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Antoine Griezmann’s blackface costume symptomatic of larger problem

Atlético’s star damaged his image overseas, but likely won’t face the same controversy at home.

Atletico Madrid v Real Sociedad - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

On Sunday night, Atlético Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann took to Instagram and Twitter to post a photo of himself in old-school basketball attire. However, his costume for an ‘80’s-themed party (which teammates Augusto and Saúl also attended) soon drew major backlash on social media. See if you can guess why.

Predictably, Twitter proceeded to dunk repeatedly on the Frenchman, directing sharp criticism toward him and mocking his Harlem Globetrotters-inspired look. Prior to Sunday, Griezmann’s only other major career indiscretion was a suspension from the national team in 2012.

Griezmann took down both the photo and a defiant defense of why he dressed in blackface after about 90 minutes before sending another tweet acknowledging the insensitivity of his costume and apologizing to those he offended.

It’s not hard to say that apology rings hollow following the 26-year-old’s initial resistance/ignorance/failure to understand the magnitude of his outfit. It’s easy to imagine that Griezmann caved under intense scrutiny, but more due to online outcry rather than a “eureka!” moment.

See, from these shores — and keeping in mind that many of the Instagram comments on Griezmann’s post were written in English — dressing in blackface in 2017 represents complete unawareness and flat-out ignorance of a changed societal dynamic. The damaging, stereotypical use of blackface in minstrel shows is an issue that was litigated long ago, and it has rightfully become taboo. It simply isn’t talked about anymore because it is so inherently awful.

Across the Atlantic, though, attitudes are very different. “Blacking up” has become so ingrained, so rooted in Spanish culture — and across Europe, really — that it doesn’t come across as a shock. Not even close, actually.

(Don’t expect a statement from the club, either.)

It’s certainly not a valid defense, but the normalization prevalent in a cultural and religious event like the Epiphany (or Three Kings’ Day) typifies Spanish views on the evil that is racism — even in the 21st century. It’s an afterthought, accompanied with a “meh” and a shrug, which comes as a stunning revelation for those in American media expecting the hammer to fall and accustomed to seeing said hammer fall on others.

That said, as much as Griezmann surely identifies with Spanish culture and norms, he is also an international superstar with a Puma deal and an emergent global brand. That comes with certain responsibilities and an expectation of a certain worldliness, for better or worse. He makes frequent trips to North America to take in NBA games, so he knows what this culture is like, too. He’s exchanged jerseys with All-Star DeMarcus Cousins and former MVP Derrick Rose, both of whom are black players in a predominantly black league. He’s got Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka’s jersey as well. He hung out with Portland Trail Blazers star CJ McCollum over the summer. And consider his goal celebration, lifted directly from Drake’s “Hotline Bling”. Simply put: Griezmann has navigated enough cultural boundaries to where he can have no excuse.

Griezmann cares more about his personal brand than that of Atlético’s (which isn’t a putdown by any means), but his actions reflect on the shirt he wears nonetheless. Again, the club won’t get involved in this, even as it should be regarded as a downright embarrassment that Diego Simeone’s talisman is out here donning blackface for a costume party. Rest assured, though, that’s not anything that a few goals over the next few weeks won’t fix for many supporters and writers.

The Griezmann incident seems like a good opportunity to reflect on stardom and the dangers of idolization. We assume, we ask, we even require high-performing athletes to be model citizens who play it safe and let their play do their talking. We must remember that star athletes need to be held accountable for objectionable actions like anyone else — and from this vantage point, no amount of clean, left-footed strikes, sumptuous passes or mad dashes into his own area to win back the ball will wipe away the image of a blacked-up Griezmann, sporting that blue “NBA Allstars” jersey and grinning heartily for the camera.