Dan Le Batard, on his radio show on Wednesday, posed an interesting question: Would Rob Gronkowski — an affable, beer-guzzling great player who gets photographed with porn stars and proudly proclaims he does not read — be perceived the same if he were black? (Audio of the full segment is at the bottom of the post.)
Before playing a clip of Gronk’s appearance on Kimmel in which he said he hadn’t read a book since “A Mockingbird to Remember” (a twist on the title of the erotic fan fiction of which he’s a subject), Le Batard said that the only comparable black athlete in sports history would be Shaq, but that he was not even close. Bomani Jones wondered: What would Larry Foote, who castigated Marshawn Lynch’s defiance of authority as a bad influence on inner city kids, say about a black player who behaved like Gronk, and bragged about not reading?
tugotz made the point that he’s friendly with the media, and mocks himself in an endearing way, and Le Batard thought the shtick was more cockiness than self-awareness. Bomani wasn’t so sure, citing the time that Gronk was asked about Aaron Hernandez and immediately clammed up as evidence that there may be more to his mind than meets the eye, but said, “I firmly believe that he hadn’t read a book since the ninth grade.”
“Give me a comparable resume,” Le Batard asked. “Photos with porn stars. Kind of a dope. Dances after a Super Bowl loss shirtless in the nightclub. Admits to not reading a book. Throws a safety into a television camera during a game. Completely unstoppable on-field menace. Who’s the black guy that gets to be the things in that realm and gets to be embraced the way Gronk is?”
To be sure, there aren’t many white athletes who would be similarly adored to Gronkowski. Johnny Manziel, even at the height of his popularity in college, remained polarizing. Sports Pickle founder DJ Gallo made this salient point earlier this week:
Le Batard brought the question up again with Stan Van Gundy on Thursday’s show. “Winning takes care of almost everything in terms of the way we view people in sports,” said the Pistons coach. “When Gronkowski was doing that after the Super Bowl that he lost, there were a lot of people killing him. He’s beloved now because they just won a Super Bowl. I think your point about the way we view people racially is a good one, but I think this is more about winning and losing.”
In my opinion, Gronk benefits from a variety of factors. He’s telegenic. The media does go easier on him because he often provides colorful copy. Skill and success play a role. And yes, so does race. But it’s also that he seems sincere and comfortable in his own skin. He may embellish his meathead character, but never in a way that that feels untrue to himself.
He’s not in a trillion commercials … at least not yet. He’s never really crossed the line with his behavior — dancing after the Super Bowl loss teetered on the brink — or been arrested. He’s confident but not too arrogant. I do believe that we’re laughing with him, not at him, and that he’s in on the joke. Nevertheless, there’s a lingering worry that some of the reckless traits that make him endearing right now will pose trouble for him in a decade or three.