I love me some Rob Gronkowksi.
Anyone who has known me long enough knows this about me.
I love the way he plays football like some sort of mutant Frankenstein polar bear. I love the way he stumbles over every spoken word in interviews as if some public relations worker just taught him English 25 minutes ago. I love the way he taped the number 69 to the back of his practice jersey as a joke just weeks before preparing to play in a Super Bowl -- which I would call a stain of anarchy on Bill Belichick's pristine “Patriot Way,” but I think Aaron Hernandez already killed that, too.
As a Steelers fan born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I need no allegiance to any team to say that Rob Gronkowski represents just about everything I love about sports. (Gronkowski’s Western Pennsylvania high school football roots do not hurt, though.)
If you’re like me, you take the product of sports for what it is - entertainment - and not some pillar of morality used to teach kids right from wrong. If parents don’t like the way Gronk parties in the offseason like a pack of unhinged frat bros or the way Jose Bautista flips his bat to Mars after a home run, then they should raise their own damn kids the way they want instead of expecting 25-year-old millionaires to do it for them.
Playing in a league saturated with corporate robots players programmed to speak publicly using only sanitized clichés, never displaying an ounce of personality in order to protect their brand, Gronk’s brand is making a joke about Food Network host Padma Lakshmi eating a lot of sausage during a guest appearance on Top Chef.
He is a lucid representation of how I would have dreamt of behaving if I ever became a famous football star when I was 15. He is offensive and yet somehow still charming and harmless because he never seems to know any better. He is the embodiment and, occasionally, a parody of today's American meathead. He is my, nay, America’s spirit animal.
Gronk’s latest primal act of decadence occurred last month with his long-awaited and first annual booze, testosterone and birth control-fueled party cruise – cleverly named, “Gronk’s Party Ship.” In case there was any confusion about just what happened on said cruise, the first sentence of its official description reads, “It’s time to PARTY, it’s time to ROCK, but more importantly, it's time to get GRONK’D!”
Just before the cruise set off to the Bahamas from Miami, Gronkowski and his entourage of bros swung by the Clevelander Hotel in Miami, where ESPN personality Dan LeBatard was hosting his morning radio show. Throughout the show, LeBatard made mention of how the hotel’s staff was frustrated with Gronkowski and his brigade of orangutans damaging hotel property while partying at the hotel.
This kind of revelry is what I’ve come to expect and love from Gronk. His life off the field is just one scene from Jackass after another. But after years of celebrating blog posts chronicling Gronk’s endearing idiocy, I found myself reacting to his latest behavior by recoiling rather than giggling.
Somewhere along the way, I’ve become increasingly less easy with Gronkowski’s allure as an unusually lovable jock. There’s more to the appeal of Gronk’s “brand” than just being a 6’6, 265 pound juvenile. He’s a sociological case study in the racial undercurrents of how fans perceive professional athletes.
Black athletes are not allowed to act the way Gronkowski has for six years and still be America’s charming meathead (and rank fourth in jersey sales last season). It doesn’t take much thought to imagine what sports talk radio hosts would have to say about Cam Newton and his posse breaking pool chairs before setting off on a party cruise. In fact, Gronk’s peers, including Texans cornerback Charles James (who you may remember from HBO’s latest season of Hard Knocks), have even begun to publicly make note of this double standard. On Feb. 22, James tweeted, “But if Cam had a cruise ship.......nvm.”
Many black superstars in sports, like Newton, are not even allowed to smile or dance incorrectly without media members elbowing each other out of the way to tell you how immature they behave. Conversely, the Boston Globe published daily reports from Gronk’s recent party cruise celebrating the white athlete’s right to party.
When reports surfaced in 2014 indicating that police were called to the home of NFL superstar Dez Bryant six times over a four-year period, many columnists and commentators rushed to urge the Cowboys to whip the young reckless black man into shape. (Keep in mind that all six police visits found no wrongdoing by Bryant.) When reports surfaced that Gronk jeopardized his own health and his team’s prospects by dancing shirtless in a Las Vegas club while recovering from a recently broken forearm, little is made of it.
To me, sports have always oddly reflected present-day societal values. In the last decade alone, we’ve seen a number of social issues – acceptance of homosexuality, protestation of violence against women, promotion of females into leadership positions – trickle their way down to sports.
No different is the media and fans’ imbalanced tolerance of behavior by white and black athletes.
Just as American law enforcement officers are over three times more likely to arrest a black person than a white person for drug possession, according to 2009 report from the Human Rights Watch, curmudgeonly talking heads are more likely object to a black athlete doing something equally trivial, like taking pictures with pornstars.
The solution is not for us to break out our fun police badges and begin “evening the score” by condemning Gronkowksi for doing exactly what many of us would do if we were a rich and famous 25-year-old athlete.
Gronk should be allowed to do Gronk things just like every black athlete should be allowed to live their own life without anyone waving a parental finger at them.
As my old psychology professor used to stress, it’s unreasonable to transform how we socially perceive different groups of people overnight, however, there is a lot of power in first acknowledging and becoming aware of the discrepancies in how we perceive differing groups.
The only thing better than watching Gronk dance on a stage to terrible Flo Rida music as a part of “Mardi Gronk” is watching him do it while free of guilt and bias.
After all, “yo soy fiesta.”
Matthew Zabierek is the managing editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @MatthewZabierek