Entertainment Magazine

Cam Newton and the Criticism of Black Quarterbacks

Posted on the 28 October 2011 by Lucasmcmillan @LucasMcMillan


Sports coverage has a fickle relationship with race, particularly when it comes to football quarterbacks. There are three tracks the coverage can take: ignore race as if it doesn’t exist, dramatically overplay it, or mask racism in slick euphemisms. No current athlete has been both killed and praised by this three-pronged coverage more than Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

The position of quarterback itself has long been plagued by racism, dating back to Warren Moon and Doug Williams, and seen more recently in the careers of Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick. “Yes, we know they’re athletic, but do they have the intellectual capacity to handle the position?” Many athletic black quarterbacks coming out of college are even converted to wide receivers, as if the very notion of them hurling the ball downfield is ludicrous (except during trick plays designed around them, of course).

Race became a titanic issue when former number one-overall pick Michael Vick (his talent as a quarterback was so overwhelming that even the black quarterback-shy NFL establishment couldn’t ignore it, though his brother Marcus, who also played quarterback in college, was later summarily scoffed at and relegated to wide receiver) went to jail for two years for running a now-infamous dog-fighting ring. But Vick was a racial lightning rod even before this; his unapologetic hip-hop image and “fuck you” attitude (he was famously fined for standing unrepentantly in the locker room tunnel and flicking off fans with both hands) didn’t exactly sit well with the white establishment. But his career and image were rehabilitated post-jail sentence with the Philadelphia Eagles, a team he led on an improbable and sensational playoff run. Suddenly discussing race and Michael Vick became taboo. As long as a player is winning, nothing else matters.

No one outside of Vick personifies this “win or else” attitude in sports coverage better than Donovan McNabb. When he was winning with the Eagles, his former team, he was hailed as one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL. His jocular presence on the sidelines was praised for keeping his team loose and building camaraderie. But in 2003, McNabb was vocally criticized by Rush Limbaugh, who had this to say after a 23-13 Eagles win over the Buffalo Bills:

“Sorry to say this, I don’t think he’s been that good from the get-go. I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.”

That comment stinks of racism, which it undoubtedly is. But the media jumped to McNabb’s defense, roundly pummeling Limbaugh for his comments and praising McNabb’s decision-making and level of play. Indeed, in 2004 Donovan McNabb was the first NFL quarterback to ever throw 30 touchdowns and less than 10 interceptions in a season. He led his team to five NFC Championship games. He holds the NFL record for most consecutive pass completions in a single game (24), and he did it twice. But when McNabb was traded to the Washington Redskins, and then to his current team, the Minnesota Vikings, things changed.

His skills had started to erode, as any aging players’ skills do. But suddenly, inexplicably, the media started criticizing him for his supposed career-long accuracy and decision-making issues. I don’t know what McNabb they have been watching for over a decade, but these accusations are empirically false. Talented black quarterbacks like Vick, McNabb and Newton are often questioned and undermined with sickening euphemisms like “poor decision-making,” “questionable character,” and “poor football IQ,” whereas vastly inferior white quarterbacks like Tim Tebow and Alex Smith are “field generals,” “leaders” and “good character guys.”

These oily phrases have cropped up more and more when sports media pundits describe McNabb. Suddenly his genial and humorous demeanor on the sidelines and in press conferences isn’t the attitude of a winner; it’s the attitude of an unfocused malcontent. He makes “poor decisions.” The once-vocal defendants of Donovan McNabb switched sides seemingly overnight.

The latest heir to the throne for the position of the NFL’s premier maligned/beloved black quarterback is Cam Newton. Newton is already no stranger to controversy, and to be fair, he hasn’t done himself any favors. He was a freshman at Florida playing second string QB behind boy wonder Tim Tebow when he stole another student’s laptop. He was caught, and subsequently transferred to Blinn College, a junior college in Texas, to either get playing time or avoid a suspension, depending on who you ask.

Naturally, Newton lit up the scoreboard and destroyed his vastly inferior junior college competition. He was the most highly recruited junior college player in the country, and chose to transfer to Auburn over Oklahoma and Mississippi State to play quarterback for the 2010 college football season. But the Newton controversy was just beginning. Cecil Newton Sr., Cam’s father, had allegedly solicited Mississippi State for $100,000 to $180,000 to obtain his son’s athletic services. The NCAA launched a massive investigation. Newton was ruled ineligible to play, but the ruling was overturned shortly thereafter after the NCAA couldn’t find any hard proof. Newton went on to win the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, and win the national championship for Auburn.

Cecil Newton probably isn’t a saint. Nor is Cam. Like so many highly-recruited and wildly talented athletes, Cam Newton has a checkered past. Athletes like him are magnets for seedy characters looking to latch on and ride them to fortune. But sports media coverage often pins blame for these associations on the player themselves. They shouldn’t “keep these people in their lives,” as if close friends and even family members can simply be cast aside. Like it’s that easy. But the criticism of Cam Newton didn’t end with his “character.” There were professional and personal questions raised by NFL pundits as well.

Newton played in a spread offense at Auburn, which is regarded as a simple offense to learn. He also ran the ball a lot. His intelligence was highly questioned. I hope you see a theme emerging by now: words like “intelligence,” “simple,” and “athletic ability” are criticisms openly lobbed at black quarterbacks. If these terms were used to describe black people in any other walk of society, it would set off a firestorm. If it’s in sports, no one questions it.

But Newton was still taken first overall (as with Vick, the NFL couldn’t ignore his sheer skill as a quarterback, try as they might). And we are now halfway through Cam Newton’s first season in the NFL, and he has played exceptionally, historically well. He threw for over 400 yards in his first two games each, slicing and dicing professional NFL defenses. The media quickly forgot the racist arguments it had been making against him several weeks earlier and immediately jumped on the band wagon. Instead, they went too far in the opposite direction.

After they were proved wrong, the media went out of their way to describe Newton as “more than an athlete,” a “true quarterback,” with “leadership intangibles,” as if they were pleasantly surprised that a black quarterback could possess these traits. But the media’s rush to praise Cam Newton is as full of the same insidious racism as their criticism was. It’s the same wolf in a different sheep’s clothing.

Black quarterbacks like Vick, McNabb and Newton always walk on a razor’s edge. They don’t get the same leeway that white quarterbacks do. When they’re succeeding, as Newton is now, they will be overly praised to assuage the media’s white guilt. When they fail, it will be like the good times never happened, and the loaded buzz words will come out again. They cannot win personally. The only accepted wins are the ones they create on the field.

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