The Dangers of Crying Racism in Cases Like Cam Newton's Critics

Peter BukowskiSenior Analyst IDecember 6, 2012

Critics point to things like Newton celebrating in games his team is losing as a sign of his immaturity and arrogance
Critics point to things like Newton celebrating in games his team is losing as a sign of his immaturity and arroganceElsa/Getty Images

Cam Newton is black. Not breaking news, but it seems to be important to some people and perhaps rightfully so.

In the history of the NFL, only a handful of African-American quarterbacks have had what you'd call consistent success. Doug Williams for a brief time won games, while Donovan McNabb is probably the most accomplished.

Michael Vick has had his moments. Newton broke out as a rookie last year and Robert Griffin III has been even more astonishing this season as a rookie. There have been others, more forgettable players like Andre Ware. 

But Cam Newton being black, just like RG3 or McNabb, has nothing to do with his ability to play quarterback. It never has and it never will. One's race doesn't make one inherently better suited to play a position than another.

Yet, when a scathing scouting report was written about Cam as a senior at Auburn, the ensuing discussion was about race. Some in the scouting community believed Newton was too arrogant, too aloof and too concerned with style over substance to be a great NFL quarterback.

This assessment was immediately characterized as racist by many in the media. A young, charismatic black man was having his swagger stomped specifically because he was a young, charismatic black man.

But then he sulked and pouted. After a brilliant start to the season, Newton seemed to a hit a wall and struggled for the second half of his rookie campaign. Those struggles have carried over to this season and the Panthers are destined to be a last place team again, in part because of Newton's lack of growth.

Voices of criticism grew louder. Cam wasn't a leader, even his own teammates called him out. He was arrogant, aloof. This should be sounding familiar.
Warren Moon, who had been a mentor of sorts for Newton, insisted that these criticisms were racially motivated. Moon, though, also admitted Newton's body language and demeanor needed to change. Steve Smith, one of Newton's (black) teammates, even called his quarterback out for his attitude and leadership.

So we agree there is something to criticize, just disagree on the motivations behind it. Thus, the slippery slope of playing the race card. We're getting closer and closer to a point where no criticism from anyone can ever be made if it even vaguely resembles a racial or gender stereotype, even if the criticism is valid.

For instance, Vince Young was extremely talented, but he was lazy. He didn't practice hard, he didn't study and wasn't a positive influence in the locker room.

While some may feel Young was being stereotyped, the criticism is completely valid. You could be racist and call him lazy, but you could be completely non-racial and call him lazy. Either way, the criticism itself, that Young was lazy, is accurate.

Cam, for his part, has downplayed the importance of race to his critics, admitting that his attitude does need to change. Everyone seems to agree on that last part.

Jason Whitlock, a black columnist who has made a living untangling the precarious subject of race in sports, understands this dangerous racial game being played. He has said he was called an Uncle Tom for not defending Newton from his supposedly racist persecutors.

That was, Whitlock said, because they were right. A recent article from Pete Prisco underscores Cam's petulant, arrogant behavior, claiming Newton big-timed several Pro Bowl players in Hawaii, including Ray Lewis.

I don't blame those who were quick to come to Newton's defense after the initial scouting report and criticism was laid out. It did, very much, resemble a stereotype.
On the other hand, the evidence against Newton has mounted and it's becoming clear he is much closer to the immature, arrogant diva Pro Football Weekly described than his defenders would probably like to admit.



At some point the race-baiting defenders of Cam Newton and black athletes in general have to realize, the fact of the matter is, Newton is an arrogant jerk, at least for now.

He is all of those things that scouting report said he was and there's no reason to believe, given what he's shown, that the scouts who contributed to that report were anything but honest. It's fine to call someone a jerk if they're being one, but not because you think all black people are jerks. In this case, it appears as though the former is true.

The fact that the assessment of Newton's braggadocio and flash was correct in this case, doesn't mean that those who made the assertions were basing them on any stereotype. 
That doesn't make being racist acceptable because it absolutely isn't. But not every critique that fits a stereotype is steeped in racism itself, nor is it inherently racist.

Mark Sanchez and Jay Cutler are under much more scrutiny than Cam Newton. Sanchez is probably the most scrutinized athlete not named LeBron in professional sports. He's just not very good and it has nothing to do with his ethnic background.

His critics look at his lack of arm strength and poor decision-making, but because neither of those fit a Latino stereotype, they aren't characterized as racist.

The same is true of Jay Cutler who is probably made fun of for his attitude more than anyone else. Jay Cutler's demeanor with his team makes Cam Newton look like Peyton Manning as a leader. Cutler is pounded by local and national media for it and even has a meme for his cantankerous attitude called "Smokin" Jay Cutler.

But he's white, so there's no race card to play. He is fully open to criticism just like Mark Sanchez or Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady.

What is perhaps most puzzling is that the same stereotypes and race-baiting from the sports media doesn't happen when white analysts call wide receivers "dramatic" or "divas."

We accept that wide receivers just are that way, and their "blackness" is irrelevant. However, there's nothing that different about Randy Moss and Cam Newton. Supreme talent, maturity issues, criticism, except one plays quarterback and the other doesn't.

My suspicion is that because few black quarterbacks have succeeded, and the importance of the position to the game, that there is a different sensitivity level to harsh words. Whitlock calls it an information bubble.

Furthermore, my hope is that players like Newton grow up and succeed. Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson appear ready to carry on the tradition of Doug Williams and McNabb—unarguably the greatest black quarterbacks of all time—and remove the air of racial difference that has hovered over the quarterback position for decades.

At some point, a criticism will be just that and we'll accept it, unless there is evidence to suggest the critique is racially insensitive or motivated with malicious, racial intent.

But a black quarterback doesn't deserve any more or less benefit of the doubt from anyone than a white quarterback, nor from any other player at any position of any race.

Injecting race to a situation that in this case appears to have been done erroneously, only further undercuts the fight to eradicate actual acts of racism we know happen everyday. There's an unfortunate element of the boy who cried wolf.

Let's save the race card for when it's truly necessary, like when someone pens a hatchet job about a tattoo-sporting, dark-skinned quarterback.


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