“Whenever you can relate to the population of the team that you play for, I think it makes it that much more special. I don’t play too much into the color game, because I don’t want to be the best African-American quarterback, I want to be the best quarterback. But to the fans who do think that way, and look at me as an African-American, it’s important that I succeed not only for this team, but for them. Because it gives them that motivation, that ‘hey, you know, an African-American went out and played quarterback for my Washington Redskins.’ You know, I appreciate that, so I don’t ever downplay anything like that.” – Robert Griffin III in 2012
For people from the D.C. area of a certain generation, Griffin’s connectivity as a larger symbol of pride for black fans was undeniable. It was no coincidence that soon after the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner was drafted by Dan Snyder’s team, a Shepard Fairey-esque knockoff image of Barack Obama’s “Hope” poster began circulating the Internet. Not only was he a star, but he was a player the team had drafted to lead. He was only the second black quarterback the team had ever selected.
Even though his appeal crossed over, he was still, essentially … ours. I don’t ever remember seeing Jason Campbell’s face on a bootleg t-shirt.
Griffin’s appearance and style of play played a part. He wore plaits, ran like the track athlete that he was and occasionally sported a durag. At one point during his rookie campaign, after he ripped off a 70-yard run to beat the Minnesota Vikings at FedEx Field, teammate Fred Davis dubbed him “Black Jesus.” His blackness, in whatever form it came, was very much a part of his appeal to many fans, subliminally or otherwise. Bob had swag. So much so that when one person went so far as to question it on national television, albeit clumsily, that guy ended up out of a job.
Because of D.C.’s status as a majority-black city for so long, being a black quarterback here is not the same as any other city in America. And since the NFL is the biggest show in town from a pro sports standpoint, the visibility that comes with being in that position is unparalleled. In the rotating carousel of QBs that have come through Ashburn in the past 16 years, none has had the pressure Griffin felt to perform.
His name was immediately mentioned in the same sentences with Doug Williams, Super Bowl XXII MVP, an obviously unfair comparison that really only came up because the two played for the same team, the last in the NFL to integrate.
“I think if you’re an NFL player, you got to know your history, number one,” Williams said in 2012. “And the fact that Robert Griffin has done so well as a quarterback at Baylor, and now got an opportunity to play for the Washington Redskins, the same team that I was fortunate enough to win the Super Bowl with, I can understand how he feels. I’m glad he feels that way.” He was referring to Griffin’s earlier comments, saying that Williams motivated him. At the time, he was the first black quarterback to play in — and win — a Super Bowl. “I’ve had an opportunity to talk to him a couple times, and I’m certainly pulling for him,” Williams said.
There are people who will say that some sort of conspiracy is what’s led to Griffin’s benching and overall mishandling as a player. That were he not black, he would have been given a higher level of respect throughout his career as well as potentially more opportunities to fail before being benched. Now, he’s become a pawn in a front office power struggle for two separate regimes and his time in Washington appears limited with $16 million owed to him should he get injured.
But there’s a very specific letdown about a 25-year-old black man being effectively tossed aside in this town. It felt like an overly personal punishment for a specifically professional matter. Normally, rejection precedes ruin. The Redskins, in typical backward fashion, pulled off the opposite with RGIII.
No matter whose fault it is — and there is plenty of blame to go around — it’s disappointing. This is a player whose name was chanted at Nationals, Capitals and Wizards games when he was shown on the big screen. His jersey set an NFL record for sales. For a while, he brought a modicum of respectability to a franchise that no one’s taken seriously since Dan Snyder bought it in 1999.
“Against the backdrop of such fraught imagery and regrettable history, the Redskins chose Griffin with the second pick in last year’s draft, and all at once the team’s African-American fans found themselves in possession of an unexpected, delicious source of pride, a black quarterback who ranked among the best and brightest in his class, maybe his generation,” J.R. Moehringer wrote in ESPN The Magazine, in a piece called “Dear Mr. President” in 2013. “Like you, Mr. President, Griffin promises to transcend old rules, to smash ancient barriers. Like you, he challenges fixed ideas, especially the one about great promise versus consummate virtuosity. In the same dismissive way that people mention your oratory prowess — implying it’s innate, therefore not earned, not real — they mention Griffin’s speed. Flash, sans fire, that’s the underlying dig. Promise, like beauty, is skin deep, and virtuosity, mastery, genuine excellence, is the only thing that counts; thus many predict that you and Griffin will fail. Thus, many need you to succeed.”
Ultimately, Griffin will probably end up being low on the list of “important black athletes” in the D.C. area, but high on the “important athletes who happened to be black” scale, because of the unraveling of his football career. But no one’s ceiling was ever higher for potential societal impact through football. At this point, no one in this city has fallen farther, either.