Cornballs & Pigskins: What Rob Parker Got Right (And Wrong) About Race & RGIII


Although I don’t know him personally, I feel pretty comfortable in saying that it’s probably really hard not to like Robert Griffin III. I mean, what’s not to like? He’s a Heisman winning QB who has shattered rookie expectations and is returning a once storied franchise back to prominence. He’s smart, works hard and stays humble. What’s not to like?

ESPN analyst and Detroit sports writer Rob Parker (@RobParkerESPN) still had a concern or two while formulating his final opinion on RGIII. Last week on ESPN’S First Take (@ESPN_FirstTake) while discussing RGIII, he made the comment that he wanted to know whether Griffin was a “real brother”, or “cornball brother”. This set off a pretty heated and tense debate, and it was clear that people were upset. So much so that ESPN decided to suspend Parker indefinitely and issue an apology via their website.

Clearly having a Black man in the highest office in the world has yet to make it any easier to have productive dialogue about race. One thing that seems to be lost in the situation is what prompted Parker to state his question. The show segment was centered on Griffin’s response at a news conference where he was asked how he felt about already being considered the best Black quarterback of all time. Griffin stated that he hoped to transcend race and be considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, period.

On the surface this was the perfect answer. Griffin should not want to limit his success to a fragmented population that is only heralded in small segments of the population. Yet things get a little trickier when we try to examine the word transcend and what he meant by it. To be fair RGIII himself has not gone in depth about this, so everything going forward is speculation. Nonetheless, the term can be problematic for a number of reasons.

First, and Parker alluded to this, was the question of whether transcending the conversation of Black quarterbacks also meant wanting to disassociate himself from his Blackness. This is not an absurd thing to wonder as we saw Tiger Woods proclaim he wasn’t Black after people were amazed that a Black man had came to completely dominate one of the most segregated and exclusive sports in history. We seem to forget that Black people in this country do not receive the luxury of being an individual. Whoever is the Black person in the spotlight is the one who represents all of us and is the definitive voice for our community, for better or worse. RGIII, whether he accepts it or not, is the Black spokesman of the NFL. If he sees Black as being something that needs to be transcended, or is something that is inferior or lacking quality, then he confirms racist thought and ideology.

Secondly, we have to examine the equalizing effect that sports has had on this country. The fight for equality has been fought just as much on the hardwood and the gridiron as it has been in the courtrooms. Black athletes have proven the decency and humanity of their race by going out on the field and proving that just like they deserved to be at the same schools as whites, they deserved to be on the same team. They disproved the myths that they were too dumb to learn plays or too savage to play within the confines of the rules.

Probably nothing has done more to dispel that myth than the introduction of the Black quarterback. Once (really still) seen as too complex and too superior a task for a Black man to master, we now see Black men revolutionizing the way the most prestigious position of all of sports is being played. And while there are certainly still doubts and questions about the capabilities of Black QBs, no one may have a greater chance to reshape how we think about Black quarterbacks than Griffin. Griffin not only possesses the raw speed and elusiveness that defines most Black quarterbacks, he also has the arm and accuracy that most critics doubt that Black QBs have. Certainly there have been great Black players under center before and now, but none have been more universally accepted and praised as Griffin. No one questions whether he has the tools to carry the Washington Redskins. He is getting a pass that I doubt any Black quarterback has ever received. Yet if he does not acknowledge his role in dismantling the stigma of Black men playing quarterback than it creates the risk that Griffin becomes viewed as an exceptional anomaly, and the respect he has earned will not be granted to other Black players at the position.

All of these are valid arguments and I for one personally applaud Rob Parker for having the guts to talk about race on a national platform. However, he couldn’t have done a worse job of doing so if he tried.

Most obvious was Parker’s questioning of whether or not Griffin is a “real” brother. The problem with this question is that it is impossible to answer either way because race is a fictitious construct that has nothing to do with science or biology but has everything to do with the subjugation of people of color for the securing of social supremacy for White men. If you’re Black you’re Black, no matter who you date or who you vote for, things that made Parker question Griffin’s credentials.

Parker also went on to state that he had his ear to the streets, stating that he talked regularly to “real Black people, not ones who went to school and got degrees and their lives are good now.” It’s deeply disturbing that we still cannot connect upward mobility with Black authenticity. If we cannot see our people in a positive light, how do we expect anyone else to? Not every Black person that goes to school forgets where they came from. Not every Black person with a high paying job has disconnected from their roots. It’s also an odd stance for Parker to make, seeing as he holds both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in journalism.

He also didn’t do himself any favors by constantly prefacing his argument that his arguments where validated by his time in the barbershop. While I respect the diversity of opinion that is present in the Black barbershop, it is still not equipped to be the representing voice of the entire Black community. This goes back to my earlier point, the idea that we continually try and capture the entire Black voice through a single conduit. Black people are not monolithic in thought or action, we are way more nuanced than given credit for. Yet we still try and single out a single Black person and ask him or her to represent the entire Black population, which is as silly as it is racist.

Race, and it’s brother racism, are still the elephant in the room of America that continues to find ways to go unaddressed, even while it manages to play a pervasive yet significant role in our lives. No one is safe from its long reaching arms, whether it’s the brother on the street or the brother in the locker room. However, it’s going to take honest examination instead of surface conversations to eradicate. Props to you Rob Parker for having the courage to question convention, but next time take your time and come up with better questions.