Hey ESPN: Don't fire Rob Parker for his "cornball brother" comments; learn to talk about race better
Regular readers of this space know I also write a column on sports media for Indiana university's National Sports Journalism Center website. It should come as no surprise that my column this week is on ESPN analyst Rob Parker and his comments that Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is a "cornball brother" for having an interracial relationship and possibly voting Republican.
Since so many people have asked my opinion on this, I've cross-posted the column here. Please check out my other stuff on the NSJC website; its a great platform, especially for sports junkies.
Check out what I've written, and deliver your opinions below:
"If you ever wondered whether people of color could say things that are just as prejudiced, stereotypical and clueless about race as white people, ESPN analyst Rob Parker obliterated any doubt on Thursday.
That’s when Parker took centerstage on ESPN’s sports argument show, First Take, to question whether Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was a “cornball brother” who is “kind of black, but not really.”
His evidence? The quarterback may vote Republican and has a white fiancée.
“He's not real,” Parker insisted, when asked by his fellow panelists to explain the term “cornball brother.” “OK, he’s black, he kind of does the thing, but he's not really down with the cause. He's not one of us. He's kind of black but he's not really, like, the guy you want to hang out with because he's off to something else.”
Of course, such stuff is provincial nonsense; a too-strict definition of what is “authentically black” handed down by someone whose mouth was apparently working a lot faster than his brain on that particular day.
By Parker’s definition, for example, former Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann isn’t black because he ran for governor in Pennsylvania as a Republican in 2006. Oscar-winning film star Sidney Poitier wouldn’t qualify either, because he married white Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus in 1976.
(Full disclosure: I wouldn’t be black under Parker’s definition either; my wife Barb is also white.)
ESPN, as you might expect from a sprawling conglomerate, released a measured statement from spokesman Mike Soltys, saying Parker has been suspended: “Following yesterday’s comments, Rob Parker has been suspended until further notice. We are conducting a full review.”
Let me say here, I hope ESPN doesn’t fire Parker. Because his comments unveiled how racial identity issues can simmer beneath the surface in sports, unexplored and unrecognized until someone jumps in the deep end with little idea how to have a discussion free from stereotypes.
What Parker’s comments really reveal, is the complicated way black athletes are held up as role models within black culture and the backlash which can come if they are viewed as rejecting that love.
The reason Parker was having this conversation about Griffin, was because the quarterback had tried to downplay talk about issues of race in how black quarterbacks are evaluated by the press and fans.
“For me, you don't ever want to be defined by the color of your skin,” Griffin said during a press conference Wednesday as reported by USA Today. “You want to be defined by your work ethic, the person that you are, your character, your personality. That's what I've tried to go out and do…I am an African-American in America. That will never change. But I don't have to be defined by that.”
But to some black folks, sensitive about how black culture can be minimized and vilified, words like Griffin’s can sound like rejection – as if the quarterback might think he is too good to be identified as African American.
Golf superstar Tiger Woods ran into this problem many years ago, after telling talk show queen Oprah Winfrey in 1997 he identified as “Cablinasian” to describe an ethnic heritage which included Dutch, Chinese, Thai, African American and Native American roots in his parents’ families.
(Indeed, Parker also referenced Woods during his odd diatribe, saying “Tiger Woods was like…I got black skin, but don’t call me black.”).
Some black people, eager to “claim” Woods as the first black golf superstar, suspected such explanations revealed a successful black man trying to shake off his blackness – avoiding identification as African American because he saw some sort of stigma in the association.
Sports columnist Terence Moore, who is African American, wrote that Woods “took a nine-iron to the face of blacks” with such comments, recalling his own appearance on Winfrey’s show where he insisted “Tiger Woods is fooling himself to think that just because he’s Tiger Woods, he has transcended everything else in society…In the old days, there used to be laws on the books that said, if you have one drop of black blood in you, you are black. Well, that's still unofficially the case in the minds of many in America. One drop of black blood, and you're black.”
As it turns out, the world seemed determined to treat Woods as a black man anyway, when white golfer Fuzzy Zoeller urged him not to “serve fried chicken” at a golf championship dinner after winning a tournament. Eventually, Woods seemed to learn a sad lesson; he doesn’t talk about race much, anymore.
There’s a lot going on here. African Americans have a long, tortured struggle with self-identity in a white-dominated society which has often associated our culture with the worst shortcomings in morality and intelligence.
It’s understandable that some people would be wary of black celebrities who might seek to minimize, disavow or downplay their connection to black people as if they are sidestepping something undesirable. But if that wariness translates into a rigid straitjacket of qualities which “define” blackness, then the people who lose most are other black people – forced into narrow, limiting roles over a fear of rejection.
All of this stuff is proof of another sad reality: Those who say race isn’t an element in the reaction to Griffin’s performance as a quarterback are wrong.
In fact, racial issues hide behind a lot of big controversies in sports, from the reaction to some players’ appearance – AOL FanHouse columnist David Whitley took lots of criticism for a column about biracial quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos that some other writers felt was racist – to concerns about their brushes with the law.
But if the guys on First Take are going to try talking about this stuff, they better exercise more care than Parker or co-hosts Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless have shown so far.
If any ESPN executives are still reading, let me suggest you avoid the corporate reflex of burying this controversy and instead have Parker return to First Take with some people who can talk about this issue with intelligence and insight.
When that talk is done, I’d give Parker a break for a week or two, to demonstrate that such ham-handed talk about race has consequences.
Because, when it comes to dissecting America’s often-difficult intersections of race, culture and sports, a scalpel works better than a sledgehammer every time.
Below, Tiger Woods talks about race at 2:15 and talks about calling himself Cablinasian at 6:20.