(The Root) — Though the Washington Redskins captured the NFC East title for the first time since 1999 after defeating the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, it’s still hard to forget the recent media firestorm centered on the winning team’s star African-American rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III.
During a December broadcast of ESPN’s First Take, the African-American sports columnist Rob Parker reacted to an answer RGIII had given at an earlier press conference, during which the star player said he’d rather be defined by his work ethic than by his skin color. Parker insinuated that the remark would have many black people speculating about whether is RGIII really black “or a cornball brother.” Parker cited rumors that he’s personally heard from friends in the D.C. area about RGIII possibly being a Republican, coupled with the fact that he’s married to a white woman, as the basis for this concern.
In the days following Parker’s remarks, he was rebuked by legions of black and white sports fans on social media and online discussion boards and was even criticized as being out of bounds by his peers in the media. Parker tweeted an apology, writing a message that began, “I blew it and I’m sincerely sorry.” And ESPN ultimately suspended Parker for 30 days and pledged to enhance “the editorial oversight of the show.”
But what should also be considered in light of the backlash over Parker’s initial comments are the debates over racial identity and sociocultural responsibility that still exist in sports today. While it’s probably too early to tell if Griffin is distancing himself from black people this early in his career, Parker’s initial concern wasn’t without historical weight.
It might be easy to dismiss it as poisonous race talk. Especially in an era when America has its first black president, Parker’s earlier observation sounds blasphemous and divisive. It’s a step backward — some have said. Parker even wrote later that he’d take a more considered approach when addressing “difficult, important topics” in the future.
But for those who look back at the dilemma that blacks faced during the emergence of the American sports industrial complex, Parker’s initial desire for RGIII to carry his race on his sleeves with the same pride as the logo on his Redskins jersey isn’t off base.
It has merit.
Tiptoeing Around Race
Within nearly any context, the mere mention of race causes unbridled anxiety in America. Bringing it up is a sin, particularly in sports, where black identity is constantly being pruned and refined to fit into a singular raceless community of athletes. Talking about it may conjure images of slavery, which can provoke embarrassment and a deep-seated resentment over the reality that racism was a founding principle of what has become a global industry.
As a result, black racial identity has become a tricky conversation to have in mainstream settings such as an ESPN talk show. It’s a mindful tap dance that all participants must perform by getting as close to the line as possible without ever crossing it by pointing out the gruesome truths.
However, history suggests that Parker’s question of “blackness” has been continually asked since the black American athlete’s meteoric rise took flight on Southern plantations, when competitions were organized by slave owners as a ruse to suppress rebellions. And over time, as these games grew and proved to have lucrative corporate potential, particularly during the integration period, the success of the black athlete was used to make the case that discrimination had expired — and that freedom and opportunity were within the reach of every African American.