Re-conceptualizing the black quarterback through the emergence of RG3

By Dr. Darron Smith

No one can argue that Robert Griffin III has been anything but sensational in his masterful rookie season. His football skills combined with his leadership abilities have earned him much respect and admiration among his fellow Redskin teammates (being named captain midway through his rookie season) and across the league, as he became the only rookie, save kicker Blair Walsh, to be named to the 2013 Pro Bowl. His breakout year is, arguably, amongst the best starts by a rookie quarterback, given where he has taken his team in just one season. In fact, he is only the second player in NFL history to pass for over 3,000 yards and rush for over 750 yards in a single season. (Michael Vick came close, but fell short on passing yards, and Cam Newton came close, but short on rushing yards.) Currently, RG3 has one of the best Quarter Back Ratings (QBR) in the NFL, sitting only behind the likes of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Schaub, and Matt Ryan. He is tied for the least number of interceptions in the entire league with 2 other quarterbacks, each of who has not finished the season as the starter. Griffin III is not the most prolific passer of his rookie class (Andrew Luck just past Cam Newton’s record for rookie passing yards), and he doesn’t even have the most touchdowns or the best record as compared to outstanding rookies Luck and Russell Wilson. But his consistency and efficiency with the 2nd best passer rating in the league gave him the Pro Bowl nod, giving his D.C. fan base much to cheer about when no other rookie QB of the sensational 2012 class was awarded such an accomplishment.

Since his days as a Texas high school and college star athlete, Griffin III has been busy thrilling fans with his athleticism. Whether he was hurdling opponents on the field or hurdles on the track, he was setting records through his high school and college days. At Baylor, he jumped on the scene as a Freshman quarterback, earning Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year award and ended his career with a 10-3 record, Alamo Bowl win and Heisman Trophy win for the Baylor Bears. This same leadership and poise carried into the National Football League where he sparked a struggling squad, recently leading the Redskins on a seven-game winning streak and propelling them to the top of the NFC East and into the playoffs for the first time in 7 years.

RG3 is changing the nature of the NFL quarterback position in the minds of many. His speed, quickness and agility becoming an important sought-after skill, especially when combined with his good football acumen. The fans equally love it when their quarterback (while under pressure) runs himself out of a jam, thus, saving a play and potentially gaining first downs. The one-trick pony sit-in-the-pocket quarterback is becoming passé, partly thanks to RG3, whose style of play has enhanced the value of a running quarterback and throwing-while-running quarterback to the traditional pocket passer. But RG3 is not the only quarterback to do this. He is certainly not the first dual threat quarterback, and he is not even the only QB to do so among recent and current quarterbacks. So why do we find him so special?

Robert Griffin III has another important skill set, which makes him ideal for the predominately white NFL establishment. He has the ability to make white Americans feel comfortable. His easy going nature, affability and seemingly hyper-politeness (likely influenced by his military upbringing) falls in line with the very notions of whiteness preferred by predominately white league owners, coaches and fans alike. RG3’s experiences growing up with two seasoned army sergeants, both familiar with what their son needed for a chance at the “American Dream,” have helped racially socialize him, giving him some protection against race-based discrimination. He has the ability to code switch, or speak in different vernaculars, which is what one black ESPN reporter was referring to when he accused him of being a “cornball brother.” But while some black onlookers may perceive him as acting “too white,” this also has given him the advantage of appeal to white folks. Most successful African Americans that have “made it” in this nation, have done so in part by code-switching with white America (myself included) and strategically concealing those attributes of blackness that white Americans view negatively as being “too black.”  In the NFL, this could mean diction, clothing, flamboyance, tattoos, forms of entertainment and art such as hip-hop music, post-touch down celebration and other markers of blackness saturated in media representations. Griffin III’s personality traits, on the other hand, did not fit into the perceived notions of blackness and, hence, likely contributed to his popularity as a starting NFL quarterback in a league that currently boasts only 2 black starters (and 3 bi-racial starters) at the helm, despite black Americans comprising 2/3 of the NFL (which is an entirely different discussion).

Perhaps RG3 sudden rise to football stardom is a sign of change; after all, there is simply no good explanation of these marginal numbers other than racial profiling.  Will league owners, coaches and staff, who are predominately white, finally undo the inherit racism(s) that exist in the NFL? With the slew of black quarterbacks on the rise in NCAA football, will this trend NFL quarterbacks begin to turn? Perhaps. But perhaps not, given that he just happens to be that special person that Whites deem acceptable to the masses of American football fans.

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