On Thursday night, the NFL season opened with a bang.
Several of them, actually.
Over the course of the first game of the year, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was hunted by the physical Denver Broncos defense. That’s their job. That’s why they get the big bucks.
But a few key times, with what felt like suspicious frequency, they made helmet-to-helmet contact with Newton. It’s something the league has tried to “address” lately with a new, safer helmet design. If you’re among the 74 percent of Americans who whistle past the graveyard of concussions to get to the high wire act that is the NFL, it’s something you probably accept with a sigh and a shrug.
But that’s not what this piece is about. It’s that when these hits happen, our — probably unconscious — double standard needs to be rectified.
Maybe it’s just me — and honestly, it might just be — but if any of the ‘elite’ tier of quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees) in the NFL take shots like this …
… not only does the offending player get an actual PENALTY on the play, but they’d also be looking at a suspension. Coaches would be on the field SCREAMING at the officials. Benches would clear. It would be a donnybrook.
So why wasn’t it for Cam?
Cam got beaten like a polka tambourine and he didn’t say one word. Yes he looked to the refs a couple times to say “are you kidding me?” But after the game, he took the high road.
“It’s not my place to question the officials,” Newton said, “I really like the officiating crew. It wasn’t something I know they did intentionally, but it’s not fun getting hit in the head. We didn’t lose the game off that. I know that for a fact.”
Now, I’m trying not to read anything into the fact that the ‘elite’ tier is typically comprised of Caucasian men, all of whom Cam bested when he won the league MVP award last season, but this really felt like a shocking oversight on some pretty glaring rule-breaking. Even more shocking is that the officiating crew that evening, headed by Gene Steratore, is one of the best in the league.
Cam may not have made a big deal of it, but his teammates were pissed.
“Do you see them calling it? Early in the game, a guy took two, three steps and hit him in the head and they didn’t call a penalty. We’ve talked about it ad nauseam. It doesn’t matter. They ain’t going to change it.”
Carolina Tight End Greg Olsen said:
“I know he’s the biggest guy on the field, but he’s still the quarterback.”
But the position I agree with the most, the one that I found after I had written this whole think piece was from Cam’s father:
“I’m not just going to always say it’s race; I’m not going to keep fanning the flames of race in every situation,” Cecil Newton told ESPN. “But it causes me to wonder. Help me understand through transparency. Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL, help me understand how this can happen to the reigning MVP. Explain that to me. I’m not going to fan the flames of race in this particular category, but I really sit back and ask myself, ‘Would this have happened to some of his other fellow colleagues?’ Let the public answer the question for themselves.”
“I’m beginning to question the consistency of how games are being called — and who they would call this particular play against versus this particular player. Was Cam treated differently from other quarterbacks? In this case, yes he was — clearly. Anybody who has followed the game for any length of time and has a working knowledge of how the game is to be played would agree with that statement. People throw all these jingles out there about he’s mobile, he’s bigger, he’s more physical. There’s a lot of this and that. At the end of the day, Cam deserves to be protected just like Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Ryan Tannehill, Kirk Cousins, Andy Dalton, and the list goes on and on. I know a good hit when I see a good hit. I was a defensive player, and I played the game at the highest level as well. But when you deliberately target and when you’re constantly being hit after the ball is out, I question the intent of the defensive player, and I question the official.”
That’s it, exactly.
Cecil Newton is trying really really hard not to play the race card, but how the hell can you keep it in the deck on a night like that? Jesus. If we’re not trying to fan the flames of outrage by using the term ‘institutional racism,’ then let’s at least agree that there seems to be something of a differing standard.
The success of the NFL is predicated on competitive, exciting gameplay which absolutely CANNOT HAPPEN without quarterbacks. So the NFL has changed rule after rule over the last decade to try to protect quarterbacks.
Knowing that, why, oh why don’t those very rules seem to apply to the reigning NFL MVP? If Aaron Rodgers was hit over and over in the head during a game, causing him to writhe on the ground? My god. There’d be outright rebellion. There’d be a goddamn cheese war. Instantaneously.
So why isn’t there one for Cam? Millions of people watched him get cheap shotted like the hero of an 80’s karate movie. But yet the shots kept coming.
The nation is still very charged up over racial issues and that may be resonating with me more because of it, but not that long ago, the position of quarterback was largely agreed upon to be the exclusive domain of white men. Period. Over the years, a number of talented black quarterbacks have put that idiotic and wholly racist notion to rest. Players like Doug Williams and Warren Moon and Steve McNair opened the door for black quarterbacks to be taken seriously.
