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.

Quick Review: More than Just Race

This book, More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, is the latest monograph by William Julius Wilson. I read this several months ago and haven’t reviewed it yet because I have been thinking about its approach and conclusions. Here is my quick take:

I am still not quite sure to make of this book. I ultimately think that it is too short and doesn’t spend upon time seriously doing what Wilson claims he wants to do: explore how structure and culture interact and affect poor inner-city neighborhoods. The book is written in a series that seems to be for a popular audience and it seems that Wilson is just limited in space and perhaps how academic the work can be and the number of studies he can cite. Additionally, although Wilson cites some interesting recent research (including Move To Opportunity research) involving cultural values, Wilson still sides with structure (his primary research focus for years) in the end though he suggests culture plays some role.

I contrast this book with what I heard at a culture and poverty panel at the American Sociological Association meetings in August in Atlanta. I felt that panel took culture much more seriously – indeed, several of the scholars were sociologists of culture who are trying to bring this growing subfield to a point where it can be recognized as having something important to add to discussions about poverty. This discussion featured some research in progress but these scholars seemed to put structure and culture on a more equal footing.

Of course, this is an emerging field of work. After research in the 1960s from people like Daniel Moynihan and Oscar Lewis were said to be “blaming the victim” when discussing culture and the role of values and norms in poor neighborhoods, structure was the primary focus for several decades when studying poverty. Wilson’s book may serve as an entry point or guide to the discussion of culture and poverty but those who seriously want to delve into the issues will need to look into other works.

(I might also quibble with Wilson’s definition of culture, the collection of values, norms, behaviors, traditions, etc. of a group. This leaves culture as a more passive phenomenon. I would prefer to use this definition when thinking about the sociology of culture: “processes of meaning-making.”)