Excerpted from Deadspin's Big Book of Black Quarterbacks
Early last December, SportsCenter ran a feature on Cam Newton's purported attitude adjustment and its deterministic effect on the Panthers' turn from doormat to one of the best teams in the NFC. On the surface, it's typical brainless post facto masturbation about athletic success through maturity. But it also serves as a compelling illustration of just what happens when you aren't as deferential as the propriety police would have you be.
Cam Newton is not demure—he's maybe less reserved than any other prominent quarterback of the past decade. And, as he's found, being the unhammered nail in the NFL opens you up to critics who broadly apply their old-fart, authoritarian sensibilities to you, with unfortunate results.
Let's start with the Black people be like this smash-cut above. This is secondary to the broader, dumber confection of stupid operating in this argument, but it serves as a foundation for it. It seems to say, Look, we know this is basically threadbare and stupid, so how about we smuggle in this cultural judgement that we won't outright say, but just lay at your feet knowing that you'll make the connection. It's like ESPN lip syncing a Louis CK riff.
The damnedest thing is that everyone knows how this works. Before going in on Cam—or J.R. Smith, or Johnny Manziel, or whoever the hell—the handwringers' qualifying statement is invariably, Well, it would be different if his team were winning, but … before wandering off into whatever homily they were trying to get at in the first place. And the thing is, it absolutely would—but that's the problem, isn't it?
Young Cam is obviously quite pleased with himself in that first SC clip. It's from the 2012 Pro Bowl, when the first Pete Prisco story came up about other Pro Bowlers freezing out Newton after he'd offended them in some way. But Cam Newton has often been pleased with himself, and that hasn't stopped him or his teams from being successful. It may have helped! There is, in fact, a pretty strong body of evidence that suggests that being kind of an ass is actually positively correlated with being successful. Hell, they wrote entire books in tribute to the power of Michael Jordan's and Steve Jobs's dickishness. Maturity, at least as limned by the sports media, is meaningless, just a nebula of bullshit and old axioms with which to surround whatever kind of story happens to be on hand. It's easy to lose sight of that, though, when Skip Bayless is clubbing you over your head with Russell Wilson day after day.
But we've been having this argument about Newton from even before he entered the NFL. In spring 2011, Pro Football Weekly's Nolan Nawrocki, a white guy who played linebacker at Illinois, crucified Newton in a pre-draft scouting report:
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. Only a one-year producer. Lacks accountability, focus and trustworthiness — is not punctual, seeks shortcuts and sets a bad example. Immature and has had issues with authority. Not dependable.
Nawrocki has carved out a niche for himself as the fearless, dyspeptic critic of black guys' comportment (see his scouting report for Geno Smith), but he's really only channeling the ancient, mostly suppressed chauvinism of pro football's management class, which flowers anew in the runup to every draft. That's when we hear about players' "character issues," a broad-unto-meaninglessness category under which everything from pot smoking to sexual assault gets classified. That's when we hear about attitude problems and "fake smiles" and a "selfish, me-first makeup." (It's anyone's guess how much of this is disinformation promulgated in the hopes of sandbagging a desired prospect. Either way, there's the operating assumption that NFL management types care enough about these traits to factor, say, the relative sincerity of a smile into a personnel decision.)
Things get particularly dicey for black quarterbacks, for whom the old assumptions about black athletes' innate anti-social tendencies run up against the football culture's demand that quarterbacks be flinty-eyed leaders of men. If you've read this far, you'll have noticed that the things Nawrocki said about Newton were the same things people said about Joe Lillard and Joe Gilliam and Randall Cunningham and any number of other black quarterbacks. This is a very old game, and the fact that players with supposedly bad attitudes have succeeded and players with supposedly good attitudes have failed doesn't seem to prevent people from playing it still. Newton should've demonstrated the folly of this particular line of analysis once and for all. And yet here we are: Cam Newton, who won a freaking national championship in college, is a winner now because he learned some manners, according to ESPN.
Cam Newton | 2011-2013 | Carolina Panthers
Drafted, 1st round (1 overall) | 48 games (48 starts) | 11,299 yards passing | 64 passing TDs | 42 INTs | 59.8 comp. % | 86.4 QB rating | 2,032 yards rushing | 28 rushing TDs | 18 fumbles
"He was a one-year wonder. Akili Smith was a one-year wonder."—Mel Kiper, ESPN