Kelly Mattix grew up in Mississippi near the heart of college football’s kingdom. Her parents’ sports allegiances melded from Pittsburgh steel, so when it comes to pro football, she roots for the Steelers. She has never even been to Washington, D.C.
On a Saturday night two Decembers ago, she watched on TV as Robert Griffin III, the ultra-athletic quarterback from Baylor, the man with the intoxicating smile, won the Heisman Trophy.
“Just hearing his story growing up is what really got to me,” Mattix said. “He was just such a fun and funny guy that, I don’t know, I just connected to him and his morals.”
Mattix, a 20-year-old marketing and corporate relations major at Ole Miss, made that fan relationship official last Christmas when she bought Washington Redskins No. 10 jerseys for herself and her boyfriend. The Steelers are her team, but RG3 is her quarterback.
Griffin continues to win new fans, such as Mattix, and deepen his bond with others as his second season with the Redskins approaches. Several examples of his exploding popularity even test the limits of reason.
Some local fans bought him wedding presents in May, the same month a Texas man paid the American Cancer Society $15,000 for a pair of Griffin’s autographed, game-worn cleats. ESPN Central Texas, the flagship radio station for Baylor athletics and a Dallas Cowboys radio network affiliate, broadcast all but one Redskins game last season.
Although such behavior might seem irrational, human instincts validate it, several psychologists and sociologists say. Our impulse to connect with other humans, along with our inherent drive to identify with what we believe to be positive, fuels the relationship between fans and Griffin, as well as that among Griffin’s fans.
In turn, Griffin, 23, is rocketing to mega-stardom because of his accessibility through social media, controlled appearances in traditional media, and his innate attractive characteristics on and off the field. And he’s doing it as well as anyone ever has in the age of Twitter. He’s more accessible online than Peyton or Brady, and he hasn’t turned heel like Tiger or LeBron.
“Somehow people feel like they know him very well,” said Merrill Melnick, a retired SUNY Brockport professor who specialized in the social psychology of sport. “There’s something about his personality that invites the possibility that he and I could be friends. It does appear to be unique. Somehow he has been able to create that pathway between the fan and himself.”
Specialists interviewed for this story 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.
At the phenomenon’s core, though, are two elements: identification and connection.
Neither necessarily comes before the other. Actually, identification fosters connection, and vice versa, in ways that intensify the relationship, either between Griffin and his fans or among Griffin’s supporters.
A person who says “I am a fan of Robert Griffin III” is declaring Griffin to be a part of his identity. Given that humans inherently believe they are good, they instinctively seek to fortify their self-image by identifying with other entities they perceive to be good. Whether that process is conscious or subconscious doesn’t necessarily affect the outcome.
“The team becomes a central component of their identity, and there are multiple ways where that identity can be threatened,” said Daniel Wann, a Murray State psychology professor whose research centers on sport fandom. “If you have a star player who is both good on the field and good off the field, you don’t have to worry about those threats. It’s the best of all worlds.”
Griffin maximizes this human compulsion by embodying so many qualities with which people want to identify, especially the character traits that supplement his physical talents.
“He lived a life that a lot of us that aren’t famous lived,” Mattix said. “Here he is making it big time, and he just has really good morals. Everything he talks about he wants to make better. He’s not in the NFL to make money. He’s in it for the love of the game.”
After all, what more literal method is there to identify with someone than to wear their shirt, one that bears their name? Griffin’s jersey sales from April 2012 through March set a single-year NFL record, according to the league.
Keith Elgin, a 32-year-old Christian musician from Woodbridge, similarly identifies with Griffin’s values. He relates to how Griffin occasionally refers to Biblical passages in his tweets. His experience playing youth sports relates him to Griffin’s work ethic, team leadership and playing success with the Redskins, his favorite team.
After a link publicizing Griffin’s wedding registry at Bed Bath & Beyond appeared on his Twitter timeline this spring, Elgin and his wife, Emily, bought Griffin a welcome mat for $15. “It’s nothing too deep,” he said. “I guess you could say it’s a novelty.”
Elgin didn’t foresee the notoriety that followed. He experienced a backlash on Twitter from those who believed he should have spent his money on a cause more worthy than furnishing a multimillionaire’s home. A media crush included coverage by CNN, USA Today and NFL Network. Someone even started a parody Twitter account with the handle @welcomematkeith.
“I can’t be a loser if Griffin has sent me a thank-you card for my present,” Melnick said. “How can I be a loser? I’m a winner. Self-esteem enhancement; status enhancement; expanding one’s social network — even though it’s mythical.
“If my social network is very limited, then I have no friends. I don’t know anybody. I’m a marginalized human being. This allows me entry into the sacred world of Robert Griffin.”
Willing to connect
Griffin’s ability — and willingness — to connect with people sets him apart from other celebrities, specialists say. Because humans are, by nature, social creatures, Griffin’s accessibility maximizes his popularity.
Although the Redskins shelter Griffin from one-on-one interactions with reporters, he’s constantly in our homes, reaching out to us on television to sell Gatorade or Subway sandwiches. He also engages his more than 948,500 Twitter followers, maintaining an online presence strong enough to persuade them he might see their messages, even if he doesn’t respond directly.
Just his presence is enough to impact people. He thrilled students at Broad Run High School in Ashburn by attending one of the school’s home football games in October. And after Washington beat Tampa Bay in September, he ran around one-third of Raymond James Stadium high-fiving the Redskins fans congregated in the front row.
“He’s obviously very media savvy,” said Julie Partridge, associate professor of sport and exercise psychology at Southern Illinois University. “He does a tremendous job of connecting with the fans. He’s got a great smile. His endorsements. It seems like it was this perfect storm.”
Griffin, though, doesn’t have to deliberately connect. Specialists see in him inherent attributes that widen the avenues of connection into a four-lane interstate.
“Some people, it isn’t hard to market them because they are that way and you’re just selling what you have,” said Edward Hirt, a social psychology professor at Indiana University. “I think we feel like we can relate to him. He’s a nice person. He has good values. He’s not so full of himself. He can be self-deprecating or at least look like a kid, look like somebody who’s just like the rest of us.”
“If you’re a Redskins fan and you live in or around D.C. and it’s August, it’s hard to feel lonely,” Wann said. “It’s the excitement of the new season. If it’s October and you’re walking up and down the streets of D.C. with a Redskins hat on, people are saying hi to you. You get these connections through fandom, and those connections lead to lower levels of alienation, of loneliness.”
So the fans with the RG3 tattoos or the personalized RG3 license plates, or the ones who incessantly tweet at him, aren’t crazy, after all. But what is the limit? Where does this stop?
Perhaps there is no end. We might be witnessing the early stage of a continuous exercise in one-upmanship to see who can most strongly identify or connect with Griffin.
These processes are sustainable, but they also are fragile, specialists say. If identification depends on Griffin’s excellence on and off the field, then a fulfilling outcome is not guaranteed for all participants, especially considering the pitfalls of the personal access he affords fans, particularly online.
“A lot of fans, if you gave them a choice — do you want to lose with good guys or win with bad guys? — they’ll take win with bad guys,” Wann said. “But to win with the good guys — that’s part of what’s driving this excitement. Maybe they’re going to have their cake and eat it, too.”
And if that happens?
“Those are the ones that become iconic,” Wann said.
“Now,” Elgin said, “no matter what happens — if he’s terrible, if he tears his ACL and retires, if he goes to another team after his contract ends, whatever it might be — we’re fans of him for life.”