By Guest Contributors David J. Leonard and C. Richard King
The Washington R*dskins (given the history and meaning of this term, we have decided to disidentify with its accepted name) sparked a minor controversy with their selection of two quarterbacks in this year’s NFL Draft. The franchise had given multiple draft picks to move up in the first round to select Robert Griffin III and then surprised many fans and pundits by picking Kirk Cousins, suggesting the latter was a developmental project, who would be groomed with an eye toward a future trade.
For a team hurting at almost every position, this move struck many as imprudent at best. Simply, the R*dskins decided to draft Griffin, a.k.a, “RG3,” last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, for being the best college football player in America. Despite their weakness at virtually every position, the selection of Cousins, who was less vaunted and certainly less heralded at Michigan State, raised eyebrows because some saw him as someone with tremendous upside and potential to start one day. This decision undercut Griffin as leader, as franchise player, and as the future from day one.
Enter ESPN pundits Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith, who have emerged as the sports version of the old CNN show Crossfire.Without a quarterback controversy to speak of, Bayless has created one. As our combustible elements, and avatars of the sports punditry industry, Bayless and Smith are often a bigger story than the athletes himself
It is fair to say Smith is known for bringing a type of “blackness” to his commentary while Bayless paints himself as being “traditional” despite his unfair and unbalanced sports commentary. Bayless, long castigated for his unrelenting criticism of LeBron James and Terrell Owens as well as a fascination with media darling Tim Tebow, embodies the reactionary racial politics of today’s mainstream sports media.
Bayless, in signature over-the-top style, pushed the supposed controversy between the franchise quarterback and his probable back-up. Not content to limit his comments to talent, performance, or potential, Bayless reduced the debate to racial identification, transforming the quarterback controversy into a simplistic conversation about race:
Even though we’ve come a long long way, with black quarterbacks, and they have been consistently been taken high in the draft over the last 15 years, I’m not sure we’ve come all that far in protecting said black quarterback, publicly protecting. So now you’ve drafted another rookie who’s not a black quarterback, and it sets up wrong for RGIII on a racial component level. I’m sorry. It just does.
Smith responded by noting the racial demographics of Washington D.C. In his estimation, Griffin has little to worry about because he is playing in “Chocolate City.” Bayless didn’t agree, noting the power of white R*dskins fans:
I don’t know the racial breakdown of the Redskins season ticket holders, but I’m gonna suggest that it’s a majority white fans. Wouldn’t you agree with that? We’re not talking about the racial breakdown of the city or of the stadium. I’m just saying there are gonna be a lot of boo birds who are gonna be quicker to boo if the white quarterback is out-playing the quarterback in the preseason. And the black quarterback gets off to a rough start in his first two games? Watch what happens.
Given the history realities of racism within sports culture, which we have discussed in the past, not to mention the deep and persistent racism of the DC football franchise, and given the longstanding barriers faced by the black quarterback his comments are instructive–up to a point. Griffin, as an African American athlete, as a black quarterback, will invariably face unfair criticism.
One has to look no further than the questions and media coverage afforded to Carolina rookie QB Cam Newton or the “low q ratings”endured by the modern black athlete, or even the distinct ways pundits characterize the play and potential of Andrew Luck and Griffin. In fact, “Q” ratings are very revealing in that, despite the visibility, cultural power, and athletic success of the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, and others, the most popular black athletes also are the most hated.
Bayless’ comments demonstrate the ways in which sports function as a historic site for the validation of white masculinity. The quarterback position more than any position is the embodiment of this heroic white manhood. The arrival of Newton, and the potential superstardom of Griffin poses a threat to the meaning of whiteness, to its meaning to future generations of white male youth who no longer have white bodies, chiseled and physically dominant, to emulate and imitate but instead are finding role models amongst black superstars.
