Cam Newton as sociologist?

A commentator in the Wall Street Journal suggests Cam Newton is a sociologist:

All very true, all very interesting, but this was not the part of Fleming’s article—the cover story for ESPN the Magazine’s annual Next issue—that got the most attention on Thursday. That part would be Newton’s refusal to blame the weirdly harsh pre-draft assessments—ESPN’s own Mel Kiper Jr. compared him to former Bengals bust Akili Smith—on any latent prejudices against black quarterbacks. “I can’t sit up here and look at it like, oh man, my critics are racist,” Newton told Fleming. “I blame JaMarcus Russell and to some degree Vince Young. If you have the opportunity to make that kind of money doing something you love to do, why would you screw it up?” Which, admittedly, is an attention-grabbing thing to say.

It was also deemed a mistake by the sport-pundits whose job it is to deem statements like this mistakes. But as Bomani Jones notes in a terrific column for SB Nation, both Newton and his critics seem to miss the point. “The real danger is in the foolishness of the quote and its underlying sadness,” Jones writes. “It’s stupid because the knocks on Cam were based in the same madness that sent his mentor, [Warren] Moon, to Canada seven years before Russell was born. And it’s heartbreaking because, in spite of the progress the world claims it has made with regards to race, the young man who could be the NFL’s future blamed his own unfair treatment on two men who had to fight the same battles.”

Of course, as long as Newton continues to break records and be brilliant, he can—and will—be able to write his own narrative, in his own words. At the very least, it’s refreshing to have a new star who’s as interesting to talk about—and listen to—as he is to watch.

As far as I can tell, the only reason Newton gets dubbed a sociologist is because he brings up the issue of race. Interestingly, he downplays the racial explanation and goes to more individualistic explanations (i.e., two earlier quarterbacks failed). But it is interesting to note that discussing topics of race gets equated with the field of sociology.

While there is no doubt that Newton could have made a bold statement about how black quarterbacks are treated, I wonder if his statement says more about whether athletes can talk about race or feel like they should than about Newton. At this point in his career, what would Newton gain by taking on people like Mel Kiper Jr.? As a rookie, Newton may not want to be outspoken about a controversial social issue. Would his endorsement opportunities go down if he talked about race? Would sportswriters keep hammering on this? I’m not saying Newton is right by downplaying the larger structural forces that make success possible. However, certain athletes don’t address larger issues like some do. For example, Michael Jordan was criticized by some who thought he could have used his celebrity and standing to push for certain things. Jordan, a savvy businessman, chose not to. Newton may be following a similar path.

In the end, I would guess most sports fans and commentators don’t really want to address racial issues even though it clearly matters. On the whole, they would typically suggest sports transcends racial barriers and on-the-field performance is the only thing that matters. Also, the last time I can remember this being a big debate in the NFL with Rush Limbaugh on ESPN, it didn’t work out well.

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