Rush Limbaugh getting axed from a group trying to buy an NFL team was bigger than Rush Limbaugh.
The conservative radio provocateur said it himself.
"This is about the future of the United States of America and what kind of country we're going to have," Limbaugh said Wednesday, shortly before his bid to become a limited partner in the St. Louis Rams was terminated.
By that standard, the decision to dump Limbaugh says that in today's America, regardless of wealth or fame, divisive racial rhetoric can place some things out of reach.
"This reflects where we're moving in an ethical nature," said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for Sports and Society at Northeastern University.
"The league has 78 percent African-American players," Lebowitz said. "Do you bring in someone who has made racist statements to own a team that's largely made up of players the owner has made slurring statements about?"
The decision to exclude Limbaugh was made Wednesday by a group led by Dave Checketts, chairman of the St. Louis Blues, who are trying to keep the Rams in town. It came after concerns were raised by players, their union, civil rights activists, at least one NFL owner and the commissioner of the country's most popular sports league.
All franchise sales must be approved by 24 of the NFL's 32 teams -- an ownership group that is overwhelmingly white, conservative and focused on the bottom line, which could have suffered if fans or advertisers were angered by Limbaugh.
"There's an argument that says the very principles Rush espouses -- the free market -- are what did him in," said the conservative radio host Michael Smerconish. "This IS the free market. These are private businessmen who made a decision about what was in the best business interest of their thriving venture.
"It's definitely ironic. There's a bit of hypocrisy here as well," Smerconish said, citing a study that showed 70 percent of NFL owners' political contributions went to Republicans. "Through their dollars they are very supportive of the sort of politics that Rush talks."
Said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was a loud voice of opposition to Limbaugh's bid: "It's remarkable in that he was denied by other powerful whites. At the end of the day, his own peers said, 'You are a liability.' Even the rich and powerful do not want to be identified with racism."
Limbaugh insists that he is not racist, and that comments such as one from a 2007 transcript on his Web site -- "The NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons. There, I said it" -- have been twisted by his liberal critics, and sometimes flat-out fabricated.
Two of the racist quotes recently attributed to Limbaugh, which praised slavery and Martin Luther King Jr. assassin James Earl Ray, may have been falsified and then magnified in the media echo chamber.
The quotes were published in a 2006 book by Jack Huberman, "101 People Who Are Really Screwing America." Asked Thursday for the source of the quotes, Huberman said he had no comment. His publisher, Nation Books, also declined to comment.
But the record shows Limbaugh also was forced to resign from ESPN's Sunday night football broadcast in 2003 after saying of the Eagles' Donovan McNabb: "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well."
Harry Edwards, a sociologist who studies black athletes and has consulted for several pro teams, said Limbaugh's failed effort to become an NFL owner shows how American society regulates itself.
"The system works," he said. "We are far from what we were 20 years ago or 30 years ago or 40 years ago. We have an African-American family in the White House.
"Does that mean we don't have intense countercurrents of racist sentiments in American society? Absolutely not. But we are moving in the right direction and managing those hot spots and flare-ups such as the Limbaugh bid that America has to manage to continue its momentum."
Pro football has largely overcome its own difficult racial past, which included resegregation of the league from 1934-46 and longtime barriers that kept blacks out of the quarterback and head coaching positions.
"The NFL has been a model for America's democracy and growth," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was a college quarterback at North Carolina A&T. "The playing field is even, the rules are public, the goals are clear, the referees are fair. That's America at its best."
That history probably played a role in keeping Limbaugh out, said Alexander Wolff, a Sports Illustrated writer and author of a recent article on Kenny Washington, who broke the NFL color barrier in 1946.
"Because it's been such a painful journey for the NFL, and the end of that journey has come so very recently, there's a really heightened consciousness," he said.
"They have come to terms, to a great extent, with their history."
Editor's Note: Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press.
AP Researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)