(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.
So because of this journey, the athlete's place within society has always carried a deeper meaning for African Americans than for other ethnic groups in this country.
For those like Parker, this understanding of the past could have fueled the antipathy he initially displayed when he perhaps assumed that Griffin didn't understand the racialized history of black athletes in America. And given that RGIII plays the prestigious position of quarterback, which has symbolized white male dominance since the advent of professional American football, Parker is not completely out of line for expecting the Redskins star to invoke James Brown and "say it loud — I'm black and I'm proud." Parker may figure that when black fans cheer for RGIII, they're rooting for him largely because he's a black athlete, and less so because of his accurate passes against the blitz.
Other Notable Examples
It's no coincidence that race was also brought up in relation to Carolina Panthers African-American quarterback Cam Newton. In October 2012, after black Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon came to his defense by pointing out that racial bias was playing a role in the criticism being levied against Newton this season, Newton himself shied away from the subject by rejecting Moon's assertion altogether.
"I haven't heard the remarks that he's said," Newton responded when asked by reporters. "But when it comes to race and this game, I don't think there is none at all."
This sort of unequivocal dismissal that any remnant of discrimination still exists in the way the sports world views black athletes is a survival mechanism that many of them are taught to adopt at a young age.
Michael Jordan, arguably the world's most popular sports icon during the 1980s and '90s, did this with incredible dexterity. Dark-skinned, tongue out, with baggy shorts and a street-ball swagger that's been emulated by millions on every basketball court all over the world, he wouldn't touch the topic with a 10-foot pole.
Jordan saw himself as a basketball player, and that was it. No more, no less. All the while, he collected the perks that being associated with black culture afforded someone of his stature. (Millions of black people have contributed to his unprecedented wealth by purchasing his signature Air Jordans.)
In an interview that aired on The Oprah Winfrey Show in April 1997, Tiger Woods famously shunned the idea of being viewed as a black golfer with the famous line "I'm a Cablinasian," which he claimed captured his Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian background.
From a psychological perspective, it makes sense that black athletes refuse to be placed in a box, especially if it's wrapped in layers of negative stereotypes regarding their larger community. Blacks are "less than" and aren't smart enough to do what whites can — that's the tale many still believe.
But seeing blackness as a box not only sends a disturbing message about black identity but also simultaneously indicts it as inferior, as something that no one should ever want to be. In essence, it means being "apologetically black."
In his New York Times best-selling book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, journalist and sports historian William C. Rhoden discussed in detail this long-standing identity crisis that blacks in sports are faced with.
"A sense of being part of a larger cause has historically permeated nearly every action of the black athlete," Rhoden writes. "For many of our prominent athletes of every race, their victories were fueled in part by the notion that they represented something larger than themselves, that they embodied the values and aspirations of the people.
"But today, when so many black athletes have little or no sense of who or what came before, there is no sense of mission, no sense of the athlete as part of a larger community, as a foot soldier in a larger struggle," he continues in the book.
Some might consider this expectation that the black athlete openly affirm his or her race to be unreasonable, but given the lengthy history of racial oppression that the larger black community has endured, the commensal relationship — in which the individual gains without affecting the larger community — is not as dignified as it seems.
There are those who reached the pinnacle of success while proudly shouldering the load. Athletes such as Muhammad Ali understood the journey and how synonymous it is with the daily black experience. So while that's not to say that contemporary athletes like Robert Griffin III won't eventually accept the same calling, it certainly means that no black athlete, no matter how physically gifted and well-spoken he or she might be, is exempt from facing the question. And that's a good thing.
Jean McGianni Celestin is a New York-based writer who writes about race, sports and politics. Follow him on Twitter.