When the Washington Redskins drafted quarterback Robert Griffin III in 2012, he chose to identify himself on his jersey not as just “Griffin,” but as “Griffin III”—an acknowledgement of his father and grandfather. There are now too many such examples to count among African-American athletes who professionally acknowledge either their father or son. Notably, Steve Smith, Sr., the standout Carolina Panthers receiver, added the patronymic suffix following the birth of his son; so did Marcus Morris, Sr. of the Boston Celtics. The jersey of wide receiver Golden Tate III of the Detroit Lions is “Tate III.” And it looks to be a trend among younger athletes, too. One of the top collegiate quarterbacks is Dwayne Haskins, Jr. of Ohio State, listed as “Haskins Jr.”
Some might dismiss such suffixes as ornamental gestures—but more may be afoot here. One could see this trend as a reflection of renewed pride and commitment among black fathers, after decades of rising rates of births to non-married black mothers and absent fathers—a phenomenon central to the so-called cycle of poverty. Because of the prominence of those making the choice, it may have the potential to influence social norms—to make involved fatherhood and family life cool.
There’s reason to think this is no mere speculation. Among the name trend-setters, Steve Smith, Sr. is not only married with four children, but an evangelical Christian—who, before every road game, donated shoes to the homeless. It’s clear that he made a values-based choice when he changed his jersey prior to the birth of his son Steve, Jr. (aka “Deuce”). “Being a Dad is the most important thing,” he told the Baltimore Sun, after signing with that city’s Ravens in 2014. That he was pushing to compensate for the shortcomings of his own childhood in inner-city Los Angeles—of a kind all too common—was also clear. “My folks did the best they could. They weren’t together, so I saw my dad on weekends. But looking at it and being a parent now, there are some things that I know what the ramifications are and how it impacts kids. I want to make sure that those things aren’t repeated. I’m not saying those things to put anybody down. I’m saying them as a matter of reality. Broken homes create wounds in kids and leave a void. I’m very aware of those voids.” Even his use of the phrase “broken home” reflects his partiality for traditional social values.
The use of patronymics among African-Americans is not new. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., or long-time Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., all of whom named their sons after themselves. (Powell actually named two of his sons after himself, numbering them “III” and “IV”; this led to confusion when III had his own son named “Adam Clayton Powell IV.”) Nor is the practice always positive. As Rice University sociologist Ryan Brown observes, patronyms are aspects of “honor cultures”—cultures in which feuds get settled by violence. (Thomas Sowell, in his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, advanced the idea of African-Americans being part of an honor culture, shaped less by African than by Southern Scots-Irish mores.)
Still, when high-profile athletes make such choices, it’s more than just celebrity news, especially given that African-Americans make up a disproportionate share of football fans. Americans have become accustomed to the belief that social problems must have a policy fix with a corresponding federal appropriation of funds. The trend toward Jr., Sr., III, and even IV among black athletes reminds us, by contrast, that social ills, with the right leadership, can perhaps begin to self-correct.
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