Commentary

Don't call it a comeback

An athlete's image is often his own worst enemy. Just look at Robert Griffin III

Originally Published: October 1, 2013
By Howard Bryant | ESPN The Magazine

Bryant IlloMark Smith for ESPNAfter one great season and one playoff game, RG3 is more commercial than competitor.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Oct. 14 Bay Area Issue. Subscribe today!

IN RETROSPECT, THE whole Robert Griffin III narrative looks so silly. The elaborate comeback concoction -- the Good Housekeeping Seal proclamations from Dr. James Andrews, the optimistic weekly bulletins endorsed by Mike Shanahan, the inspirational tweets from Griffin and the slickly produced commercials -- was always dubious. But now, as the Redskins' season spirals downward, the marketing contrivance has collided with the cold truth: The great RG3, whose career is composed of one magical season and exactly one playoff game, is more commercial than competitor.

The competitor is still there, rehabbing uncertainly in real time. But there's no margin, because now the games count and he's not ready; he is unable to run from defenders and create wonder because of a knee brace so bulky that his left leg -- the good leg -- looks like a toothpick. Griffin has responded by arrogantly attempting ("There's no knee issue," he said before a loss to Detroit left Washington 0–3) to deny the obvious: He isn't the same player. And he has no one to blame but himself for being packaged in a way that created unrealistic expectations.

Griffin's return plan should be familiar by now: When injury steals the performance, hype the comeback. Instead of public humility and private sweat, Griffin and his sponsors turned the uncertainty of recovery into an ad campaign, a summer reality show of thumping music and stirring voice-overs, each clang of the weights a reaffirmation of his dedication. Injury became financial opportunity, with the requisite slow-motion tracking, quick video cuts and droplets of sweat trickling down a chiseled body. His recovery even had a slogan: All in for Week 1. The all-in campaign was conceived before Griffin's injury and has been running with different athletes since 2011. But whatever the original intent, there was only one way to interpret the spots, considering the first one debuted after the QB began his rehab.

So never mind that it didn't stand to reason that a rookie coming off a massive knee injury -- a player who accelerated his rehab and didn't play one minute of the preseason -- would step onto a field in Week 1 and have success. Never mind that the folly of such hubris had already been demonstrated. Bulls guard Derrick Rose used the same blueprint after blowing out his knee in a 2012 playoff game. He starred in a glossy commercial featuring him in the weight room, same sweat, same clanging weights, a music video of rededication, refocusing for his return. It came with a slogan too: All in for D Rose. Then reality called, and Rose missed the entire 2012-13 season.

That Griffin has become as much media personality as he is quarterback is not entirely of his doing. Injuries are part of the reason; time and inexperience (he's only 23 years old) are another. It was ESPN that aired the Gatorade-produced RG3 documentary, and this magazine has been relentless in inflating Griffin as a transformative figure. The biggest reason, however, is that he has allowed himself to be manipulated, rendered inauthentic by marketing. He took the money and hyped his own promise, and while there is nothing wrong with betting on oneself, Griffin is now trapped within a construct that is difficult for his performance to overcome. Instead of respecting the severity of his injury, he is boxed in by his image, his ego, the money and a knee that is not yet cooperating. The Redskins, the coach, ESPN and the good Dr. Andrews are all complicit.

Of course, allowing himself to be molded is nothing new for Griffin either. When he arrived in Washington last year, he was positioned as the racial bridge of a divided city, even though he had yet to say or do anything of great social significance (and still hasn't).

Griffin is a quarterback, and that should be enough. None of the rest -- turning his rehab into a reality sideshow, positioning himself as a transcendent figure -- is necessary. In the meantime, while he has worked overtime to craft an image, there are healthier, better players who are running right past him. Only his performance, not a commercial or YouTube video or marketing campaign, can change that.

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.