'How long have you been a black quarterback?" asked a reporter from Mississippi when the Washington Redskins' Doug Williams faced the media before Super Bowl XXII in San Diego. Or so the story goes. The query was actually framed a little more sensibly than that but the nuance has long since been sacrificed to the legend, the taller version of the tale regularly cited to demonstrate the often awkward intersection of sport and skin colour in 1980s America.
Nearly three decades after Williams became the first black quarterback to lead a team to the Vince Lombardi trophy, race, unfortunately, remains a huge part of the conversation as Cam Newton prepares to helm the Carolina Panthers against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 on Sunday. Even though the 26-year-old playmaker wasn't born when Williams was debunking shibboleths about blacks and the most cerebral position on the field, some just refuse to let the issue die.
“You’ve played with African American quarterbacks – are they under a different scrutiny than Caucasian quarterbacks?” asked a reporter of a former NFL player during a sports talk show earlier this week.
The type of galling inquiry many hoped had been consigned to that less enlightened period of history when pigmentation was somehow regarded as an obstacle to throwing the ball. Nobody believes that anymore. The criticism of Newton is about everything he does when not passing for 35 touchdowns and running in 10 more during the regular season.
At 26, he is the most exhilarating and compelling quarterback in the league, possessed of a skill set that enables him to hurt teams with his hands and his feet.
He plays with an effervescent smile on his face, is known for gifting game balls to kids in the stands, and has perfected a signature celebration dance move known as dabbing that originated with an Atlanta rap group. He devotes a portion of every Tuesday to charitable work, yet some people still can’t see beyond the fact that when his team scores he goes a little berserk in the end zone.
The level of focus on his antics is odd given the showboating culture of the NFL. This is a league where, for the longest time, routine tackles and straightforward catches in the middle of the field have been regarded as occasions for exuberant chest-thumping, obnoxious muscle-flexing, in your face trash-talking, and all manner of unseemly shape-throwing. Newton isn't the first or only quarterback to behave like this. Indeed, the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rogers has similar tendencies yet rarely gets called on it.
Why the double-standard? Well, Newton has a theory.
True to my roots
“I’m an African-American quarterback,” he said last week. “That may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to. Now here I am, I’m doing exactly what I want to do, how I want to do it, and when I look in the mirror, it’s me. You know what I’m saying? Nobody changed me, nobody made me act a certain type of way and I’m true to my roots.”
Too brash, say some. Too cocky, claim others. The madness of the case against him can be summed up by an episode following his side's victory over the Tennessee Titans back in November. Rosemary Plorin, a woman from Nashville, wrote to the local paper excoriating him. Having attended the game with her nine-year-old daughter, she was unhappy with Newton's dancing celebrations, in particular his pelvic thrusts, a criticism probably last voiced in the American media when Elvis Presley did an especially hip-swinging version of Hound Dog on the Milton Berle show in the 1950s.
Newton has been subject to excessive media scrutiny since college when one misdemeanour earned him a reputation he’s found difficult to shed. As an undergraduate at the University of Florida in 2008, he stole a $1,700 laptop from a fellow student. The charge was later expunged after he completed a pretrial intervention programme, and he restarted his career at a junior college before fetching up at Auburn where it soon became apparent he was destined to star on Sundays. Even his time there though was blighted by revelations his father had tried to get Mississippi State to pay cash for his son’s services.
Relatively speaking, these are minor matters. In a world where the old joke is that NFL stands for National Felons League, a criminal record involving some teen idiocy on a college campus is choirboy stuff compared to the lengthy and disturbing rap sheets (rape, domestic violence etc) of so many of Newton's peers. The last Carolina Panther to garner this much media coverage was Rae Carruth, a wide receiver who ordered a fatal hit on a pregnant girlfriend.
Rife with exploitation
And, the fact Cecil Newton once tried to wring money out of a collegiate sport structure so rife with exploitation of student-athletes that it is the worst type of shamateurism is barely worth mentioning in the wider scheme of things. Especially when his son, currently earning just over $20 million (€17.8 million) a season, has been a model citizen since turning pro.
"You'd think he raped five pastors' daughters over the last five years, and is getting away with it the way people are talking about him," said Warren Moon, another pioneering black quarterback from a different era.
An odd quote but one that, in a way, perfectly captures the insanity of it all.