Down the Memory Hole

That could be title of a lot of posts here at The ESPN Watch. In this case, I am thinking of a recurring criticism I’ve heard recently of RGIII. Washington’s superstar QB had a rough 2013, of course. He almost certainly rushed back too soon from his knee injury and played unevenly throughout the season, culminating in a nearly unprecedented late season shutdown. His performance, combined with recurring run-ins with his head coach have led many to label Griffin III an attitude problem. More specifically, I’ve heard numerous talking heads on ESPN complain that you can’t become a brand before you become a star because, as Mark Schlereth said last night, “it just doesn’t work.”

Schlereth is about exactly the same age as I am. So he shouldn’t have such difficulty remembering a certain basketball player who became a branding and media superstar at the very outset of his career. I speak, of course, of Michael Jordan. Like RGIII, Jordan was already a superstar by the time he left college. On top of that, he had a spectacular rookie season in 1984-85, finishing third in the league in scoring as a tongue-wagging human highlight reel. In September of 1985, just prior to the start of Jordan’s second season, Nike released for general consumption the Air Jordan – arguably the biggest sports apparel phenomenon of all time to that point.  Jordan – at the ripe old age off 22 and a year removed from college – was a media superstar, a “brand” in a way that no other athlete at the time could claim to be.

He was, in other words, exactly at the same point in his career when Air Jordan took the sporting world by storm that RGIII was in September 2013. RGIII, lest anyone forget, also had a spectacular rookie season, finishing third in the NFL in passer rating in 2012, lifting a moribund franchise to a stunning division title all while being a human highlight reel.  Then RGIII struggled during his sophomore season, leaving the wise men of sports commentary to tsk tsk that there is a moral to the story – you can’t be a brand before you’re a star.

What did Jordan doing during his sophomore season, after Nike had begun to make him an unprecedented sports marketing phenomenon? Three games into the 1985-86 season, Jordan broke his foot, causing him to miss almost the whole campaign. He returned late in the season, playing in a total of 18 regular season games. Jordan did, it is true, return in time for his epic postseason showdown with the Boston Celtics. Though the Celts ousted the 30-52 Bulls from the playoffs in a three game sweep on the way to an NBA title, it was Jordan who stole the show, memorably hanging 63 points on the C’s in a double overtime game two loss.

But the point is this – at this juncture, RGIII’s career looks a lot like MJ’s did circa his second season. Both had shown extraordinary on field talent. Both had been severely limited by injury during their sophomore campaigns. Both were media superstars (and recall that, like RGIII, Jordan had his own coaching problems, and was generally considered responsible for a coach’s ouster – Doug Collins – early in Jordan’s career.

This little potted history doesn’t suggest that RGIII will end up having a Jordanesque career. That would be a tall order in any event, given that MJ was deemed by ESPN as the greatest athlete of the 20th century. But in fact, RGIII has no more been a brand before he was a star than was His Airness himself after a single season in the pros.

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