And black quarterbacks like JaMarcus Russell, drafted first overall by the Oakland Raiders reminded everyone that skin color has jack shit to do with skill. The Raiders paid Russell an ungodly amount of money, I think it was in the neighborhood of $31 million guaranteed but 68-ish in total and played just about two seasons before he was released. He’s probably the biggest bust in NFL history.
So yeah. You can either play or you can’t. Borrowing a term from our friends across the pond, skin color has fuck all to do with it.
Right now there are 32 starting quarterbacks in the league and 8 of them aren’t Caucasian. That’s actually very quantifiable progress. Believe me, there isn’t a coach in the NFL who gives a rat’s ass about the skin color of his quarterback. They just want someone who can play. They want someone who can help them hang on to one of the 32 best jobs on planet Earth. Period. There’s a great old saying about coaches:
There are two types of coaches: coaches who coach great players and ex-coaches.
Trust me. All they care about is if the player can play. Race is utterly inconsequential. So, as more young players of color gravitate to the quarterback position at the pee wee level, we’ll see more in the NFL. It’s that simple.
Also, just reading through this, I have to add a caveat: I have seen one white quarterback take this kind of abuse. Like, honest-to-god injury-intending cheap shots: Ben Roethlisberger. I’ve seen him take shots like this with no calls.
Ben Roethlisberger is 6’5”, 245 lbs
Cam Newton is 6’5”, 245 lbs
Tom Brady is 6’4”, 225 lbs
Aaron Rodgers is 6’2”, 225 lbs
Drew Brees is 5’11”, 209 lbs
So maybe all it is is that NFL Officials need to be trained that just because they’re big, it doesn’t mean you get to try to hurt them.
But even admitting that, here’s where the road forks:
1. What the black QB can actually do about it
2. Public Outrage
Cam basically was like “what? No flag?”
That’s about all he can do. He shakes his head and stumbles back to the huddle and again — maybe it’s just me — but when I see that head shake I feel like I’m watching the goddamn history of the black man in western civilization. Like, “there’s a different rule for me and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Many of you will remember Courtney’s famous all-caps explosion about how the rules for a woman running for president are different. That’s what it’s like. Cam Newton, with players like Russell Wilson and Jameis Winston and Teddy Bridgewater are the rightful heirs to a legacy of groundbreaking and barrier breaking players who still, in 2016, don’t have the luxury of losing their cool.
Because the rules are still different.
When Tom Brady gets pushed with the force of the jet wash from a Monarch butterfly’s wing he jumps up and gets in the official’s face, screaming three octaves higher than the Vienna boy’s choir about how they better do their fucking jobs and keep him safe. He actually puts his finger in their face. He’s the biggest diva of the bunch, granted, (and I say that with love), but they all feel entitled to take the officials to task. They all chirp at the authority figure because OF COURSE THEY DO. It’s not even a question. Tom Brady knows that the only thing standing between him and early retirement from injury is THE OFFICIAL. The official has to do his job and Tom Brady isn’t shy about demanding that.
But what would happen if Cam Newton did that? He’d be mocked and derided. People would turn on him. He’d be accused of being a thug and far, far worse and he’d lose sponsors and fans and his image would be sullied forever. Cam Newton deserves the same vigilance from the officials. He deserves protection at an equal level to his NFL counterparts, but we’re not yet at a place where he’s able to get up and forcefully demand it.
The most complain-y black quarterback I ever saw was Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles. It seemed like he had something to bitch about on every single play. Like every time he dropped back and threw the ball his receiver got held. If he got sacked it was because someone jumped early or whatever. He was like an incessant, whining pain in the ass.
And I couldn’t stand him. Guh. He was the woooooorst.
But how much of that behavior might have been conditioning inside his head? How much of it was a lifetime of getting a raw deal and knowing that he had to adhere to a different set of rules? And how much of my dislike for him was unknown, time-capsule racism, planted in my psyche in the 70’s and 80’s by a bigot-controlled society and a family who didn’t know any better and a world that wasn’t ready to change? How much of it was me clicking my tongue at the black man who didn’t know his place?
Probably not much. I’m a pretty good dude and Donovan McNabb was the Stradivarius of blame shifting, but I have to be open to it. It may have played a role. We all have to look deeply inside of ourselves to search for nodules of bigoted thought, buried fifty Minecraft blocks deep in our psyche. If you just take the time to look at the world around you, objectively, you’re often rewarded with an avenue to the truth.
