Justin Rohrwasser, a placekicker who played at Marshall University and the University of Rhode Island, was such an obscure prospect by the standards of the National Football League that ESPN didn’t have a highlight package on hand to run after the New England Patriots selected him in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Naturally, viewers at home searched online to learn more about the player, and their casual research quickly revealed a rather disturbing fact: Rohrwasser had a Three Percenters symbol tattooed on his forearm.
The Three Percenters, an organization established after Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, is often characterized as a far-right militia, but the activities of the movement’s members would justify calling it a terror group. Most notably, they provided security for white supremacists and neo-Nazis in the 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer. They might not have a high body count, but it isn’t for lack of trying. In 2014, the Three Percenters’ late founder, Mike Vanderboegh, threatened to go to war with Connecticut State Police in response to new gun control laws. In 2017, a Three Percenter attempted to set off a truck bomb outside a bank in Oklahoma City. They are Islamophobes, Nazi sympathizers, thugs with guns who stalk around and pretend they’re the police so they can harass and intimidate minorities, especially anyone who looks Mexican.
A player with a prominently displayed Three Percenters tattoo would seem to qualify as a red flag, one large enough to cover the field for one of the league’s hacky pregame “salutes to service.” Rohrwasser nevertheless had made it to pro football’s factory line, which was surprising given the league’s notoriously invasive scouting process. The front offices of NFL teams use the annual February draft combine as an opportunity to cosplay as criminal investigators, applying their amateur sleuthing skills to scores of players who have just left college. These pseudo-detectives will dig into any or all aspects of these prospects’ lives: They might interrogate a wide receiver about whether his mother is a prostitute or ask a cornerback if he likes men. Maybe a quarterback’s hands are too small, or a lineman likes to cook too much. With a teeming number of possible reasons to cast doubt on a player’s future employment potential, it might seem odd that something as obvious as a far-right group’s insignia plastered on a player’s body made it past all of these gatekeepers.
For those who have paid attention to the ever-expanding world of radical groups who dabble in race-hate, however, none of this is likely to come as a surprise. White supremacy is organized behind a hedgerow of white racial innocence, where even a shred of legitimate grievance or plausible deniability is sufficient to wipe the slate clean and begin the process of forgiving, forgetting, and, in the end, legitimizing.
In the case of the Three Percenters, they operate under the guise of being merely concerned about overreach by the federal government. Whether or not Rohrwasser had any reason to be so motivated by such concerns at a relatively young age is an interesting question. Shortly after he was drafted, Rohrwasser said he got the Three Percenters tattoo “as a teenager” and thought it stood for a “military support symbol,” which, as a member of a military family, was important to him. An Instagram photo from December 2015 shows a then-19-year-old Rohrwasser with the tattoo.
With more time, Rohrwasser built out his story. The following Monday, he had an emotional interview with Steve Burton of Boston’s WBZ-TV and vowed to completely remove the tattoo. The 23-year-old said he got the ink when he was 18 and didn’t know the true meaning of the tattoo until that Saturday, when he was drafted. “It was described to me as, you know, the percentage of colonists that rose up against the authoritarian government of the British,” Rohrwasser said. “And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s such an American sentiment, patriotic sentiment.’”
It is easy to believe a person that age does idiotic things. The rest of it is a tough sell. To believe Rohrwasser’s explanation is to believe that for roughly five years, he had this tattoo visible whenever he wore short sleeves but never met anyone inclined to point out what it represented. (This perhaps says a lot about the bubble in which he lives.) Even though Rohrwasser keeps up with right-wing news, he somehow missed the details of the Charlottesville rally and never saw “Three Percenter” in any of the articles he read about the events of that day. He was, apparently, never interested enough to find out more about the origins or meanings of the symbol he’d committed to a permanent display on his body. Rohrwasser only realized he had made a mistake the day he was picked by one of the most successful sports franchises in the world and given a legitimate opportunity at a professional career.
Rohrwasser’s lack of curiosity was matched by the reporters tasked with chronicling the episode. These were happy to pass along Rohrwasser’s explanations without pushing back, fully accepting the idea that a person could have a terror group’s symbol emblazoned on his body and not know it for five years. Rohrwasser’s tattoo was merely “controversial,” according to one ESPN piece that, largely unmotivated to figure out what the Three Percenters do, instead relayed what the Three Percenters want everyone to believe they do. It takes very little for an uninformed press to euphemize bald hatred.
ESPN’s Bomani Jones made a game attempt at providing the network’s audience with some actual perspective, noting that Rohrwasser had happily associated himself with a group that has far more dangerous beliefs than anything related to Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality. And yet the kicker received seamless absolution within hours of the story garnering attention, the episode written off to a youthful indiscretion. He was further shielded by the Patriots, who with all their thorough research and scouting, have not provided their own explanation. (The team did not respond to The New Republic’s request for comment.)
This is the kid-glove treatment for people like Rohrwasser when they do something wrong. There’s such an eagerness to forgive, to find that nuanced angle—to explain, in this case, how an enthusiastic Trump supporter could have fallen, quite by happenstance, into such a mess. If it could, the media would tell the story in the passive exonerative tense: “A symbol became tattooed to the body of Justin Rohrwasser, who acknowledged the controversy and expressed a willingness to put it behind him.”
Don’t underestimate the power of white racial innocence. It’s why Rohrwasser was put on the fast track to absolution while Kaepernick remains a figure of demonization. It’s why the armed protesters who marched into the Michigan capitol last week, flying Confederate and Gadsden flags and comparing Governor Gretchen Whitmer to Hitler for her crime of trying to keep her citizens safe, were met by a passive police line and not a gang of baton-swinging cops cosplaying as paramilitary irregulars. It’s why we no longer have a functioning Voting Rights Act.
It would be lovely to believe Rohrwasser will evolve from this period of youthful naïveté, now chastened and better informed. Those who have tracked the work of the far right and the success they’ve enjoyed in laundering their hatred and violent aspirations behind plausible deniability are better informed in the artful way they deploy polite fictions to mask carefully calculated contrivances, banking on the tendencies of others to quickly forgive and forget when it’s white skin that gets sullied. Justin Rohrwasser is just the latest person to benefit from the moving of these goalposts.