In recent weeks, members of Congress, the commissioner of the National Football League, journalists, and D.C. Council members have expressed pointed opinions about the Washington Redskins controversial nickname, a divisive issue that will garner more attention should the team replicate its success from last season. But the most famous person currently associated with the Redskins has remained conspicuously quiet, and that's a shame.
Second-year Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is gifted on the field and charismatic off of it, which helps explain why his rookie jersey set the single-season sales record. Assuming he bounces back from a horrific knee injury, Griffin has the potential to become one of the most consequential athletes in America. So when he opens his mouth, people listen.
Thus far, Griffin has left fans wondering whether he, a black quarterback on a team with a history of discriminating against black players, takes issue with the fact that that team's nickname makes a direct, derogatory reference to skin color. If Griffin, who's become known for his thoughtfulness and eloquence, speaks out on the matter, he could be influential within the Redskins naming debate--and in the process he could also set an example for other athletes who feel pressured to keep their beliefs quiet.
It's well known that the Redskins have a complex racial history; though the current controversy deals with negative slurs toward Native Americans, the Redskins franchise also has a complicated history with regard to African-Americans. Former owner George Preston Marshall was an unapologetic racist, and under his stewardship the Redskins were the last NFL team to hire black players. Yet Doug Williams, the only black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, did so in a Redskins uniform, and the Redskins have long been the most beloved team of a city known as a hub of black culture. So when players and other individuals associated with this franchise stay silent about concerns over the racist implications of the name Redskins, they sit out a debate that has long been an important part of the history of the team and of Washington, D.C.
Griffin's refusal to publicly discuss the team moniker, however, should come as no surprise. Ever since Michael Jordan redefined sports superstardom by spending his career hawking shoes and sports drinks, many athletes have focused on maximizing their marketability while refusing to discuss subjects that might scare away sponsors--like potentially offensive nicknames. In an era of globalization and mass media, an athlete can attract more lucrative endorsement deals by appearing likeable to all buyers (or so says conventional wisdom).
Griffin is a perfect example of this particular mindset. Before ever taking a snap in an NFL game, he aggressively pursued business opportunities, appearing in television commercials and associating himself with successful brands from Subway to Gatorade. During his rookie season, Griffin feuded with the NFL over Nike apparel, and was later fined $10,000 for wearing his sponsor's (Adidas') clothes to a post-game interview. This unusual display of loyalty said a lot about his priorities--most athletes sponsored by athletic-gear companies have never taken issue with wearing their team's Nike apparel, even when the player is individually sponsored by a different brand. And in one of the most bizarre stories to emerge from professional sports in years, Griffin submitted a litany of trademark applications for various phrases, some of which were fairly common long before he arrived on the scene.
Griffin's enthusiasm for corporate spokesmanship may help explain his refusal to talk openly about potentially sensitive public issues. In an interview with Yahoo! News, Griffin went on record saying, "There's a couple things you don't talk about in life, and that's race, religion, and politics. I try to make sure I don't talk about politics at all." Ironically, Griffin majored in political science at Baylor.
But before he rules out making his opinion heard on matters like the Redskins' name, Griffin should consider that the last few years have seen a number of athletes and sports figures willingly discuss controversial public issues. Tim Tebow achieved stardom while espousing support for the pro-life movement. Jason Collins became the first openly gay player in a major American sports league. Tim Thomas refused to attend a White House celebration to protest the size of the federal government, while LeBron James publicly acknowledged his support for Barack Obama. Chris Kluwe and Matt Birk debated the merits of gay marriage. Jim Boeheim and Bob Costas stumped for gun control. The willingness of so many athletes, coaches, and pundits to delve into politics has been a welcome change from the era of keeping personal opinions quiet while endorsing various products loud and clear. As Salon columnist David Sirota put it, "Whether or not you agree with a particular sports icon's opinion, the larger change is a welcome development for participatory democracy."
Griffin should consider that the last few years have seen a number of sports figures willingly discuss controversial issues: Tim Tebow achieved stardom while supporting the pro-life movement. Jason Collins became the first openly gay player in a major American sports league.
Griffin, though, so far hasn't contributed to the effort to make pro sports more receptive to athletes' opinions, save for a potentially interesting comment he made via Twitter. On April 30, he tweeted "In a land of freedom we are held hostage by the tyranny of political correctness." Some media outlets speculated that Griffin's cryptic tweet constituted a direct response to D.C. council member David Grosso's idea to change the franchise's nickname to "Redtails."
Of course, we don't know what Griffin really meant by that tweet. But Griffin's Twitter feed also offers insight into his admiration for an athlete who famously wasn't afraid of expressing his political views. In early May of this year, Griffin visited the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky, and tweeted out several interesting observations such as "Man.... I just visited the Muhammad Ali Center and seeing in depth what ALI did and who he was is so inspiring," and "What Ali stood for and the way he expressed it from the boxing ring to the streets of everyday life would have him trending for weeks." He's right: Ali was one of the most popular athletic celebrities of his time, and remains so partly because of his willingness to take controversial stances on issues like the Vietnam War and race relations.
Griffin should consider Ali's example. His image and his legacy could benefit from a similar willingness to engage in meaningful public debate. Fans may love his commercials now, but over time the athletes who focus on selling products tend to lose their luster. If Griffin never moves beyond the constant endorsement of shoes and sub sandwiches, cynicism about his motivations may set in among now-loyal fans. He may or may not see anything wrong with his team's name. But the particulars of his opinion may end up mattering less than whether or not he voices that opinion. Speaking up on the issue would make him the biggest athletic superstar in a long time to promote the virtues of engaged citizenship.