Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, racial stereotypes and slippery slopes

It's January, meaning that the NFL is now operating in two very different parallel postseasons. Twelve teams are still being covered by the media in terms of their title aspirations, while the remaining 20 are looking forward to the offseason. The NFL Draft hype machine is warming up. If past years are any indication, the lazy stereotyping is only in its early stages as well.

Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are extremely intriguing prospects, and they will be discussed more than any other players in the build-up to draft day. They are both exceptional quarterbacks with varied skill sets. There should be little question about whether either player has the throwing mechanics, athletic ability and intellect to play quarterback in the NFL. Both of them have graduated from excellent academic institutions and do not have joke degrees. They would both would be moving on to financially lucrative careers if they were not good at football. Neither player has an obvious weakness and neither player can be very easily compared to a player currently playing in the NFL.

For those who are unaware, Luck is caucasian and Griffin is African-American. Luck played in a pro-style offense at Stanford, while Griffin played in a spread offense at Baylor. Griffin is also a track and field athlete, and he runs a time in the 110-meter hurdles that is close to the Olympic qualifying standard. Griffin is slightly smaller than the average NFL quarterback, at 6'2" and 220 pounds. Luck is about an average-sized NFL quarterback, and perhaps slightly above average, at 6'4" and 235 pounds. It's not too difficult to figure out what's coming.

On Wednesday, in an interview on The Dan Patrick Show, former NFL head coach and current NBC analyst Tony Dungy said that he would select Griffin over Luck if he was running the Indianapolis Colts. 

*"I saw Andrew Luck play twice against Oregon and he played great and he’s a great player. But, you know the way the game is, and the guys that bring that extra dimension … I love Aaron Rodgers. Now I’d take Aaron Rodgers of Brady and Brees for the pressure he puts on the defenses with his running ability. And I just see these guys like (Robert) Griffin (III) and Russell Wilson and they’re intriguing to me. I have to study him, but just off of one game, you know watching a couple of games, I like Robert Griffin (III).”

When Patrick asked Dungy if he liked Griffin over Luck, he replied:

"I do, just watching him play a couple of games, not watching or studying every play."

*Transcribed quotes from Larry Brown Sports.

To be fair, Dungy admitted that he has not extensively studied Luck and Griffin. If (likely when) Dungy takes the time to watch more tape on Luck, he will probably notice that he's actually extremely mobile. Based on his level of athleticism and the offense in which he played college ball, Luck is almost certainly more comparable to Rodgers than Griffin. Though it's impossible to know for sure until the NFL combine, it's very likely that Luck is actually more mobile than Rodgers. This isn't just apparent on tape, it's represented in their college statistics.

During his college career, Rodgers rushed for 336 yards, averaging 2.1 yards per attempt over two seasons as the quarterback at the University of California. Luck ran for 453 yards, averaging 8.2 yards per carry in his best season. Over his college career, Luck has 960 rushing yards at 6.0 yards per carry. 

The implication that Luck is closer to the likes of Drew Brees and Tom Brady than he is to Rodgers, in terms of out-of-pocket mobility, is absurd. It suggests what Dungy admits himself; he hasn't seen enough of Luck to make an evaluation. Why Dan Patrick is asking a man who admits he hasn't seen enough of Luck and Griffin to make an evaluation to make said evaluation on a very popular sports radio show is difficult to figure out, but in any event, Dungy took the easy way out. He made the lazy comparison. Luck is like the league's elite immobile pocket passers, Griffin is mobile. He made it a case of mobile vs. immobile. If the (false) assumption is made that Luck is less mobile than Rodgers, calling Griffin the better quarterback is an easy call to make.

This is not to say that Tony Dungy is a prejudiced person or that he has any reason to want Andrew Luck to be an immobile quarterback. He just took the easy way out. He was on the spot on live radio, being asked to discuss something he was admittedly not knowledgeable about, and in that moment, he leaned on stereotypes. Unfortunately, ESPN's Tony Kornheiser did the exact same thing while discussing Dungy's quotes and evaluating the two quarterbacks himself.

Here are Kornheiser's words, from the Wednesday, January 4 episode of Pardon The Interruption.

“The most important thing you can do to play quarterback in the NFL is pass well. That’s why Tim Tebow, who we both like a lot, that’s why he struggles, because he can’t pass well. I don’t know how well RGIII passes the ball. I know Andrew Luck can pass and I’m very surprised to hear Tony Dungy say this in this context, Mike. He had a guy in Peyton Manning who is basically immobile compared to the guys that he named, and it would sound now like he would pick a Cam Newton-type quarterback, a RGIII[-type] quarterback over Peyton Manning. I’m surprised by that, aren’t you?”

