Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.
Before he lay in a hospital bed, convalescing after reconstructive knee surgery, I thought that Robert Griffin III would be the perfect person to take on a problem that’s been plaguing Washington for decades: our football team’s ill-considered, objectionable, offensive, racist, totally unacceptable name.
Fans of the burgundy and gold, don’t roll your eyes. For many Native Americans, the slur “Redskin” is just as offensive as the N-word. When I visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 2007, a man named Leonard Littlefinger told me that if I walked into a bar on the reservation and said “Redskins,” I would possibly be knocked unconscious.
And the issue is gaining new attention: This past week, Washington Post columnist Cortland Milloy excoriated the name in a column, and Mayor Vincent Gray said that if the Redskins want to return to D.C. — they’ve played home games in Landover since 1997 — they might have to lose the tomahawks.
“I think it has become a lightning rod,” Gray said, “and I would love to be able to sit down with the team . . . and see if a change should be made.”
Even sidelined with a knee injury after he was left for too long in last Sunday’s season-ender against the Seattle Seahawks, RGIII could make this happen. At just 22 years old, he has the owner’s ear and the city’s heart. With his incredible QB skills and laid-back demeanor, this transcendent kid from Texas could be the Chosen One, all right — the one person who could make Redskins owner Daniel Snyder come to his senses and realize that it’s time to stop demeaning Native Americans simply because his paraphernalia sells and because, as the story goes, the future billionaire had a Redskins belt buckle as a boy.
But I fear that Griffin is not that guy, and not just because he’ll be focused for the next few months on physical therapy. No young, dynamic leader of an NFL team is that guy. Pro players who take on controversial social debates are gone, replaced by athletes whose goal is to not offend — because that would mean fewer commercials, a loss of sponsors and, God forbid, a Q rating lower than Michael Jordan’s.
There is no Muhammad Ali, who lost his heavyweight boxing title as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. There is no Jim Brown, arguably the greatest running back in NFL history, who found more meaning in bringing rival L.A. gang members together than in playing on the gridiron, where, he realized, he was just “a highly paid, over-glamorized gladiator.”
There is no Arthur Ashe, the late tennis champion and civil rights activist, who in 1985 was arrested outside the South African Embassy in Washington during an anti-apartheid rally. There’s not even a Curt Flood, the St. Louis Cardinal who didn’t accept a trade to another team in 1969, appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark case that paved the way for free agency.
Instead of Alis, Browns, Ashes or Floods, who do we have? Only RGIII — a young man with a pocketful of sponsorships.
On some level, athlete-entrepreneurs such as NBA stars Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant don’t have to fight the battles of their predecessors — because many of those fights have been won. Professional sports is integrated. We have an all-volunteer military. A black man is president. Still, the homogenized diplomats that our young stars so quickly become ensure that an athlete of that stature won’t bring any lasting change beyond the field or the court.
During one of his weekly, very brief news conferences after a practice last month, I asked Griffin about his team’s name. The week before, he’d endured polarizing racial remarks by an ESPN commentator who was later fired for suggesting, among other things, that Griffin wasn’t “down with the cause” of black America.
“Have you thought about what it’s like to play for a team that’s named the Redskins?” I asked. “Because a lot of American Indians and others feel that’s a derogatory term.”
“I’m not qualified to speak on that,” Griffin said. “I didn’t even mean to stir up the other thing, so I’m not going to touch that one.”
I apologized to him privately about a week later — not for the question but for having to ask it in a group forum. Neither Griffin’s representatives nor the team allow one-on-one interviews with him, and most concessions center on the quarterback promoting a product he endorses. I fear that a genuine 22-year-old will become an automaton by 30, his every word scripted to avoid controversy.
I’d wanted to go further. I’d wanted to ask Griffin if he would be okay with playing for a team called the “Washington Blackskins” featuring a proud portrait of a Zulu warrior on its helmets.
My guess is he would say no. Not because he’s black — Griffin has said that he doesn’t want to be put in “a box with other African American quarterbacks.” I just figure that, as a good, decent inhabitant of the planet, he would respect the groundswell of offended people who don’t want to cheer for a team that enshrines America’s persecution of its indigenous people.
Change isn’t coming on its own. Snyder won’t even entertain the conversation. The only way he can feel pain is to be hit in the pocketbook. And the only person who can hit Snyder in the pocketbook is a vocal star who plays for his team and insists on change.
It was smart for Griffin — a guy who says all the right things — to duck my question. It was smarter than what Clinton Portis told me years ago after a practice: “Hey, they used to call it the Negro Leagues back in the day. We didn’t like it, but we had to take it. Now the Indians have to take it.”
Most frustrating, I know that all it would take is one young, prominent athlete with a game for the new millennium and a social conscience for the 1960s. Black. White. Hispanic. Asian. Heck, even American Indian — although St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford, who is one-sixteenth Cherokee and listed on the Cherokee Nation’s tribal rolls, has yet to take a position.
Funny, pros love to talk about fortitude and guts. Consider Griffin’s tweet this past week after the team was criticized for letting him play on a gimpy knee: “Many may question, criticize & think they have all the right answers. But few have been in the line of fire in battle.”
But what about the real-life courage of Ali, Brown, Ashe and Flood? They didn’t care about the consequences. They just knew it was right.