Race matters…because Cam Newton says it doesn’t

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I can empathize with Cam Newton if he doesn’t want to be that guy.

You know him.

The one who screws up on the job, draws criticism for it and then blames racism rather than confronting his own shortcomings. Nobody likes that guy because his antics desensitize people to actual racism that demands real remedies.

So if you don’t want to be that guy, Cam Newton, I’m with you.

But do you really want to be this guy?

Yeah that’s way over the top, but I exaggerate to make a point.

Selected first overall in last April’s NFL draft and thrust straight into the starting quarterback’s slot with the Carolina Panthers, Newton faced a steep learning curve — a new offence and a lockout-shortened off-season in which to learn it — and handled the challenge masterfully. Fifteen games in to his first season he has already passed for more yards (3,893) than any rookie in NFL history, and will add to that total in the Panthers’ season finale against the New Orleans Saints.

But for everything the NFL’s quarterback of the future has learned in his rookie year he still hasn’t grasped the vast difference between refusing to use racism as a crutch, which is noble, and ignoring racism where it blatantly exists, which is insulting.

It’s easy to forget as Newton wraps up his record-breaking rookie season, but less than a year ago several NFL draft experts looked past his obvious credentials — 14-0 record as a starter at Auburn, 2,854 passing yards with 30  touchdowns — to decide that he wasn’t even the best quarterback available.

While Mel Kiper looked at Newton and saw Akili Smith 2.0, others labeled Blaine Gabbert the true cream of last year’s crop of quarterbacks. And Pro Football Weekly‘s Nolan Nawrocki? He said Newton’s glaringly tangible assets didn’t outweigh a laundry list of “intangible” liabilities.

Many of us, including NFL Hall of Famer and Newton mentor Warren Moon, saw strong racial overtones in the knee-jerk comparison of Newton to first-round busts like Smith and JaMarcus Russell.

But in a cover story for the latest issue of ESPN Magazine, Newton himself says racism isn’t to blame for the inability of numerous scouts and sportswriters to recognize his potential.

“But I can’t sit up here and look at it like, oh man, my critics are racist,” Newton says. “I blame JaMarcus Russell and to some degree Vince Young. If you have the opportunity to make that kind of money doing something you love to do, why would you screw it up? I’m trying to be a trailblazer. If Baylor’s Robert Griffin decides to come out, I want people to say ‘He can be the next Cam Newton’ instead of ‘He’s gonna be the next JaMarcus Russell.'”

Again, if Newton is trying to show us that his will to succeed is stronger than racism I’ll grant that his heart is in the right place. But behind his tortured logic lies an unavoidable truth:

In denying the role racism played in last year’s criticism Newton in fact confirms how profoundly racism has shaped people’s perception of him, and how he perceives himself.

Otherwise, why blame Russell and Young for the failures of scouts and sportswriters to judge Newton objectively?

After all, it’s not like Newton said “I blame myself because bad decisions I made at Florida might have tainted people’s opinions of me.”

He said, “I blame JaMarcus Russell and…Vince Young,” as if their failure to fulfill their NFL potential somehow reflects on him.

Which it does, if you’re racist (and there’s still plenty of racism to go around in 21st-century sports media).

A racist takes the worst qualities — real or imagined — of a given member of a racial/gender/cultural group and projects those characteristics onto members of that group he’s never met, and maybe never will…because he’s predisposed to believe the worst about them.

That’s how prejudice works, and Cam Newton’s saying it’s okay.

And if you think like Newton thinks then you should be fine with me slandering Andrew Luck.

I’ve never met the man but I think he’s pampered, a poor natural athlete and an even poorer leader. Don’t talk to me about stats and mechanics; he has a shoddy work ethic because he grew up with money, and therefore has little upside as a pro. In fact, he only stayed at Stanford because, like the marshmallow-soft rich kid he is, he was scared to tackle the challenge the NFL presented.

And if you sense any racist, classist overtones in my rant don’t blame me. Blame Ryan Leaf and, to some degree, Matt Leinart for destroying my ability to judge white quarterbacks as individuals. Those two fell short of their promise, so every white quarterback to graduate from college to the NFL bears their stain.

See how ridiculous the idea sounds when you make the characters white?

About as ridiculous as letting real racism slide because you don’t want to be “that guy.”

And as ridiculous as dragging Robert Griffin III into the debate when he’s done nothing to deserve a spot in this discussion — besides being black, of course.

