Greetings, everyone, from North Carolina’s Outer Banks. My beach vacation is on pause while I direct your attention to a feature I wrote for Wednesday’s paper about the psychology and sociology behind Robert Griffin III’s exploding popularity.
The story idea slowly came to me this spring as examples of Griffin’s fame piled up. Collectively, they overwhelmed me.
His Twitter mentions have become a paparazzi newswire detailing his whereabouts. (Anyone with a smartphone is a reporter these days.) Then he met Shaq at the Kentucky Derby. Redskins senior vice president of communications Tony Wyllie, who has worked in the NFL for a handful of teams since the early 1990s, described the attention Griffin attracts as unlike anything he’s ever seen up close.
He said: “You have guys like Shaquille O’Neal, Ken Griffey Jr. and Scottie Pippen, these guys are just as excited or even more excited to meet him than he is for them. That was an eye-opening experience.”
I became awestruck at how famous Griffin is. We just haven’t seen anything like this in D.C. In some instances, Griffin transcends sports. We all know people who don’t follow sports but are interested in RG3. My 95-year-old grandmother, for one.
And then fans started buying gifts for Griffin from his wedding registry. My first thought was: “OK, this has gotten out of control. These gift buyers are insane. I would never spend my money on a multi-millionaire I don’t know.”
My second thought was: “Well, let’s do a psychoanalysis and find out if this really is crazy.”
And so I hope the feature clarified what’s driving this phenomenon. As I mentioned, the experts I interviewed explained Griffin’s popularity by applying a variety of seminal theories developed by such scholars as psychotherapist Carl Jung, sociologist Georg Simmel, psychologist Robert Cialdini and mythologist Joseph Campbell, among others. I didn’t want to bog down the story with psychobabble or dry scientific material. But if you’re interested in exploring this phenomenon, I highly recommend researching the scholars listed above.
For me, hearing from psychologists and sociologists about how/why fans instinctively identify with Griffin and the Redskins explained the depth of fans’ passion. When I wrote a mild constructively critical column about Griffin in late May, the backlash indicated to me that fans absorbed it as a personal attack on them. That now makes sense considering their subconscious identification with Griffin.
Space limitations prevented me from exploring in great detail how Griffin’s popularity correlates with his personal marketing efforts, although they obviously are interconnected. I sprinkled references to this throughout the story, but I want to expand on one point, in particular.
Griffin will be an effective salesperson as long as fans want to identify with him and as long as he enables people to connect with him. Some people I’ve encountered want to know whether that motivates Griffin. Does he try to be so likable and accessible because he wants to sell us something and make a fortune? Is he that calculating?
After following Griffin for the last 16 months, I think he completely understands how he benefits from fans’ identification and connection with him. He is smart, and he knows what he stands to gain from this formula, in part because he’s doing it so well now. He already is a marketing juggernaut.
However, despite Griffin’s understanding, that does not motivate him. His likeability is natural, although he can turn it up when he wants to. Even though he admits to being introverted by nature, his warmth, smile, charm, and charisma come rather naturally. He doesn’t have to try hard. And because of that, his marketing team at CAA hears the cash register cha-ching on a loop.
“It goes back to that word ‘genuine,’” said David Smoak, program director and host on ESPN Central Texas radio in Waco, Tex. “Any time I sat down with him from his sophomore year, I’ve never seen him change.”
Smoak began covering Griffin around when Griffin tore the ACL in his right knee the first time. He’s close enough to the ground floor of the RG3 phenomenon that high-ranking members of the Redskins organization probed him for insight about Griffin’s personality after the team traded up into position to draft him in March 2012.
Smoak helped ESPN Central Texas, Baylor athletics’ flagship station, decide to broadcast Redskins games last season even though it is affiliated with the Dallas Cowboys radio network. (When there was a conflict, the station aired the Redskins game on an alternate frequency.) Smoak said he received mostly positive feedback about that decision. Also, he came to Ashburn in June to cover OTAs because he recognized Griffin’s knee rehabilitation is important to his listeners.
When I interviewed Smoak for Wednesday’s feature, he told a story I’d like to share with you because I witnessed it and was impressed. After Griffin threw four touchdowns in the win over the Cowboys in Dallas on Thanksgiving, he was giddy during the postgame media session. (Remember, that was when he did the ‘Cool Hand Luke’ bit.)
The Redskins rarely let Griffin do one-on-one interviews, but they made an exception after that game because it made for such good publicity. His homecoming was an unmitigated success.
After Griffin’s press conference with the media corps, he and Smoak dipped into a hallway, bro-hugged it out, and conducted a 10-minute interview.
“He remembers people,” Smoak said. “You go to interview him and you’re listening to him. I think Robert is listening, too. I think that Robert is as good at listening while being interviewed as the people who are doing the interviews.”
It all combines for the “perfect storm,” Julie Partridge, associate professor of sport & exercise psychology at Southern Illinois University, mentioned in the story.
“There’s something about this Griffin,” added Merrill Melnick, a retired SUNY Brockport professor who specialized in the social psychology of sport. “He’s got some magic. He’s inviting me to get closer to him. Somehow, whether it’s the smile or his personality or his graciousness or his youthfulness, he’s inviting me to get to know him better.”
…If you have questions on the subject, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll try to get back to you in between boogie boarding runs.