WASHINGTON – Sports fans and politics fans may only occasionally intersect, but the two pastimes share curiously similar traits.
Fans of the two are always looking at the numbers, weighing the stats, gauging the best in the field, considering the coaches' advice and listening to the analysts debate the outcomes.
The same is true whether fans are watching a well-known commentator evaluate a star quarterback's performance or listening to a popular conservative radio talk show host evaluate the quality of a legal argument on voter disenfranchisement.
Ironically, in the last few weeks, one professional has crossed the sports-politics barrier. Unfortunately, he reached very different conclusions on parallel topics.
Political gabber Rush Limbaugh (search), until last week also an ESPN commentator, recently made memorable remarks about the media showing "social concern" in wanting to see black Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback Donovan McNabb (search) succeed.
Regarding the remarks on McNabb, sports fans reached one of two conclusions -- either Limbaugh is right, the All-Star, fifth-year quarterback is overrated; or he's out of his mind, the highly popular McNabb just was having a bad start to the 2003 season.
But politics fans looked at Limbaugh's comments through another lens, focusing on the racial aspect of the remarks and the speaker who said them. For the most part, politics fans concluded that Limbaugh was stupid to make the remark because the assertion about the media is wrong, or they decided Limbaugh is racist for making the remark because the assertion about the media is wrong.
Only a few bothered to scrutinize whether the media does overrate McNabb, either because he's black, charming, rich or nice to reporters. But that's a different discussion.
McNabb proved in Sunday's game against the Redskins that he has earned the credit given him. Even playing poorly, he managed to eke out a win against a division rival while under pressure, knowing that every spectator, either in the stadium or viewing from home, was debating whether he really is overhyped.
If Limbaugh is racist, refusing to give credit where it's due when it comes to a superior black athlete, why does he give credit to minorities when it comes to their ability to vote?
Limbaugh is among a wide swath of conservatives who say minorities are underestimated when it comes to knowing how to mark an election ballot. Conservatives like Limbaugh accuse liberals of trying to use perfectly capable minorities for their own gain -- and being willing to go so far as to an appeals court to argue disenfranchisement and plead for delay of an election they know they will lose.
They cite the recent argument by the ACLU of Southern California, which suggested that 40,000 California voters, primarily minorities, could have their vote thrown out if punch-card ballots -- the same ones used by the same voters 11 months ago to re-elect Democratic Gov. Gray Davis -- were permitted to be used in Tuesday's recall election in California.
"It's the Democrats trying to stop the elections because they don't trust the people to do the right thing and that's vote for them. When the people don't vote for them, it's something wrong with the people, not them or their ideas," Limbaugh said of Democrats after a three-judge panel on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stopped the election last month.
Thankfully for minority voters as well as logical observers, a full panel of the court concluded that it's impossible to determine disenfranchisement before an election takes place, and overturned the panel's ruling.
Black voters came out in force Tuesday to make known their decision whether to excommunicate Davis. Their vote, approximately 6 percent of the electorate, was 27-73 in favor of keeping Davis, according to Fox News exit polls, and it appears to have been as educated as any other voters'.
The same exit polls showed that Hispanics, the other minority group whose voting skills are frequently debated, voted 54 to 46 percent to keep Davis. Latinos represented about 17 percent of Tuesday's total electorate. Their even split on the vote suggests considerable debate about Davis' service to the state took place within that community.
Fox News exit polls showed that voting glitches were held to a minimum in Tuesday's election. According to the numbers, only 8 percent of voters in California's recall election claimed problems with either the voting equipment or the length of the 135-candidate ballot, less than normally reported. Fewer than 2 percent of voters said the problem was serious.
More importantly, the poll showed that the rate of problems was equal for punch-card voting machines users as it was for the preferred replacement equipment -- touch screen and optical scan ballots.
Even before the polls closed Tuesday, liberals continued to charge that minority voters were disenfranchised, not by faulty machines but by the reduced number of polling places.
Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson said some groups were thinking about filing lawsuits against the state for providing only a third of the number of polling stations used in regularly scheduled elections. The wide margins showing Davis losing the election and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger winning the replacement ballot apparently squelched those plans.
While conservatives say they are proven right about the ability of minorities to cast a ballot, liberals say Limbaugh and other conservatives don't really believe minorities are capable, but make the argument because disenfranchised minority voters (search) would help conservative candidates. That argument may have held water based on numbers extrapolated from the black vote in the 2000 presidential election, but Tuesday's election proves otherwise.
Limbaugh's clearly blind statement about McNabb's athletic prowess doesn't do much to counter accusations of his bigotry, or that some conservatives are racists. But for many politics fans, the use of minorities as a tactic to win the electoral game is becoming a tired strategy.
It is up to politics fans to weigh the stats and determine whether the coaches and analysts are doing what's right for their teams. Limbaugh may have personally fouled -- and Jackson definitely lost points with his hollow complaints -- but the players -- minority voters -- definitely showed their strengths this week and deserve a more thoughtful analysis of their collective performance in the voting booth.