Why RG3 Should Speak Up About the Redskins' Team-Name Controversy

An exception to the Washington star's rule against voicing opinions could be good for his legacy—and an example for other athletes who feel pressured to keep their beliefs quiet.
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AP / Carolyn Kaster

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.

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Kevin Craft is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, and Arlington Magazine.

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