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WP: ESPN's Defense Lacks Rush


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ESPN's Defense Lacks Rush

Quite a Soar Spot

By Matt Bonesteel

Washington Post Staff Writer


"Rush Limbaugh's comments could not have been more hurtful. He was brought in to talk football, and he broke that trust. Rush told us that the social commentary for which he is so well known would not cross over to our show, and instead he would represent the viewpoint of the intelligent, passionate fan. We know of few fans, passionate or otherwise, who see Donovan McNabb, a three-time Pro Bowler with two championship game appearances, being somehow artificially hyped because of the color of his skin. The fact that Donovan McNabb's skin color was brought up at all was wrong. . . . As it turns out, and it's obvious now, Rush Limbaugh was not a fit for 'NFL Countdown.' "

ESPN President George Bodenheimer may have issued a news release Wednesday night saying that the network regretted "the circumstances surrounding this," but it was "Countdown's" estimable Tom Jackson who yesterday delivered the network's true apology and explained why he and his compatriots didn't speak up when Limbaugh uttered his comments last Sunday. He also took a quiet shot at the execs who made this ill-fated, starkly ratings-hungry decision in the first place.

"I want you to know that no one prevented us from speaking. We chose this forum, our show," Jackson said. "Let me just say that it was not our decision to have Rush Limbaugh on this show."

Those words capped a surreal week in which ESPN found itself covering -- and at the center of -- a story of its own creation. Was it meta-coverage? Standard news judgment? Whatever you want to call it, it certainly was strange, but the speed and honesty with which ESPN delivered the story was pretty remarkable, especially considering there was really no playbook for such a situation. There certainly is one now.

Yesterday's "Countdown" was a perfect example, and gave a nice summation of the week that was. To start, Bob Ley presented a newsy, "Outside the Lines"-esque recap. Then the show's four hosts got their chance to speak.

"I've done this show for a long time, 'NFL Gameday' and 'Sunday NFL Countdown,' " Chris Berman said with uncharacteristic but appropriate reserve. "Sundays have always been a special time. When that alarm goes off at 6 a.m. every Sunday morning, I'm already wide awake. Why? We just can't wait to get to the football, all day and all night. It's always football. As a result of last week's show and it's aftermath, right now it's not. And it angers me."

Berman later also gave his own mea culpa about not speaking up when Rush said what he said: "Look, I'm the host of this show. I missed it. I shouldn't have missed it. I've been kicking myself all week."

So did Steve Young: "Not to beat a dead horse about this missing it . . . but we all missed it. I missed it. And the truth is, everyone at ESPN missed it."

Soon "Countdown" was back to what it does best -- preparing the viewer for the day ahead and having a good time. But if anything can be learned from this, it's that networks need to let the football stand on its own.

Let the experts, the James Browns and Jim Nantzes and John Maddens and Tom Jacksons, do the talking. There's no need for a comedian in the booth, and there's no need for a politically motivated radio host in the studio. Just tell us how our fantasy players will fare and if our team has a shot, and we'll be more than happy.

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