Questions about the racial demographics of women’s athletics, whether in that recent domination by the Williams sisters in tennis, or the racial make-up of the WNBA, rarely take on the level of interest or possess the same meaning as those regarding male athletics because the supposed loss of white male athlete isn’t just about sports, or even fans, but rather an imagined threat to self, community, and the nation. According to Howard Winant,
The politics of white identity is undergoing a profound political crisis…White privilege…has been called into question in the post-civil rights period. Far from being destroyed, however, the white ‘politics of difference’ is now being trumpeted as an ideology of victimization. The situation would be farcical if it weren’t so dangerous, reflecting venerable white anxieties and fortifying the drift to the rich which, now as in the past, is highly conductive to race-baiting.
In other words, white desire to cheer for and elevate white superstars is not a benign or natural process. Had Bayless simply said that that Griffin would likely face unfair criticism because of media and fan racism, a fact worsened by the allure and narrative appeal provided by his white counterparts at the position.
Yet, Bayless didn’t frame his analysis in those terms, instead imagining white desire for and identification with a white quarterback as natural. Arguing that racial recognition and connection is “part of human nature,” Bayless ostensibly advances a narrative of race as a natural fact, rooted in biology, while implying that racial preferences and even racism might be best understood as evolutionary adaptations.
In equalizing fan allegiance to racial identity, Bayless normalizes race, yet again erasing the ways that anti-black, anti-Latino, or anti-Asian racism animates sporting cultures (see here for more examples). In doing so, he erases the team’s own sordid racist history as well as the dehumanizing name “R*dskins.” The history of the franchise itself and sports as a whole illustrates that racism is neither natural nor omnipresence but reflected in the logics of white supremacy.
Likewise, the African American support for Griffin, Asian-American adoration for Jeremy Lin, or Mexican-American adoration of Leo Manzano operates in a very different context than the systemic elevation of whiteness within the sporting world.
Call it a double standard if you like, but American racism is founded on double standards and therefore any attempt to equalize, thereby erasing power, privilege, and inequality, represents a problem. In both normalizing/naturalizing racial identification amongst fans, and arguing that “all fans do it,” Bayless is yet again shining a spotlight on race all while perpetuating a system of racism. None of this is surprising given his own history.
Just this year, he tweeted that he opposed NBA drafting a white American player in the first round. In 2011, he celebrated Blake Griffin’s (no relation) ascendance with the Los Angeles Clippers because of his whiteness, saying, “Yeah, I’ll be the first to admit on national TV that I take a little pride because he came from a white mother.” As such Bayless’ assessment that racial identification is part of human nature and that white desire to cheer for white players is normal and natural not only fits with a belief that race is biologically real but his constant claims that racism is insignificant within today’s sports world.
In calling Bayless “the Rush Limbaugh of sports journalism,” Luther Campbell (yes, the former front man for 2 Live Crew), calling Skip Bayless offers some important perspective and clarity:
Bayless honed his skills relentlessly, attacking African-American players as a young cub reporter. At 25, he wrote a column blasting Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboy running back Tony Dorsett as an “All-pro con man” and opened with the following line: “Before we tar and feather Tony Dorsett …” Obviously, Dorsett was more than upset, who noted that tarring and feathering were acts often associated with the lynching of black men in the Deep South.
Of course, while we single out Bayless as one most visible examples of the reactionary racial politics in sport for his comments on Griffin, it would be a mistake to believe he is an isolated or idiosyncratic voice. In fact, his position, prominence, and privilege as a star media analyst should remind us how fully his perspectives on race and racism resonate with the public at large, the gatekeepers at ESPN, and its corporate sponsors. The very fact that the NFL, ESPN, and fans generally continue to embrace a mascot that disparages Native Americans both through base name-calling and stereotypic imagery, underscores how retrograde racial politics and sport remain.
Only time will tell if Bayless and others will confirm our worst fears about media coverage and fan reaction to the young quarterback as a black athlete, while shedding light on the corporate capacity to engage racist representations with accountability and integrity.
C. Richard King is a professor of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University in Pullman. He is author/editor of several books, including Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy and Postcolonial America.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of the just released After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness (SUNY Press) as well as several other works.