Four years ago, I sat in a conference room in Waco, Texas with a young quarterback named Robert Griffin III and listened to him talk about the inherent compromises of playing in the National Football League.
Griffin was a relative innocent back then, a student at Baylor who had helped rejuvenate a moribund football program and was a few weeks away from winning the Heisman Trophy (and whose only controversy involved his choice of socks), and I was both surprised and pleased with his introspection and his candor. I thought – and still think – that he was one of the more self-aware athletes I’d ever interviewed.
Given everything that’s happened since – given that Griffin found himself engulfed in yet another “controversy” this week, when he had the overarching audacity to admit that he aspires to be the best at something he’s worked at for most of his life – I think it’s worth reproducing those words about the NFL in full here. Because I sure as hell haven’t forgotten about them.
“With the NFL, if they come knocking at your door, you’re not going to tell them no,” he said at the time. “But it’s a tough business. The NFL doesn’t like it when they have a smart guy who knows how much he’s worth. The NFL now, it’s about talent, and if you have talent, it doesn’t matter what’s going on. That’s why you get a lot of guys who get in trouble who are still playing, and things happen and they do illegal stuff and they still get to go out and play, because as long as they can get people to watch them play, the NFL’s making money. It’s just about the spectacle. That’s all it is.”
And so maybe I should have seen this coming. RGIII has become the spectacle in Washington, partly because he hasn’t lived up to the expectations he set during his rookie season (largely due to unavoidable injuries like the one he suffered in a preseason game against Detroit last night), partly because he plays for a franchise that is inherently rotten from the owner’s box downward and partly because he landed in a city that embraces the art of the gaffe. Griffin came out of college with no filter and an overarching self-confidence, and some of what’s happened to him can be turned back on himself; but he also saw professional football for what it was even before he got there. And to date, his career has proved that he was absolutely correct about everything.
Go ahead and look at this list of Griffin’s supposed “controversies” since arriving in Washington: What they have in common is that each – with the exception of the final one, when Griffin simply grew so tired of being misread that he stopped saying anything – can be interpreted in entirely different ways, depending upon your perspective. They’re all nuanced quotes, in which Griffin perhaps fell victim to his own naïveté, but in which he also attempted to say precisely what he was thinking rather than giving in to groupthink.
None of them would amount to much of anything if Griffin were playing at a higher level, or if the Redskins were winning, of course. And that was Griffin’s point four years ago: The NFL is a bottom-line league, both in terms of talent and dollars, and the bottom line on Griffin is yet to be seen.
Until then, people are going to jump all over the spectacle. People are going to presume that Griffin is an arrogant kid who isn’t “tough enough” (even though injuries like last night’s are completely not his fault) and somehow doesn’t get it because he isn’t willing to play the game within the game. And maybe, to a certain extent, that’s true; maybe Griffin is still growing up, and still figuring out the dynamics of a league (including the league’s attendant media) that has never really tolerated dissent toward authority. Maybe he needs to recognize the impact his comments might have on his teammates, even if he isn’t doing these things on purpose. Maybe there’s still a way for him to balance out his own penchant for nuanced thinking with the bland fealty that NFL culture demands.
But then, maybe that’s impossible; maybe it’s all a catch-22. Maybe RGIII’s entire purpose for playing professional football is to expose this league for what it is.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb