The kicker could be telling the truth, but there’s only one way to find out. And that’s not by taking his word for it.
By Bomani Jones
The sleuths of the internet noticed a tattoo on the forearm of Justin Rohrwasser, the New England Patriots’ fifth-round pick in the 2020 NFL draft. What started as chuckles about the novelty of an inked-up place-kicker led to the revelation that Rohrwasser chose to indelibly put the logo of the Three Percenters, a far-right militia group, on his body. On draft day, Rohrwasser told reporters he thought the tattoo was a show of military support and he has since learned better.
When did he learn better? That day.
Rohrwasser told Steve Burton of WBZ-TV in Boston that he got the tattoo when he was 18, and the mark created no problems while he was at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. Toward the end of the interview, his voice shook as he expressed remorse for getting a tattoo he thought supported the armed forces. He also said he will have the tattoo removed.
For the sake of argument, let’s say Rohrwasser was telling the truth. Rather than getting a tattoo of a bald eagle or Uncle Sam, he accidentally and ironically chose a symbol that represents a group that actually opposes the actions of the federal government and, somehow, not one person who noticed the tattoo told him its true meaning. He put on his body something he could barely explain.
Even if all that’s true, it’s damning to multiple parties that it took until Monday for anyone to directly ask Rohrwasser follow-up questions. His explanation on April 25 invited more scrutiny than it provided clarity, but no one with the job of asking him questions posed any in response to his initial answer.
Meanwhile, we’re still waiting on someone to ask Patriots coach Bill Belichick any of the following questions: Do the Patriots, like some other teams in pro sports, vet the tattoos of the players they consider selecting? If so, was Rohrwasser one of those players? If not, were you made aware of his tattoo of the symbol of a militia? Had you known this, if you didn’t know, would the Patriots have selected him? Now that you know — and the public knows — do you plan to sign him? Or will owner Bob Kraft cut ties with him as he did Christian Peter, who was drafted in 1996 by the Pats despite multiple violent incidents involving women, but wasn’t signed after women’s groups objected to his selection?
And, if someone wanted to go a little further, he or she could ask why, if Rohrwasser’s tattoo wasn’t disqualifying, a team with a hole on the depth chart at quarterback 1 hasn’t called Colin Kaepernick.
These questions would be responsible, delicate and fair. They are also necessary.
So why are they so hard to ask?
For decades, NFL teams have been famous for thoroughly vetting potential draftees and monitoring current players. Combine interviews often sound like interrogations, as team executives poke and prod players, asking uncomfortable — and often unnecessary — questions because they leave no stone unturned. Players’ affiliations, familial and otherwise, are closely scrutinized. In 2008, the NFL went so far as to hire experts to monitor whether players were using gang signs in games.
There’s a chance, had anyone asked someone in law enforcement about the Three Percenters, there would have been a long conversation. The group was formed in 2008, ostensibly out of a fear that Barack Obama’s election would lead to government overreach. Though its national council said the group does not associate with racism, there was security provided at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. While many law enforcement officers are Three Percenters, police departments in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, have disciplined officers for affiliation with the militia.
If a cop would have to answer for getting the Three Percenters logo tattooed on himself, it’s awfully generous to let Rohrwasser brush it away with an answer that didn’t add up.
That tattoo seems to say a lot more than someone’s tweets and likes. One could argue tweets are flippant, but that would be a harder sell if one had to get needled to send them. Accidentally or otherwise, Rohrwasser made a permanent statement of allegiance to a problematic organization, and that statement was apparently made past the threshold of adulthood. It could not be treated casually.
Rohrwasser is chalking this up to ignorance, an excuse one can’t grant as easily to Belichick. So how did Belichick, or anyone else, miss this one? Is Rohrwasser not the kind of guy they think they need to look into as such, both because he’s white and … well, he’s a kicker?
Or is it because, in a country where the president saw “good people on both sides” in Charlottesville, it’s been collectively decided that groups like the Three Percenters should be protected?
When armed Three Percenters showed up at armed forces recruiting centers across America in 2015 — ostensibly to protect unarmed recruiters after a shooting at a center in Tennessee — the Army told recruiters to treat them as a threat, but also to be “polite” and “professional” if engaged in conversation. This is sage advice for outgunned recruiters, but the thought of armed civilians being treated with honey instead of vinegar or gunpowder is impossible to relate to.
Perhaps that explains why those tattoos were treated as unimportant, maybe even how Rohrwasser could have the tattoo for years and never get a double take. Or maybe it’s just because groups like the Three Percenters don’t offend enough white people.
For all the ways the media got it wrong with Kaepernick, they at least treated his protest like it was important. There was no shortage of questions headed his way (though he’s answered none since 2016). But he was making the most daring public statement an athlete can make, the one so many explicitly avoid — black people, in this country, are the victims of racism and deserve better. Kaepernick’s pro-black words and aesthetics were polarizing and offensive to much of the public. “Wokeness” and support for Kaepernick didn’t fuel that story. The anger directed toward Kaepernick was that flame’s oxygen. The story thrived nationally because it struck a chord with white people, just like pretty much every other big story.
If the backlash had to do with respect for the law, Rohrwasser’s tattoo would be a hotter topic. Despite there reportedly being hundreds of law enforcement officers who are Three Percenters, they are no more respectful of the police than Kaepernick. Kaepernick’s protests center on stopping police officers from doing illegal things and getting away with them. The Three Percenters demand that their members not enforce laws out of step with their agenda (this applies to police officers and servicemen).
Writers know a controversial topic when they see one. Ignoring this one might be saying the quiet part quietly, but loud enough to hear — an express willingness to take up arms against the United States government, and refusing to enforce laws one has sworn to uphold, is less controversial than asking those whose job is to protect black people to not kill them without good reason.
Treating Rohrwasser delicately and sparing Belichick completely is saying none of this is a big deal. It doesn’t matter that, had no one noticed a picture on the internet, Rohrwasser would have been a walking advertisement for a militia whenever he was on camera. It doesn’t matter that legendary NFL investigators somehow missed something so glaring. It doesn’t matter that this would fly in the face of the idea that a kicker isn’t worth controversy.
And it doesn’t matter that someone hasn’t been able to play in three seasons because he, supposedly, disrespected America, but Rohrwasser can shrug off what looks like an affiliation with an anti-government group.
When something like this comes up, the questions can’t just be to check something off a to-do list. The reason to ask the first question is the reason to ask more, to gain clarity on something that much of the public found jarring. If Kaepernick’s T-shirt with Fidel Castro on it was worth a few questions, so is Rohrwasser’s tattoo.
But guys like Rohrwasser rarely have to answer for themselves. And when they do, they get patted on the back like Burton, a black reporter, did by telling his audience he didn’t think Rohrwasser was a racist and telling viewers to “give the kid a chance.”
Men like Belichick don’t have to answer for anyone else. Sports media rarely has to answer for its inconsistency and negligence on these topics. Rohrwasser gets a tattoo to make a statement, and the people who notice are treated as the problem.
Hey, this really could be the misunderstanding Rohrwasser said it is, but there’s only one way to find out. And that’s not by taking his word for it, the easiest act that too many have been willing to do.