Yesterday, ESPN's Rob Parker appeared on First Take and posed this question about Robert Griffin III: "Is he a brother, or is he a cornball brother?" And that's just the tip of the asinine iceberg.
Parker's comments came the morning after Griffin spoke with USA Today about not letting race define his career. "For me, you don't ever want to be defined by the color of your skin," he said. "You want to be defined by your work ethic, the person that you are, your character, your personality. That's what I've tried to go out and do. I am an African-American in America. That will never change. But I don't have to be defined by that.''
Put off by the quarterback's statements, Parker laid into his blackness as if that's even a thing, let alone a thing that outsiders can judge. "He's not real. OK, he's black, he kind of does his thing, but he's not really down with the cause. He's not one of us." One of us? What cause? Are we talking about a cult? Parker followed up those sage words by saying, "We all know he has a white fiancée. There was all this talk about how he's a Republican." Sorry, what did you say, Rob? You're hard to understand with that foot in your mouth.
Chronic buffoon Skip Bayless chimed in with, "What do RGIII's braids say to you?" "To me, that's very urban... You're a brother if you have braids on," responded Parker, without the slightest hint of irony. The exchange became so glaringly offensive that Stephen A. Smith intervened to cut it off. Needless to say, when either of the First Take hosts thinks you've crossed a line, you're already way, way over it.
Robert Griffin III's prowess on the football field has been impressive enough to drown out many secondary narratives, but it hasn't quashed the largely dithering, misguided chatter about his race.
Playing for a team named the "Redskins" -- the last to integrate and the first to win a Super Bowl with a black quarterback -- in the "Chocolate City," Griffin will have a hard time dodging clumsy yammering about the color of his skin. And I'm not arguing that race should be off limits in any discourse about sports. We'd probably benefit from confronting such a difficult topic more often, actually. But I do expect those who write and talk about sports for a living to do so responsibly. And thoughtfully.
Rob Parker is hardly alone in his embarrassment. Heck, he's not even the first to make racially charged comments about Griffin on First Take -- that honor belongs to Skip. And how could I forget the infamous Maureen Dowd editorial in The New York Times that likened RGIII to President Obama? She had to know she'd rile up a lot of people, but what rankled me were her deliberately superficial comparisons and total avoidance of skin color. Yes, both men have big smiles, like superheroes, and have been compared to Cool Hand Luke, but I'm gonna need a little more substance than that. What makes them uniquely similar is that they're both black men succeeding and inspiring in leadership positions historically dominated by white men. They're also young for their respective jobs and arrived in the nation's capital riding a wave of refreshing optimism.
Parker and Dowd are adults -- professionals, even -- but you wouldn't know it by the way they fumbled each opportunity to say something insightful about Washington's rookie quarterback.
Those of you who've been paying attention aren't surprised, though, because the media has been dancing around the skin color issue since before the draft. "Athletic," "dual-threat," "run-first." All too often, these phrases become interchangeable with "black" when discussing quarterbacks. And in a league that values the prototypical pocket passer and gaining yards through the air, the negative connotations are difficult to ignore. As popular as Tim Tebow is in Bristol, how often does his name come up alongside Vick's during segments about running quarterbacks? I'll bet not as often as RGIII's does.
A smart guy like Griffin knows what he's up against, too. "We always try to find similarities in life, no matter what it is so they're always going to try to put you in a box with other African-American quarterbacks -- (Michael) Vick, (Cam) Newton, Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon,'' RGIII told USA Today. "Warren Moon and Doug Williams really didn't run that much. That's the negative stereotype when it comes to African-American quarterbacks, that most of us just run. Those guys threw it around. I like to think I can throw it around a little bit."
Don't worry, buddy; Redskins fans don't just think you can throw the ball, they know you can. And that brings me to the point of this post: Fans deserve better than what they're getting about RGIII and race in sports more broadly.
I'm not qualified to comment or insinuate about anyone's racial identity, but I'm self-aware enough to recognize that. That's not always the case with media types, and it's unfortunate. Notice I say "media types" because I would never accuse anyone on First Take of being a journalist. Still, it's not unreasonable to expect new information and informed opinions from people who's job is to be informed.
Those given a public platform have a degree of responsibility not to spew toxic garbage and meaningless drivel, especially not about a sensitive, important topic like race. Even controversy-baiting ESPN acknowledged as much by quickly condemning Parker's words.
The messages being fed to the public matter in the short run -- even this far into the season, a lot of people would be surprised to learn that RGIII owns the league's second-best passer rating -- and matter in the long run -- we risk reinforcing racist paradigms and demonstrating that skin color does matter when it comes to judging others.
Consider this a plea to members of the media: If you have nothing constructive to contribute to the dialogue about race in sports, then shut up about it.