The NFL’s rejecting Rush Limbaugh was a bit like the members of the Merion Cricket Club blackballing Thurston Howell III. The owners’ objection to Limbaugh wasn’t based on his politics — they overwhelmingly share his views. They refused to allow him to join their club in the name of good business.

Consider that over the last 20 years, 78 percent of the approximately $7 million that NFL owners, coaches, players, and their associates have donated to political candidates and committees has gone to Republicans. That’s according to figures recently compiled and studied by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

The San Diego Chargers ($2,455,200), Houston Texans ($623,456), Arizona Cardinals ($337,096), Washington Redskins ($323,000), and New York Jets ($261,403) organizations were the NFL’s top five political contributors since 1990, the center reported. Four of those teams donated 90 percent or more of their contributions to GOP interests. For the one that didn’t, the Redskins, the figure was 75 percent.

Among the owners, the pattern is even more pronounced. Nearly every dime of the $2 million that Chargers owner Alex Spanos — the league’s most deep-pocketed contributor — has donated over two decades has gone to the GOP. Texans owner Robert McNair, who has given more than $500,000 since 1990, has contributed almost exclusively to Republicans.

Daniel Snyder (Washington Redskins) and Tom Benson (New Orleans Saints) also are big-time GOP donors. And Robert Johnson, owner of the Jets, raised thousands of dollars for George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns.

Interestingly, while the NFL owners have overwhelmingly supported the GOP, there has been a consistent outlier — the same St. Louis Rams that Limbaugh sought to own. No team has donated more to Democratic candidates and causes over the last two decades than the Rams.

Officials associated with the team gave $230,050 to D’s — 98 percent of team-associated political giving. (The Los Angeles Rams contributed an additional $47,250 — 90 percent of their total donations — to Democrats before leaving the City of Angels in 1995.)

Current Rams majority owner Chip Rosenbloom has given $13,100 to Democratic candidates over the last decade. His mother, Georgia Frontiere, who owned the team after her husband’s death in 1979, donated more than $134,000 to Democratic interests between 1997 and her death in 2008.

There have been a few exceptions. Rosenbloom and his mother each logged a contribution to one Republican presidential candidate during the 2008 cycle — the most moderate in the field. Rosenbloom donated $1,000 to Rudy Giuliani in June 2007. Three months earlier, his mother had given $2,300 to John McCain. Neither candidate was high on Limbaugh’s presidential wish list.

One wonders if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s negative assessment of Limbaugh’s bid (“I would not want to see those comments coming from people who are in a responsible position in the NFL — absolutely not”) were predicated on knowledge that his role would ultimately not sit well with Rosenbloom. The NFL itself has had to hedge the bets of its GOP-dominated owners.

“The National Football League — we’re talking people who work for the league, who are league leaders, all the way up to the commissioner — the National Football League itself has actually donated more to Democrats than to Republicans,” CRP’s Dave Levinthal, who wrote the analysis, told me. “It’s about a 70-30 split.”

Only one owner was prepared to say he would not support the inclusion of Limbaugh. But given that Goodell is their hire, common sense dictates he would not have voiced negativity unless more than one held that view. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said he wouldn’t vote for Limbaugh because of the host’s “inappropriate, incendiary, and insensitive” commentary.

But it was the owner of a basketball franchise who came closest to explaining why the Limbaugh role failed. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, whom the NBA has fined almost $2 million for his own verbal and behavioral incidents, blogged that the NFL should be “terrified” not of things Limbaugh has already said, but of “what he might say AFTER he was an approved investor in the St. Louis Rams.”

“Given that we will never know what the ‘next big issue’ in this world that Rush will be discussing on his show is, it’s impossible for the NFL to even try to predict or gauge the impact on the NFL’s business if something controversial, or even worse yet, something nationally polarizing happens. There is an unquantifiable risk that comes with the size of Rush’s audience,” Cuban wrote on his blog.

He’s right. The substance of the most widely cited Rush-isms — the infamous Donovan McNabb quote and his comparison of the NFL to “a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons” — fails to demonstrate any overt racism. And it’s doubtful that any of his political leanings would alienate this crowd, given how they themselves have donated.

Instead, the owners determined that it was just bad business to add to their ranks someone who would have kept them in headlines going forward while most choose to fly beneath the radar. “This is about the future of the United States of America and what kind of country we’re going to have,” Limbaugh said last week, casting the debate as some kind of a referendum on capitalism. But he was wrong.

To the contrary, Limbaugh was compromised by the very principles he espouses — the free market. A group of like-minded private businessmen, unfettered by government, made a decision as to what was best for their enterprise.

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