Rare is the NFL draft that provokes second guessing about a kicker. But this year’s edition was no ordinary draft (see: 19, Covid.) And Justin Rohrwasser is no ordinary kicker.
When the New England Patriots selected Rohrwasser in the fifth round to replace the legendary Stephen Gostkowski, it was a shock, especially as the 23-year-old hadn’t been considered an exceptional talent in college. ESPN host Trey Wingo was even forced to admit on live TV that the Worldwide Leader in Sports had no highlights of Rohrwasser’s career.
And even if there had been any B-roll of a weather-beaten Rohrwasser blasting three-pointers against Rice or Western Kentucky, none of those images could eclipse the more striking one on his left forearm – of the Roman numeral III ringed in 13 stars. To the untrained eye, the tattoo would seem little more than a marker of youth. To the keener observer, it is the unmistakable brand of the Three Percenters – a far-right paramilitary group that champions gun ownership and resists federal involvement in local matters. Formed in reaction to the 2008 election of Barack Obama, some members of the group took up arms and served as sentries for white supremacist protesters at the 2017 domestic terror attack in Charlottesville, that resulted in 28 injuries and one death.
Rohrwasser, who can be clearly seen exercising his right to bare arms in official team photos, has played the naïf. He told reporters that draft night was the first time he’d heard about the significance of his tattoo, which he says he mistook for a US military symbol. He pledged to ink over it, then promised to laser it off entirely, all the while apologizing to friends and family whom he’d put in the “compromising position” of having to defend the indefensible.
Those attempts at damage control might have sailed through the uprights if he hadn’t followed and “liked” so much far-right social media content. Or recommended books from Jordan Peterson and other radical traditionalists. Or previously bragged about tattooing himself with a sewing needle. Or completely ignored the much bigger tattoo just under his Three Percenters dog whistle that reads “Liberty or Death”. That’s the cry that was last heard by the anti-government protesters who’d sooner drive down to the local statehouse with their guns and exhaust in a policeman’s face than let something as trifling as global pandemic deny them the right to a haircut and a mani-pedi. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer said the demonstrations at her state capitol – which, among other things, featured armed militia men waving Dixie flags and nooses – brought back memories of “some of the worst racism and awful parts of our history in this country.”
So profound is the remorse in Rohrwasser’s heart that he apparently spent a portion of what should have been the happiest day of his life crying in his car, according to an anecdote his high-school coach shared with the Boston Globe. And, shoot, you had to feel for him. Pro football makes it so easy to summon the sympathy. When white players like Rohrwasser get whistled for their supremacist taunts, somehow, they’re the ones who are forgiven. It was true when Carolina Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins used a racial epithet to refer to black and Hispanic teammates. (He blamed it on the alcohol.) It was true when Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper was caught on tape threatening to jump a security barrier at a Kenny Chesney concert and “fight every nigger here.” (He blamed it on the alcohol, too.) And it was true when Richie Incognito bullied his teammate Jonathan Martin – “a half-nigger piece of shit,” in Incognito’s estimation – out of the NFL. While Incognito resumed a career to which he’s felt very much entitled, Martin has spent the five years wrestling with his mental health. Collins, Cooper and Incognito all carried on their careers in the NFL, as will Rohrwasser. You could argue that everyone deserves a second chance. Protest about the racism inherent in the US though, and you may well find your football career is over. Or, for that matter, your basketball career.
In a league where nearly two-thirds of the guys in pads are black, it stands to reason that a white player’s ethnic and cultural biases should be judged as harshly as their 40-yard dash times – you know, just to stave off any potential “locker room distractions.” But instead of a sharp examination of an actual weakness that only a white player can weaponize, we get the same ol’ soft focus on black poverty . We get an ESPN box on Clemson wideout Tee Higgins that ends with a bullet point about his mom fighting drug addiction for 16 years. We get another bullet in the box on Colorado receiver Laviska Shenault Jr about his mother surviving West Nile virus. We get yet another bullet in the box on Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs about his father dying of heart failure. It’s enough to make you wonder where the bullet point about all the racist and homophobic posts Nick Bosa had liked (and subsequently deleted) before he was taken second overall in last year’s draft.
For a shop run by Jimmy Pitaro – the politically averse ESPN president who has promised, on more than a few occasions, to deliver content that sticks to sports – these digressions are quite far afield indeed. What’s more, every year his network seems to come into the draft with an endless supply of these backstories. (Maybe someday one of the 12,000 draft analysts in ESPN’s employ will find the courage to weigh in.) It’s almost as if there is a stubborn social construct in America that makes it virtually impossible for black athletes to escape the traumatic beats in their humble beginnings.
If ever there was a team owner in the league who might appreciate the irony at work here, it’s the Patriots’ Robert Kraft. Here, after all, is a man who not only works with Meek Mill and Jay-Z on criminal justice reform, but also gives liberally to Blue Lives causes, supports the troops and first responders and counts our law-and-order president among his closest friends. How does a guy like Kraft wind up drafting a guy like Rohrwasser? Easy. His team had a need, and his coach saw something. With a bit of laser removal and a few clutch kicks, likely, Rohrwasser will soon reduce the breathless stories about his rightward leanings to a “West Nile”-sized poverty bullet. The most people will remember is that he was called out for his extremist affiliations, he wept. As long as Rohrwasser plays the victim, he can never lose.