Before I dive into this, a disclaimer is required. I do not know Tony Kornheiser and I don't know how to get into contact with him in a timely fashion. Therefore, I can not ask him to elaborate on these quotes. His statements here are slightly ambiguous, and I will be making assumptions about what he meant. In the unlikely event that Kornheiser reads this and disagrees with my interpretations of his words, he should feel free to contact me. 

Two of Kornheiser's statements stick out like a sore thumb. First, there is the implication that Griffin is significantly worse at throwing a ball than Luck. "I don’t know how well RGIII passes the ball. I know Andrew Luck can pass[.]" While Kornheiser could mean that he has not watched Griffin and literally does not know if he is good at throwing a football, this sounds as if Kornheiser has seen Griffin, is knowledgeable about his style of play, and has concluded that it is unclear whether or not he is an NFL-level passer of the ball. 

Subjective analysis of Griffin's play is enough to tell someone who is familiar with the game that throwing the ball is not a weakness of Griffin's. He has an extremely strong arm, he throws a very tight spiral, and his throws are extremely accurate. He can hit receivers with accuracy while sitting in the pocket and while on the move. It's actually a bit stunning to think that someone who has watched him play might question whether or not he is an NFL-level passer.

And if you haven't seen him? His statistics tell the story. Even for a pass-happy spread offense that features a lot of short, simple throws, his numbers are staggering. Griffin completed 72.4 percent of his passes this season and threw just six interceptions in 402 passing attempts. His yards per passing attempt average is 10.7, significantly better than Luck's 8.5. While this statistic does not account for the fact that Baylor's receivers did a better job of picking up yards after the catch than Stanford's, it's still a solid indicator of Griffin's passing ability.

Kornheiser's other questionable statement is a bit more jarring, simply because it is more obviously the product of a racial stereotype. While Dungy's false assumption that Luck is not mobile and Kornheiser's false assumption that Griffin isn't a great passer could have been products of the systems that they played in, this one is based on race, without a doubt. "...he would pick a Cam Newton-type quarterback, a RGIII[-type] quarterback over Peyton Manning."

It is possible that Kornheiser meant that he thought Dungy was saying that he would pick a "Cam Newton-type" quarterback OR an "RGIII-[type]" quarterback than a quarterback like Peyton Manning, who has poor out-of-pocket mobility. However, in the context of this conversation, it seems entirely more likely that Kornheiser was lumping Griffin into a category with Newton, calling them similar quarterbacks. Quickly, here is a list of things that are very similar about Griffin and Newton.

1. They play quarterback
2. They are athletic
3. They were top draft prospects
4. They played in a spread offense in college
5. They are black

And...that's about it. Newton is three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than Griffin. Griffin was a considerably more accurate passer in college than Newton. Griffin rushed for 699 yards and 10 touchdowns this past season, while Newton rushed for 1473 yards and 20 touchdowns in his final collegiate season. Auburn offensive coordinator Guz Malzahn regularly called quarterback runs that were based on Newton's size and power. Griffin was rarely asked to run up the middle in closed offensive sets while the opposing team had seven or more defenders in the box. The similarities between their games are minimal.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing is common. In an excellent piece for SB Nation, Bomani Jones discussed how many of Cam Newton's pre-draft critics downplayed not only his abilities as a football player, but his intellectual and emotional suitability for the quarterback position based on racial stereotypes as opposed to objective analysis. Newton, instead of standing up for himself and speaking out against racial stereotypes, blamed Vince Young and JaMarcus Russell for the existence of these racial stereotypes. Quite simply, society (and NFL Draft analysts) are a good distance away from no longer seeing race and evaluating prospects simply based on their football abilities.

Guess what? It's only January 4th. This is the beginning of a long road, paved with racial epithets and lazy cliches. Until they prove people wrong in the NFL, Luck will not be given credit for being more mobile than the average pocket passer. Griffin will not be given credit for his fantastic passing ability.

The public is also going to hear a lot more about Griffin's intelligence and well-spoken nature than they are about Luck's. It's expected that Luck, a white quarterback from Stanford, is an intelligent person who knows how to talk. For some reason, the same is not expected of a black quarterback like Griffin. It isn't assumed that a person who graduated from college, who working on a master's degree and considering going to law school, has some idea of how to speak in public.

There are some obvious differences between Luck and Griffin. Luck played in a pro-style offense, while Griffin played in the spread. Luck has excellent athleticism, while Griffin has world class athleticism. Luck has a tad more experience, both in total and in big games. After that, they're extremely similar football players, both in skill set and talent ceiling, and they appear to be similarly great people. Incredibly, some will go so far as to paint them as polar opposites.

Dungy and Kornheiser's comments could be lazy, one-time opinions offered by people who will soon be better informed. More likely than not, there are dozens in sports media who currently share the points of view of Dungy and Kornheiser, and they don't care to have those opinions altered for the better. Draft analysts will proudly hold on to their ignorance, and the result will be a lot of casual racism. 

This year, let's stop pretending that's okay.

No comments:

Post a Comment