If you think it’s fair to wonder whether Griffin will blossom into the next Cam Newton instead of crashing and burning into the next JaMarcus Russell, ask yourself if you’ve ever wondered something similar about Andrew Luck.

Does he labour under the burden of trying to become the next Peyton Manning?

Does he worry about not becoming the next Ryan Leaf?

Or is he free to become the first Andrew Luck?


But Griffin doesn’t enjoy that same freedom, and neither did Newton last year.

Can’t-miss pro prospects like them will have to endure tiresome comparisons to flameouts like Russell because when evaluating NFL quarterback prospects race still matters.

No matter what Cam Newton says.

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7 Responses to “Race matters…because Cam Newton says it doesn’t”
  1. MC!

    As usual, your argument is right on the money. Cam Newton has every right to tell the likes of Todd McShay to “bite his d*ck”. But he’s too busy lamenting the failures of past QB’s that were branded as “busts” before they were even signed. Newton has a lot to be proud of. He needs to lead the charge, not place blame.


  2. yeah and giving credence to people who judge all black folks by the misdeeds of a few….that’s beyond mysterious. like seriously…where does it stop…if i decide he’s a potential rapist, does he say “man, I blame Mike Tyson!”…. Cam Newton’s not gonna pay his taxes(“I blame wesley snipes!”)….Cam Newton eats human beings (“I blame Idi Amin!”)… His handlers need to instruct him on the art of answering questions without saying a thing, lest he embarrass himself again

  3. Max says:

    The burden you place on him is tricky, and frankly, I believe that your football analysis is wrong. While I don’t disagree that race had plenty to do with the lowered expectations/draft ratings, I believe it had more to do with the offense he played in (spread vs. pro) and the fact that he had started only 14 games against major college opposition. The basis of your argument is that all of the draft analysts (you leave out the fact that many thought he was the best player available…and he did go #1 overall anyway, despite the apparent racist overtones of Mel Kiper et. al.) overlooked his “obvious” football credentials. I disagree that those numbers are the obvious harbringer of success that you claim.

    Let’s look at others who had obvious football credentials and see how they fared. Kliff Kingsbury threw for over 5,000 yards and 45 TD’s in 2002 and he was a bust. Chase Daniel (4,335 yds and 39 TD), Omar Jacobs (4,002 yards and 41 TDs) and Jason White (3,846 yds and 40 TDs) had similar “obvious” credentials and become career backups or worse. Hell, Tim Tebow put up over 3,200 yards with 32 TD’s…in his Sophomore year…and he was possibly the most maligned QB prospect of all time. The scouts were proven right about Tebow, he still can’t throw an accurate pass and his mechanics are slower than molasses in Reykjavik.

    I’m not going to claim that race wasn’t a factor in the analysis that these guys had of Cam Newton. Warren Moon sure knows how to diagnose that more than anyone does, and the blatant racism he endured will serve as a sad historical benchmark about the prejudice of the NFL talent system in the 80’s and 90’s. That being said, I would argue that race wasn’t the main doubt when it came to Newton. Coming out of a goofy spread system run by an offensive coordinator that makes NFL guys look more conservative than Sean Hannity, the doubts of Cam Newton’s transition to the NFL were totally fair, based off of his limited experience and nontraditional offense. Robert Griffin III will also be pulled into this type of discussion, partially because of his race, but also because he plays in an equally non-NFL type of offense as Cam Newton did…and Tim Tebow did, and Jason White did, and Chase Daniel…and Omar Jacobs…

    That being said, the guy has obviously blossomed into one of the best stories of the year, and his freakish size and arm strength are a joy to watch. JaMarcus Russell had an arm like that, and Vince Young was a physical specimen, too. It’s not fair to Cam Newton to be compared to those busts, but I agree with your point that he is doing it to himself, unnecessarily. Every year the scouts are dead wrong about a some guys (Robert Gallery, the aforementioned Ryan Leaf, Aaron Rogers, Tom Brady, Reggie Bush, Mike Williams, etc…). It’s not an exact science, and claiming that Newton’s success was guaranteed based off of some passing stats and a 14-0 record at Auburn seems to paint a monochrome picture when technicolor is demanded.

