocrity. He offered up scapegoats for their failings.
Limbaugh’s radio show was an indoctrination camp for white supremacy. And ESPN knew it.
Meanwhile, anyone who denounced Limbaugh as dangerous was dismissed as a scold who just didn’t get the joke. After his death Wednesday, fans were still defending him.
“Liberals who didn’t listen to Rush . . . never understood how *funny* he was,” tweeted Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review. “What set him off from his many imitators was how wildly entertaining he was, and the absolutely unbreakable bond he formed with his listeners.”
Limbaugh was neither funny nor entertaining, except to those never targeted by his vitriol. ESPN executives saw his base of angry white men as symbiotic with their own, ignoring the fact that women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others who despised everything Limbaugh represented also watched the network.
Years before Limbaugh’s ill-conceived ESPN stint, President Clinton excoriated the “loud and angry voices” on the airwaves “that . . . spread hate” and “leave the impression . . . by their very words, that violence is acceptable.” Days earlier, Timothy McVeigh, an anti-government white supremacist, had blown up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Clinton never mentioned Limbaugh by name, but everyone knew who had the biggest mouth and the biggest audience.
ESPN wanted that mouth and audience.
For 30 years, Limbaugh did more than coarsen this nation’s political discourse; he injected it with poison that millions mainlined. He became the template for Fox News, and every Republican president dating back to George H.W. Bush clamored for an endorsement that could make a campaign.
A week after Limbaugh’s ESPN departure, Tom Jackson, one of two Black men who had to share the “Sunday NFL Countdown” stage with the bellicose radio host, chastised the network for its cynical hiring gamble.
“Rush Limbaugh is known for the divisive nature of his rhetoric,” Jackson said. “He creates controversy, and what he said Sunday is the same type of thing that he said on radio for years.”
Influential in all the wrong ways, Limbaugh would remain on radio for nearly two more decades. He spread “birther” lies about President Obama; called a young woman a misogynistic slur for testifying about the importance of birth control and insurance coverage; mocked actor Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s disease; and railed against Black Lives Matter. In his final shows, he perpetuated mendacious election fraud claims after more than 81 million people rejected his greatest acolyte, Donald Trump.
In the radio show host, the one-time reality show host saw a blueprint for limning this nation’s worst impulses, and he used it to get into the White House. Trump was also called “an entertainer” who knows how to play to an audience — an attempt to excuse his most grievous sins as a kind of performance art, right up to the deadly insurrection he incited at the Capitol last month.
Despite Limbaugh’s brief time on ESPN, the network helped normalize his brand of brazen demagoguery. Plucked from right-wing radio, Limbaugh was mainstreamed into millions of homes on those Sunday mornings, a firebrand evangelist for white supremacy allowed a national television platform under the benign cover of America’s most beloved sport.
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.