Friday, April 1, 2011

The (Racial) Implications of Assessing (Black) Quarterback Cam Newton





Recently former NFL (black) quarterback Warren Moon had a few choice words for the treatment of NFL prospect and former Auburn (black) quarterback Cam Newton.
In an interview with CBSSports, Moon had this to say:

"A lot of the criticism he's receiving is unfortunate and racially based," Moon said. "I thought we were all past this. I don't see other quarterbacks in the draft being criticized by the media or fans about their smile or called a phony. He's being held to different standards from white quarterbacks. I thought we were past all this stuff about African-American quarterbacks, but I guess we're not.

Moon added: "The thing that makes me laugh is the question of can he [Newton] come out of the spread offense? Can he run a pro offense? Colt McCoy came out of the spread offense and very few people raised that issue about him. So did Sam Bradford. Same thing. Very few questions asking if Bradford could run a pro offense. Some of these questions about Cam are more about his intellect. It's blatant racism, some of it."


There are two claims being made Moon, both of which I believe should be addressed. First and foremost, we can look at the way Newton is being perceived on a purely physical level -- that being how well he plays the game. Secondly, we should look at the way in which the media is discussing Newton as a person and what racial implications may be present.

The most difficult problem with assessing the style and ability of a quarterback such as Cam Newton is that you almost CAN’T have the discussion outside of his race, at least no implicitly. Much of Newton’s game is built upon his athletic talents in the run game. He’s not a pocket passer. He’s a tall, athletic scrambler who happens to pass the ball from time to time. The only legitimate comparison available is probably someone like Vince Young. But making a comparison such as this needn’t be a reason to hit the racism alarm as much as its merely a crime of absence. You can’t compare Cam Newton to a white quarterback if there is no comparable source.

Now in terms of Cam’s actual talent AS a (standard) quarterback…well that’s a completely different story. Perhaps, people who attack Newton’s skills and his ability to play at the next level are just bigots. They may be card carrying members of the Klan who still use the term “colored.” That’s always a possibility. BUT…they could also just recognize the inherent flaws in Cam’s game. Moon is right, no one questioned whether Sam Bradford could run a pro-style offense in the NFL. But that was less about Sam Bradford’s ethnically ambiguous makeup (Seriously...what is that guy…is he part Native American or Asian…a bit o’ Mexican?) and more about the fact that he was one of the most polished passers to come out of the draft in quite some time. There is no doubt that Cam Newton is a work in progress at the NFL level, his pre-draft workouts have proven this. Despite the fact that most people treated former Florida (white) quarterback Tim Tebow like Jesus Christ himself, he too, wasn’t above being pricked and prodded based upon technical quarterback mechanics. The simple fact that an unconventional quarterback like Cam is being considered in the first round has shown how far the idea of a black (read: athletic, scrambler) quarterback has come since the days of Warren Moon.

So do I think race plays a role in the assessment of Cam Newton? Perhaps. But most of the judgments on his skills are valid, regardless of race.

And this, of course, brings us to a discussion of how Newton is analyzed as a person. And this also happens to be where the waters get a bit murkier.

The most prominent and subsequently visible critique that I have read regarding Newton has come from ProFootballWeekly’s Nolan Nawrocki. He had this to say:

"Very disingenuous — has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. Always knows where the cameras are and plays to them. Has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble and makes him believe he is above the law — does not command respect from teammates and always will struggle to win a locker room."

Ever since reading this, I’ve consistently had trouble defining my position on the matter. Because, in reality, I’ve always felt that Newton was a bit fake—at the very least scripted. Since his infamous brushes with the NCAA, I’ve heard more stock answers about trust in God and being a "servant of the Lord" and less authentic commentary and legitimate answers. It got to such an egregiously annoying point that I often forget that I was actually a fan of his play, first and foremost. I’ve never met Cam Newton, but everything I’ve seen from him really does come off as disingenuous. It’s quite obvious that he has some sort of PR firm working for him that simply didn’t craft an image that fits him well. And we all know that high profile athletes, and most individuals in the public light are fake. They can’t truly be themselves because they’re a branded image. I understand that. And yet, something about Newton really does come off as extra fake. It’s as if he can’t even fake his fake image well. Perhaps he’s just a really bad actor. Regardless, it’s difficult for me to disagree with much of the bad press around his attitude at all.




But then I ask myself, why are we talking about his smile at all? We’re not trying to date Cam Newton, we’re trying to assess his ability to lead a franchise. Yes, public image has a lot to do with whom you choose to make the face of your franchise and yet we haven’t heard much of anything regarding the locker room leadership of any other high ranking quarterback prospect. Nawrocki went on to later mention the fact that former Notre Dame (white) quarterback Jimmy Clausen received the same negative analysis when he was a draft prospect and this too is true. It seems as if every year a player is vilified to an epically unnecessary level. Whether it is because of race or not is a question that I cannot answer. However, I do believe that it’s safe to say that these vilified athletes tend to be of a darker hue.

As a whole, I’m still on the fence regarding the racial aspect of discussions about Cam Newton. For me, the situation rests in this sort of gray area in which I agree with the analysis and yet I'm uncomfortably unsure about the place from whence the commentary comes.

Whether it's about race or not Cam Newton was a great college quarterback with an incredible upside.

And this is the point where I want to say that I hope his career takes off like a runaway slave.

But I won't, cuz dats racist.

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