Like another revered white sports legend associated with Boston, Larry Bird, Rob Gronkowski has announced an athletic career cut short by a body battered from the sport that brought him fame.
Bird acquired early in his career the monicker “the Hick from French Lick” and was noted for not only his all-around basketball skills and clutch shooting but also his trash talking on the court contrasted with his mostly laconic and distant demeanor off it.
The implication about Bird included that he was smart as an athlete, but less than intellectual while in college or in the life outside of sports left mostly un-detailed.
Gronkowski, often called “Gronk,” has never been as reserved as Bird, but instead has reveled in being called out as a meathead. In fact, his retirement announcement prompted an ESPN morning show to put together a montage that highlighted Gronk, the Meathead, bragging that he hasn’t read a book since ninth grade.
For the frat-boy culture and not-so-cloaked toxic masculinity pervading ESPN, the expected responses followed with everyone laughing about Gronk misidentifying that book’s title (garbling To Kill a Mockingbird as A Mockingbird to Remember).
Gronk’s now-former team, the New England Patriots, represents a pretty disturbing mixture of sport excellence against the rust beneath the shine of championships, including very disturbing controversies—worst of which involved Gronks’ fellow tight end, Aaron Hernandez, convicted of murder.
While the talking heads of 24-hour sports find Gronk, the Meathead, hilarious, we must recall about Gronkowski: “Oh, there’s also this video of Gronk basically offering $10,000 to any couple that will have sex in front of the large group of people.”
A story not included along with a talking head sharing that Gronk once pulled a bottle of vodka from his pants at a function when he invited the ESPN host to join him for a drink.
Just good ol’ All-American fun, right?
But I think an even larger and ignored responsibility is that we should be asking if black men who are professional athletes receive the sort of tremendous boundaries Gronk is afforded as The Meathead.
Black athletes are not—as racial minorities are not in the U.S.
A part of white privilege includes the almost limitless pass for any behavior. A part of being a minority, however, is that any perceived or identified mistake is entirely disqualifying.
As I have discussed before, Marshawn Lynch, for example, always received a much different media framing, often as a thug, from the chuckles accompanying stories of Gronk, the Meathead. See also Richard Sherman, Thug.
I am not particularly concerned about arguments around whether or not Gronkowski is the best tight end ever in the NFL. I am, however, interested in how the white male elites of ESPN and the NFL see a bit of themselves in Gronk.
The same way Joe Biden refuses to criticize Mike Pence or Donald Trump as people.
People who look like me, white men believe, are always essentially good guys. It is the people who don’t look like me who have the fatal flaws of character.
Despite the tremendous labor provided overwhelmingly by black men to the success of professional sports and ESPN in the U.S., both the NFL and ESPN flourish on the magic carpet ride of white male privilege—see the owners, most of the coaches, and much of the fanbase who sees themselves in the sea of white male faces and their dominant perspectives on ESPN.
For the NFL, Gronk, the Meathead, is the poster boy, but the Grand Wizard is his now-former team’s owner, Robert Kraft—billionaire who is using his obscene wealth to battle video evidence he frequented a business practicing human sex trafficking.
While the Dallas Cowboys and their owner, Jerry Jones, are quite a disturbing circus as well, the real “America’s Team” during the Trump era is the New England Patriots.
And now they have lost their Meathead.
And while the 24-hour sports frat parties are going to spend a few days laughing about good ol’ Gronk, the Meathead, there is an owners meeting of the NFL. And in all likelihood, Kraft will ride his magic carpet to the other side of his being sorry for hurting and disappointing others.
In the most tone deaf moment of the brief apology, Kraft offers what can only be seen as the inverse of his real beliefs: “I expect to be judged not by my words, but by my actions.”
That is not the world in which Kraft or Gronk, the Meathead, live.
That is a world for other people, other people who do not look like them.