I used to play soccer when I was younger, and I was just a notch above decent. I ended up getting onto a bunch of really good teams and playing all over the world. Anyway, my best friend on the team was this amazing striker from New York named Jamal. He was a white guy. I’m just kidding. He was this tall, rangy dude with great reflexes and our basic team strategy was pretty much giving me the ball on the wing, where I would run it down the side of the field and 7-iron it in front of the net where Jamal would sky in over stunned players from countries all over the world and head the ball into the goal. That was it. It’s a pretty standard soccer strategy, but he made it look easy. I’d mostly just kind of doff the ball up into the nimbus-level cloud layer and he’d come screeching out of nowhere and make me look like a hero. Like, every time. He was so so so good.
But the rules were different for him. That was only a couple decades ago and the rules were insanely different. He had to hide his emotions. He had to play everything cool. Openly racist players on other teams would throw elbows and knees and racist slurs at him while they fought for balls. Like honestly, he’d be in the middle of a scrum and people would be saying “F you N-“. That happened like all the time. He got cheap-shotted more. He couldn’t be too vocal or demonstrative in his celebrations. Some spectators absolutely hated his guts for no reason, especially when they saw how dominant he was.
The rules were always different for him. Always.
“I’m sorry, brother.” I used to say. (I’m from Boston. I call everyone brother.) Anyway, I’d notice all this and I’d say “It’s gonna get better.”
And he’d smile and say. “Yeah, but not fast enough.”
There was this one particular moment that I remember like it was yesterday. We were in Sweden playing in a huge international tournament called the Gothia Cup. They bill themselves as the biggest soccer tournament in the world with 1700 teams from 80 nations. Anyway, there were thousands of players there from all over the world. Literally. Thousands.
When you weren’t playing, teams — in their uniforms — would just kind of go walking around the city of Gothenburg. One day the rest of our team was showering and relaxing and Jamal and I went for a walk. The roads were packed with players and fans and coaches. It was a zoo. So we cut through this side street and coming toward us was a team from Mauritius. All the players on the team were black and I remember I had seen them playing earlier and really liked the orange uniforms they were wearing. Anyway, they’re laughing and joking and coming down the street toward Jamal and I.
And something happens that I’ll never forget. The other team just kind of crowds around Jamal and they all shake hands and smile and exchange compliments. He had that kind of personality and we had our American uniforms on and the world was still big enough then that that was exciting. It was quick, but they all made sure to make contact with Jamal and wish him well and I was just standing there on the sidewalk like a ghost. They nodded politely as they walked past me, but Jamal got the royal greeting. When they were gone I was like “wait, do you know those guys?”
“I’ve never seen them before in my life.”
“So how come you guys were all buddy buddy?”
And Jamal laughed, partly because we were great friends and partly because I was a sheltered little white dude from the milky bosom of suburbia. And he let me in on a little secret:
“Brother” he said, because he was accidentally picking up my speech patterns, “it doesn’t matter where you come from in the whole world. Black people? We’ve all been through the same shit.”
I was surrounded by an ocean of white people at that tournament. Danes to South Africans to Australians and everywhere in between and not once had it occurred to any of us to be that warm and accepting, because we had different rules. We didn’t need solidarity. We had privilege.
Jamal knew it, even way back then, and when we’d see him get a shit call in a game or someone would cheap shot him he’d just dust himself off and run past me and sing — quietly, so no one but me could hear — aaaaaaaain’t that a motherfucker? And I would cackle and whack him on the ass to buck him up. (And by the way — I’m not a hero for bucking him up, I’m just a friend. I love that guy and it fucking SUCKED that we were on the same field but forced to play a different game. Yeah, I tried to buck him up, but guess what? I got to go back to my cushy vanilla puff pastry when that shit was done and he spent every day before and since having to deal with this bullshit.)
But he NEVER once lost his cool. When he got really wronged, the WORST he’d ever say as he limped away or watched his knee bleeding from being gouged by a metal cleat was Okay and the player’s number.
Like “Okay 25. Okay!” Like a barrier had been crossed.
Okay. So that’s how it’s gonna be.
And then he’d point to #25 and yell to me “25!” And I’d yell “got it!”
That meant that, if possible, the next time I set him up for the floating headspike at the net, he’d appreciate it if I could kick it directly into the airspace OVER #25 so he could basically dunk on them. He was a thing of absolute beauty in the air. Craning, scoring, and then landing with a HUGE smile on top of what seemed an endless number of douchey #25s.
I think about those moments a lot, and I was thinking about them on Thursday night, when I saw Cam Newton looking at shrugging officials as he tried to coax his synapses back into firing.
