Rob Oller: Scarlet, gray and Black: Young Archie Griffin targeted by Columbus cop
The Heisman Trophy is bronze, a color best created by mixing brown, white and red one after another. Appropriately enough, the only two-time winner of the award represents those hues in symbolic symmetry.
Archie Griffin’s skin is brown. Members of the New York Athletic Club who issued the back-to-back Heismans in 1974-75 were predominantly white. And Ohio State fans who watched Griffin perform bleed scarlet.
Taking the chromatic analogy further, OSU’s primary palette of colors also includes gray, black and white, according to the school’s branding guidelines. Gray is a mix of white and black, which also describes how the majority of white Buckeye Nation view Griffin. To most fans, the former tailback-turned-untouchable icon is neither black nor white, but just plain “Arch.”
That is the comfortable way many see him. Why bring color into it? What does race have to do with anything? For years, Griffin appeared to agree. Privately, he discussed the threat of racial profiling with friends and had “the conversation” with his children about unofficial “Black-only” rules that minorities are forced to follow, including keeping hands on the steering wheel and being exceedingly polite if the police pull you over.
Publicly it was a different story. Over hundreds of speaking engagements and meet-and-greets through the decades, while playing for the Buckeyes and Cincinnati Bengals or more recently as president and CEO of the Ohio State Alumni Association, a job he retired from in 2015, Griffin seldom offered opinions on race. He wasn’t avoiding political potholes; it’s more that fans seldom asked where he stood on issues of Black lives mattering. Why would they? He was gray, not Black.
Why he's telling his story now
Only recently, prompted by the May 2020 death of George Floyd, has Griffin begun to discuss publicly his experiences as a Black man in America. Only recently has he gone public with his account of having been racially profiled by a Columbus police officer at age 15 while returning to his car in the parking lot of Linden-McKinley High School.
The account is jarring in part because Griffin supposedly represents a color-blind society void of racial injustice. Archie is immune from profiling, right?
If only it were true. Instead, Griffin knows that being a Black male too often leads to being victimized by overaggressive policing.
'It's one that sticks with you'
I spoke with Griffin this week about what happened that winter evening in 1968 when a Columbus cop threw him against a fence as the Eastmoor freshman exited a Linden junior varsity basketball game with his older brother, Daryle, and friend Bobby Saunders, who played JV for Linden.
“My friend Bobby and I talk about it quite a bit,” Griffin said, setting up the story. “We were just going to a basketball game on Friday night. We left to go out to the car after the junior varsity game and an officer came up to us.”
The two Griffins and Saunders were shocked and scared when the officer pulled his gun and “put us up against the fence,” Griffin said. “It was like, ‘What did we do?’ ”
Recent car break-ins in the area had police on the lookout for suspects, and when the three Black males were spotted in a parking lot the officer determined they might be up to trouble. White America may see that as probable cause. Black America knows better.
“Bobby finally convinced (the officer) that he had been in there playing basketball, and then he left us alone,” Griffin said. “For a 15-year-old, for anybody, it was a situation that will always be remembered. It’s one that sticks with you.”
'I support athletes speaking up. I think it’s the right thing to do.'
Let's hope it sticks with others, too, more than gum to a shoe. Racial profiling and abuse of police power are not mere out-of-sight inconveniences that can be wiped off on the curb. They must be dug out, which is why Griffin is a vocal supporter of policies that improve police-community relations.
Specifically, Griffin wants mandatory background checks to keep abusive officers from moving job to job without having to answer for their past.
Many consider that hardly a radical request by good old Archie. But the Ohio State legend does not stop there. Many disagree with Griffin’s views on public protest, despite his belief that it should always be peaceful. For example, he applauds Colin Kaepernick’s stance, in the form of kneeling during the national anthem, to protest racial injustice.
“He took a lot of heat. Everybody was talking about him disrespecting the flag,” Griffin said of the former NFL quarterback. “It wasn’t about the flag at all. It was all about injustice. I respect that. I support athletes speaking up. I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Griffin stressed that he has great relations with the police, but was just as emphatic that keeping quiet about bad apples cannot be tolerated.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was right, that our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” Griffin said. “I know after seeing that particular incident (involving Floyd), that people want to do something about it. And the only way to get it done is to speak out.”
Griffin is speaking out. Please don’t tell him to shut up and stick to football.