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Monday, January 28, 2013

January 28, 2013: Football in America, Part One

[In this week leading up to Super Bowl 47—that’s XLVII if you prefer how long-dead Romans would have referred to it—I’ll be highlighting some AmericanStudies issues and questions related to football in our past and present. Your Super responses, thoughts, and perspectives very welcome for a weekend post that’s sure to be a touchdown!]
On the longstanding historical debates that provide some important contexts for Rob Parker’s controversial recent critique of Robert Griffin III.
It’s easy, in our era of 24-hour news cycles and instant internet tempests in tea pots and the like, to get over-excited about the latest shocking or scandalous comments. But even in a quieter age, sports journalist Rob Parker’s December 13th remarks about Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III would likely have raised quite a stir. Appearing on ESPN’s “First Take” morning talk show, Parker called into question Griffin’s authentic blackness, asking whether he’s “one of us” (Parker is also African American) or instead a “cornball brother,” and pointing to (among other things) his  white fiance, his rumored affiliation with the Republican Party, and his general attitude toward the idea of the “black quarterback.” The comments were unsurprisingly greeted by an uproar, and have led to Parker’s 30-day suspension from all ESPN programming. Just another silly ESPN controversy over race and quarterbacking, right Rush?
Certainly it is that; but Parker’s critique also relates to a long and complex set of narratives and debates in the African American community. In his 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth,” W.E.B. Du Bois argued that a cadre of impressive African American leaders would play a vital role in uplifting the community and race as a whole; that, as his striking first sentence put it most succinctly (in the gendered language of the day), “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” Du Bois was referring specifically to the need for higher education, an idea he would further develop in the same year in “Of the Training of Black Men” (a chapter from the seminal The Souls of Black Folk). But he was also making a broader and more complex case: that a subset of highly successful, and highly visible, members of a particular community can improve, if not the conditions for all others members of that community (and certainly the ideal is that they will work to do so in one way or another), at least the external society’s narratives and perceptions of that group.
Each part of that case, or at least of my framing of it within that sentence (as always with Du Bois, his dense and layered ideas deserve their own reading), is fraught with potential controversy and debate. Do successful members of a community in fact owe it to their community to work for its general well-being? (This is what Parker was implying, for example, when he said of Griffin that he might not be “down with the cause.”) Regardless, does their success change society’s views of their community? Can it? Should it? If it should and yet doesn’t, is that their fault, the society’s, nobody’s, everybody’s? These questions, as applied specifically to African Americans, were debated in Du Bois’s era, continued to be throughout the 20th century (with Du Bois himself revising his position in a 1948 speech), and are no less—and perhaps even more—significant in the age of Obama. They are also relevant, if distinct and worth separate analysis to be sure, to arguments over whether Asian Americans are a “model minority,” what that status would entail, what effects such narratives have on young Asian Americans, and so on. Which is to say, Rob Parker might have created a tempest in a teapot, but there’s a lot of historical and contemporary value to continuing to talk after the storm dies down.
Next gridiron-inspired topic tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on Parker, Griffin, or these other issues? Other football and America stories or themes you’d highlight?

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