Flag? He wondered. Penalty for a flagrantly illegal helmet to helmet hit? No?
…ain’t that a motherfucker?
And Cam wobbles to his feet, like Jamal in Sweden, like the team from Mauritius, like a hundred million people before all of them who had no real recourse but to shake their head and smile, because the goddamn rules are different.
Cam Newton can not get pissed and flip out on the officials. He just can’t. Cam Newton can’t stick his finger in the face of an official on national TV.
Honestly, he was so pissed after the beating he took from this very team in the last Super Bowl that the sheen came off him. It was pretty much knocked off of him. Minutes after the toughest loss of his career, he has to sit and answer inane questions and it’s just all too much so he gives one-word answers (because he’s contractually obligated by the NFL to answer questions or face a fine) and then just bottles up and eventually walks away. He just got up and walked out of the press conference.
He didn’t storm off. He didn’t raise his voice or lash out. He just quietly got up and left. But you’d never know it the way the whole thing was spun.
If you read tweets from that day or the youtube comments your hair will fall out. It’s just visceral contempt for him. And why? Because the rules are different. I mean, this is him directly after the game, congratulating the quarterback of the other team:
Look at that vicious frown! What a malcontent! He’s such a whiny bitch! #THUGLIFE
Oh yeah. The rules are still different.
So why didn’t his coach charge the field? Why didn’t his coach raise holy hell and put HIS finger in the official’s face and scream ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR GODDAMN MIND? THAT’S THE MVP OF THE LEAGUE RIGHT THERE!
Because his coach is Ron Rivera, an amazing, groundbreaking coach who just happens to be the only Hispanic Head Coach in the NFL. And guess what? You don’t break those boundaries without knowing EXACTLY what the game is. If you’re the SOLE REPRESENTATIVE of an entire race of people in the ivy cloisters of America’s most popular pastime — one of only 32 on the planet — you don’t have the luxury of losing your cool.
The rules, you see, for Ron Rivera, are different.
Is it okay for me to call this out? I honestly don’t know. It seems so obvious to me. You tell me what happened to Cam wasn’t just run-of-the-mill racism and I say fine.
Then what is it?
It seems like everywhere you look there are a different set of rules. I have the guilty luxury of being able to talk about them without having to actually suffer through them. And that sucks too. I’ll own that I don’t know even the tiniest iota of what it must be like. I’ll own my shortcomings and my own foibles and my own time capsule racism. I’ll own it all. But I’ll also own the responsibility of just writing what I saw on Thursday. And while I truly feel like these things come from a deep place of ingrained institutional racism, once you see them for the first time, they’re as plain as the nose on your face. Especially when someone is literally getting paid to knock your nose off your face.
What I watched on Thursday night felt wrong to me. I saw it with my eyes and I feel it in my bones. The inherent wrongness of it all. And we need to get to get it right.
I don’t know why the announcers, widely regarded as the top team in football broadcasting, weren’t up in arms about it. They should have been beside themselves. There should have been a call to action from them. They should have called bullshit. They should have said “This would never happen to Peyton Manning in a million years.” But they didn’t. Maybe they just didn’t see it.
I don’t know why very good officials — they really are — didn’t call the hits to the head. Maybe there’s a gap in the rules. Maybe they didn’t see them. Over and over again.
I don’t know why NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell didn’t storm into the Broncos locker room at halftime and say “THE NEXT PERSON WHO HEADSHOTS THE BEST PLAYER IN THE LEAGUE IS GOING TO BE ON THE SIDEWALK TOMORROW.” The courts have already established his right to carte blanche discretion with regard to punishments, why not use it for good? Why not use it to actually protect someone? Maybe he just doesn’t care.
I don’t know how Cam kept his cool. I don’t know how Cam’s dad Cecil kept his cool. If my son was taking a beating like that, so flagrantly flying in the face of the league’s own rules? Man, I don’t know how I’d react. But it wouldn’t be as restrained and eloquent as the Newtons. I know that for sure. But then again, they know how to navigate those situations better because they’ve had to do it their entire lives. They didn’t have a choice in the matter.
Because the rules, for them, are different.
The differences: they’re subtle, but at least now we can see them. We can talk about them and we can try to bring attention to them. All too often the discourse happens because of an act of intolerance or social injustice, but sometimes it happens because a human being with a polycarbonate shell on his head takes one too many shots to the melon. We’ve come light years in a reasonably short period of time, but we still have a loooooooong way to go.
Things are getting better. They absolutely are.
But in the words of my friend: not fast enough.
Not fast enough.