  4. Max, if the people questioning Newton’s credentials last winter had offered critiques as thoughtful as yours I’d have taken them much more seriously. To me, the issue isn’t skepticism about whether a spread offense QB can transition to the NFL. That much is natural. Again, my issues are 1. the knee-jerk comparisons to black QBs who have failed. Was anybody labeling Newton the next Cliff Kingsbury? Chase Daniel? Nope. 2. The PFW hatchet job, which was about as thinly-veiled racism as you’re likely to see in 2011. 3 (and most importantly) Newton saying it was okay for people to jump to unfair conclusions about him because Russell was such a spectacular failure and because Young has been such a disappointment. Again, if he had blamed himself for boneheaded decisions at UF, I’d have understood. But to say it’s okay for people to pre-judge and willfully misread you because other black people in your position have fallen short puts you on a slick slope… Like someone accusing me of plagiarism because Jayson Blair stole stories… and then me telling them that’s fine… Unwise, and maybe a youthful mistake in judgement, but inexcusable nonetheless…Thanks for your comment. Intelligent disagreement is always welcome!

  5. Tj says:

    Great article man. I think every black person knows how frustrating it is shedding the stigma that many want to associate with our race and to be fair a lot of us do a good job igniting their ignorance with our behaviour but its no excuse. I think Cam means well, I think he’s aware that if he uses the word “racism” the term “race card” quickly follows.

  6. Max says:

    Here’s my slight disagreement – there were absolutely scouts out there who were comparing Newton to the Kingsbury/Daniel/System QB crowd. They might not have been on ESPN every night, but they were out there. Since I’m far too lazy to research them out, I’ll have to hope you trust me and that my recollection is accurate.

    What if we flip it around a bit? Since I just figured out you are in Canada (the spelling of defence should have tipped me off), how do you feel about hockey players like Alexander Ovechkin being compared to fellow Russians with completely different skill sets such as Pavel Datsyuk or Sergei Gonchar? Those comparisons are made constantly by mass media types trying to fill airtime with blathering analyses, and frankly, the comparison of Datsyuk v Ovechkin is more ludicrous to me than Cam Newton v JaMarcus Russell. Regardless of the ignorance, it seems to be an ongoing occurrence. While I’ve never heard discussion on whether Theo Peckham is better than Evander Kane or Dustin Byfuglien, the expectation that every high-skilled Russian player in the NHL is going to be a lazy bum who will cost his team more goals than he scores seems to permeate Ontario more deeply than maple syrup on hotcake. Another example I can think of is the “Finnish” goaltending style (which has never been accurately described by anyone that I’ve seen or read) being applied to goalies such as Nicklas Backstrom and Pekka Rinne. Family hertiage aside, they seem to play very different games to me. The talking heads love to talk about how the Finnish goalies minimize movement, always play good angles, and are level headed…isn’t that a description of what every goalie should strive for? It’s absolutely absurd to believe that being of Finnish descent is more important to being highly skilled and focused. Apparently being Finnish helps you be level headed if you are a goalie, but that gene apparently skipped Esa Tikkanen and Jarkko Ruutu. But I digress…

    I have no answers to why these types of idiotic comparisons pop up…maybe it is that indescribable and probably-doesn’t-actually-exist phenomenon known as “human nature”, or maybe some folks find solace in a classified taxonomy. Or maybe its latent xenophobia/prejudice/racism. I have no idea.

    Strangely enough, I know I am not immune to it. As an American who loves hockey and grew up in Minnesota, my friends and I love to compare and list and classify and rank the Minnesotans in the NHL, but that is as useless an exercise as the comparisons mentioned above. Our practice doesn’t have any racial element to it since the only kids that have been lucky enough to make it to the big stage have been white, but the reality is that our classification of the folks from our home state is equally as irrelevant to their abilities as any racial comparison.

    Re-reading your original post, I do find your point well taken that if Newton wants to stand on his own merits, he should be doing it without making blanket comparisons to other players simply because they share somewhat similar DNA chains. Fair enough. Now that Newton has seemingly answered the critics on and off of the field, hopefully he (and the rest of us) can all disregard the irrelevant comparisons to guys who weren’t as good as he is…regardless of his or their race.

    • Another masterpiece Morgan. Newton suffers from the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” I’m really bothered by the hoops that Newton is forced to jump through. (remember the haircut and tat comments from Jerry Richardson) Newton is forced into the same box as Obama. He is not allowed to be himself. He has to be this “super negro” who is immune to these ever changing expectations. He has to over compensate to make up for the sins of his predecessors. I live in Atlanta. Bret Favre was run out of town in the early 90’s for drinking and carousing, but he got a second chance. Cam will get no second bite at the apple.

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