LAST SUNDAY, on ESPN's pregame football telecast, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh said that he doesn't think Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb has ever been all he's cracked up to be. He explained:

I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. They're interested in black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well. I think there's a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he really didn't deserve. The defense carried this team.

What started as an eyebrow-raising statement quickly turned into a "tempest," as Limbaugh referred to it Wednesday on his radio show. Democratic presidential candidates Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, and Al Sharpton all criticized Limbaugh, calling his comments racist. And NAACP president Kweisi Mfume denounced both Limbaugh and ESPN, wondering why the network had a political commentator on its program to begin with (he may have a point there). NFL officials and players were none too happy either.

Late Wednesday, Limbaugh resigned his position on ESPN's "NFL Sunday Countdown." There are larger issues surrounding Limbaugh right now, but for the sake of beleaguered Philadelphia fans it's worth examining the original point: Limbaugh was wrong to criticize McNabb the way he did.

No, Limbaugh wasn't wrong to criticize McNabb's play. In fact, he was rather late to the game on that count. Everyone in Philadelphia spent the first three weeks of this football season wondering what's gone wrong with their superstar QB. One veteran Philly sports columnist recently wrote of the city's "collective despair over the performance of Donovan McNabb." McNabb himself has admitted that his performance in the first couple weeks of this season was sub-par. In fact Limbaugh was asked to comment on McNabb precisely because his fellow ESPN commentators had been discussing whether McNabb is living up to his billing as a top-flight quarterback.

But yes, Limbaugh was wrong to cast McNabb's success as a by-product of racial boosterism. And the proof is in the Philly fans.

DONOVAN MCNABB, like all pro athletes who play in Philadelphia, has seen his share of criticism from local fans and media. (In 1999 a local sports-talk station led a contingent of disgruntled fans to the ceremony when he was drafted with the #2 pick just so that they could boo him on national television--they wanted the Eagles to get Ricky Williams.) No one has tried to stifle the legitimate concerns that do exist. Is Donovan a good enough touch-passer? Can he stay in the pocket and deliver the ball with crisp precision? Or does he need to scramble and rely on his athletic prowess to get himself out of jams?

These critiques became particularly sharp last season, after McNabb signed a new contract worth $115 million over 12 years. When a player earns money like that, he can no longer be considered a "developing" star--he has to perform to the level of his paycheck.

Yet McNabb's success over the past few seasons isn't wishful thinking, and Philadelphia fans are not social engineers--if Donovan didn't give fans reason to be optimistic, they'd have made his life much more difficult. Philly fans have seen the results of McNabb's play. He led the Eagles to two consecutive NFC championship games. The team is 36-22 with McNabb at the helm. He finished second in voting for the MVP award in his first season as a starter. And whether they are signs of weakness or of strength, McNabb's Houdini-esque runs, in which he escapes the clutches of defensive backs and eats up huge chunks of yardage, bring fans to their feet.

Meanwhile, the Eagles' defense has received all the credit it richly deserves. Over the last few seasons it has been regarded as one of the best defensive squads in the league. And when the defense pulls out a victory, their teammates on offense are often the first to point it out. What has given Philadelphia fans hope is that finally the defense and the offense are both, at the same time, poised to reach the top ranks and carry the team over the hump and to Philadelphia's first Super Bowl since the 1980 season.

Rush Limbaugh's mistake may be that he didn't spend enough time studying how people in Philadelphia feel about McNabb. Otherwise he would have known that while fans and the media have placed their hopes in him, no one lets him off the hook. No one ever gets off the hook in Philadelphia.

BUT THE NFL does bear some responsibility for feeding Limbaugh's fears. Last year the league bowed to pressure from Johnnie Cochran and other civil rights celebrities who argued that the NFL doesn't have enough black head coaches. A commission studied the issue and instituted a new rule requiring teams to interview at least one black candidate for every coaching vacancy.

The Detroit Lions bucked the system during this past off-season. When Steve Mariucci was let go from the San Francisco 49ers, the Lions pounced. They interviewed and hired Mariucci (a Michigan native) almost immediately. No black candidates were interviewed for the job. No other white candidates were interviewed for the job, either. And because the Lions didn't go through the charade of bringing in a black candidate, the league fined team president Matt Millen $200,000.

Scores of commentators and analysts, both black and white, have pointed out the obvious side-effect of the NFL policy: All black coaching candidates now have a pall of "tokenism" cast over their interviews. Yet the league stands by its policy, leading more astute observers than Limbaugh to believe that the NFL wants to Miracle-Gro a successful black coach, rather than simply allowing successful black coaches (like Dennis Green, Tony Dungy, and Herman Edwards) to blossom on their own.

But for quarterbacks, the charge doesn't hold water. Few coaches are willing to sacrifice their team's success in order to make a social statement. Roughly a quarter of NFL teams have black starting quarterbacks today, and most are top-notch players. Steve McNair, Michael Vick, Daunte Culpepper--it didn't take a racial experiment to find out these guys are awesome.

Rush Limbaugh was incorrect when he claimed that Donovan McNabb's reputation is built on race-based social promotion. While such affirmative action may exist in the wider world that Limbaugh typically examines, it doesn't hold as much sway in the wide world of sports--at least not on the field. He injected race into an issue where it doesn't belong. Now that he's resigned, this controversy will die down. But Limbaugh still ought to reexamine the facts and admit that he screwed up, so as to avoid giving anyone else an excuse to claim he's a racist.

Ed Walsh is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and a native of the Philadelphia suburbs. He's still hoping the Eagles can go 14-2 this season.

Correction appended 10/3/03: The article originally identified Kweisi Mfume as president of the NCAA. He is, of course, president of the NAACP.

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