Rush and the Rams
Do the ideological views of sports owners matter?
Yesterday, amid growing controversy Rush Limbaugh was removed from a group bidding on the St. Louis Rams. Today, on his radio show, Rush Limbaugh lashed out his critics calling them a “collection of angry agitated people.” Limbaugh sees the outrage over his potential ownership as unfair and misguided, but was it? This incident raises an interesting ethical question, should ideological and political views matter in sports ownership?
In a letter to Commissioner Roger Goddell, NFL players executive director DeMaurice Smith comments on sports ability to rise above political issues:
But sport in America is at its best when it unifies, gives all of us reason to cheer, and when it transcends.
Smith’s point is well taken, many years later, I still have fond memories of running up and down the aisle, high-fiving strangers after my beloved Seattle Mariners won a playoff game. When I attend a Mariners game, it doesn’t matter to me what the fan next to me views are on immigration reform, or who Ken Griffey Jr. voted for in the past presidential election, I’m just there to enjoy baseball.
But how do we best ensure this unifying and transcendent quality of sport? One could argue that if we start drawing attention to the beliefs of the owner(s) we will undermine the reason why we love sports so much in the first place. I don’t care about the political views of my fellow fans or of the players, so why are the views of the owner(s) relevant?
However, in ignoring the extreme ideological positions of owners we could also risk creating the very divisiveness we are trying to avoid. It can be argued that ideological positions matter because owners with a political bent have the ability to use their position as lively public forum through which to voice their views, views that could potentially reflect poorly on the organization, the league, and city.
While an owner might technically have control over a team, we identify the team with the league they play in and the city they are from, the St. Louis Rams not the Rush Limbaugh Rams. A team is a symbol of the city and a member of a larger organization; and one might contend that when we allow an extremely controversial and outspoken figure like Mr. Limbaugh ownership of the team we are creating an unavoidable and unfair connection between the city, the league, and Limbaugh’s views.
It can also be argued that the ideologies of sports owners matter because they have influence. In Sports Ethics: an Anthology Jan Boxill defends the suspension of controversial Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott arguing that as notable members of society sports figures should be held to a higher moral standard.
Once you choose to become a public figure, you also choose the duties that go along with this, because it is the nature of being a public figure that you affect others in society, Since sports have become the most public of professions, they impose more duties.
If Boxill is correct that sports impose more duties, we still face the challenge of unpacking exactly what these duties entail. Does Limbaugh’s divisive nature and controversial comments on race overstep the duties imposed by being a figure in the sports world?
Regardless of the moral responsibilities that come with ownership of a sports franchise, much of the criticism of Limbaugh and his ultimately being dropped from the bid was most likely more about economics than morality. Sports is, after all, a business, and the commissioner and the other owners would likely be unwilling to embrace someone who could alienate potential fans and hurt profits.