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My New Book!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

January 30, 2014: Football Focalizes: RGIII and Winning

[In this Super Bowl week, a series on some of the American issues and questions with which the sport can help us engage. Join the huddle in comments, please!]

On winning, perception, and American idols.
In my first post in last year’s Super Bowl-inspired series, I focused on a December 2012 controversy surrounding Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. At the time, RGIII was perhaps the biggest story in the league, not only for his stellar rookie season but also because of his unique personality and seemingly limitless potential (and not just as a football player). But in the 2013 season, the stories and controversies surrounding RGIII reflected instead the fickle nature of such stardom—he began the season recuperating from the prior year’s season-ending injury, never quite seemed to get back to where he had been in that rookie season, and before the end of the year had been benched in favor of backup Kirk Cousins (a move that, along with the team’s dismal year, may have precipated the firing of head coach Mike Shanahan).
Obviously it’s far too premature to say that Griffin has definitively lost his star potential or status (just as it was probably, in retrospect, too early to grant him that level after his rookie season alone). But there’s no question that the narrative has changed, and more exactly that Griffin is now no longer considered (notwithstanding his unquestionable talent) a definite “winner” in the NFL. Debates over winning vs. talent have long been a part of both the NFL specifically (see: Brady vs. Manning and Montana vs. Marino, to cite only two examples) and the sports world more broadly (see: Russell vs. Chamberlain, to cite perhaps the best known example of all). But such debates, and more specifically the power of being considered a “winner,” also have a great deal of valence in our larger culture and society—as illustrated by the example of Donald Trump, whose multiple bankruptcies and other public failures haven’t apparently dimmed his “winner” status in much of our collective perception.
There’s certainly an element of universality, of simple human nature, in such idolization of “winners” (whatever the specifics or contexts of their situations). But these emphases are also closely tied to many different core American narratives: of individual success and the self-made man; of rags-to-riches stories and the American Dream; of the meritocracy and the mobility it promises. All of those narratives have a significant degree of circularity at their core: if RGIII wins, it’s because he’s a winner and has made his own success; if he doesn’t win, it’s because he’s not a winner and is lacking what it takes to get there; and so on. But perhaps these two back-to-back seasons can help us see the other side of these questions, the ways in which contingency and context have so much to do with winning and losing, success and failure. Injury notwithstanding, RGIII was fundamentally the same quarterback and person in 2013 as in 2012; if his circumstances and thus his results changed, that doesn’t mean we have to change the narratives as well.
Next issue tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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