First Amendment Wilbon? Bryant Gumbel Has Rights, Rush Limbaugh Does Not

As Tom Johnson noted, Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon wrote a column for Thursday's paper, headlined "Gumbel Has the Right To Say What He Feels." After Gumbel insulted union leader Gene Upshaw about needing a "leash" because he was the NFL Commissioner's "pet," Wilbon said he disagreed with the argument that Upshaw made bad deals for football players, but suggested the idea of the NFL Network removing Bryant Gumbel from broadcasting their football games later this fall "not only won't fly but will look like the silliest Nixonian attempt at censorship." But don't give him a First Amendment Award. That's not the way Wilbon felt about Rush Limbaugh broadcasting football games. In May of 2000, when ABC was considering Limbaugh as the third man in the broadcast booth for "Monday Night Football," he declared Rush was a racist, and has no right to broadcast:

"I have attended or watched all but about 5 or 6 MNF games in 30 years. If Rush Limbaugh is put in that booth, I will NOT listen to the broadcast. His views on people like me [blacks] are well documented, and I would find it insulting and hypocritical to watch him do the broadcast. And I’m sure, absolutely certain, there are tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands who feel the same way I do."

Wilbon provided no examples then of Limbaugh's supposed hatred of blacks. (Rush certainly never metaphorically put Gene Upshaw on a "leash.") So who's the "Nixonian" censor? No one has the "right" to announce NFL football games. That's not a "free speech" issue. But Wilbon's column made it very clear the issue isn't free speech. It's that Gumbel is one of his heroes and role models, and a personal friend. He begins by noting as he grew up in Chicago, he was already enamored of the Gumbel brothers, before they were TV stars:

As I went through high school, it became clear I wasn't going to be a professional ballplayer. Increasingly, I wanted to be like Greg and Bryant Gumbel. So this column includes a certain bias as well as a certain annoyance that Bryant Gumbel's recent harsh remarks about NFL union chief Gene Upshaw might make him unworthy of calling games on the NFL Network, as outgoing commissioner Paul Tagliabue hinted at this week...

While I disagree with Bryant Gumbel's characterization of Upshaw, I defend Gumbel's right to make the observation. If Gumbel were arguing the point with me, he'd make it persuasively, probably brilliantly, because that 's what he's done for a living for 30-plus years. He's one of the best things to come along in the modern history of sports journalism.

Put aside the decades of arrogant liberal bias that Gumbel's produced. While Wilbon notes Gumbel was "harsh," he never says this harshness countered his reputation for being persuasive and brilliant; that this particular commentary was not persuasive, but damaging to Gumbel's career, not a stellar moment. Instead, the gooey Gumbel valentine continued:

When the NFL Network announced that Gumbel and Cris Collinsworth were going to call games this season, it was a boon for the league. The fledgling network needs Gumbel a lot more than he needs it. He's already got the best sports show on television in "Real Sports" and it's just another component of one of the great careers in the history of television journalism. How many people calling NFL games have interviewed Kremlin officials live in Moscow? How many play-by-play guys have interviewed Fidel Castro in Cuba and come to your living room live from Saigon?

Toward the end of Gumbel's run at NBC's "Today" in the mid-1990s it became popular to take shots at him for being arrogant and dismissive. And Willard Scott was on the wrong end of a very critical internal memo at one point. But whether he was editing and contributing to "Black Sports" magazine in the early 1970s or doing sports at KNBC-TV in Los Angeles or anchoring pregame shows on NBC Sports, the four-time Emmy winner has been credible. He has been almost everything we praised Howard Cosell for being and then some, which is to say literate, tough, insightful, outspoken and critical. When he reports from anywhere, I'm listening.

Bryant Gumbel is not going to be anybody's Bobo, not even the NFL's.

Wilbon failed to consider the concept that maybe Gumbel was criticized for being arrogant and dismissive....because he came across as arrogant and dismissive, and not just in internal memos, but on the air. (The kind of guy who'd crack when he thinks he's off camera that a conservative guest is an "f---ing idiot," just for starters.) But it's quite clear that Wilbon actually enjoys Gumbel being arrogant and dismissive. He cites Gumbel's other HBO meltdown, not as another sign of Gumbel failing to make a point "persuasively, probably brilliantly," but as a sign of gritty independent thinking:

And Tagliabue, a brilliant man himself, had to know exactly what the league was getting when the network approached Gumbel. There's a 30-year body of work out there to view. Did Tags and the NFL not see him take a shot at the lily-whiteness of the Winter Olympics and the GOP convention? Did Tagliabue think the league was getting some shrinking violet?

Perhaps the league figures that if it could successfully pressure ESPN to take [the sleazy fictionalized pro football drama] "Playmakers" off the air, it could also bully Bryant Gumbel into softening his positions and playing nice.

Surely, Tagliabue knows that any attempt to squeeze Gumbel in some little box as if he were a player wearing the wrong color socks on Sunday not only won't fly but will look like the silliest Nixonian attempt at censorship.

This is where it becomes clear that Wilbon's not making a serious attempt to ponder the issue of Gumbel's remarks, but merely making excuses for them. As Brent Bozell politely noted in 2003, when ESPN pressed Rush Limbaugh to quit his brief football-pundit gig after saying Donovan McNabb was hyped by sportswriters rooting for black quarterbacks, Wilbon could be seen at times as Gumbel's Mini-Me in print:

Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon is a great read on his sports page, great entertainment on TV, and also regularly liberal politically in his sports reports. In 1995, Wilbon cheered NFL star Kellen Winslow when he entered the Hall of Fame with a political speech attacking Justice Clarence Thomas for opposing racial quotas and "barring the government from doing the right thing." Wrote Wilbon: "Winslow can be my Gipper any day. My hands are still raw from the applause." Wilbon even cheered the arrival of black sports stars at Louis Farrakhan’s "Million Man March," and said of this spewing preacher and racist, anti-Semitic and America-hating bilge: "So much of Farrakhan’s message was necessary and correct." None of this stopped ESPN from hiring Wilbon for its daily show, "Pardon the Interruption."

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