Running From Our Past

The never ending debate that needs to stop
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Before he could win five Grey Cup championships, two Grey Cup MVPs and the 1983 Canadian Football League MVP, which was before he was able to make nine Pro Bowl rosters or earn three All-Pro selections, which was in turn before he was enshrined in both the CFL and NFL Hall of Fames, Warren Moon had to be black. None of this would have happened without that.

Without that, Moon would almost certainly not have been asked by NFL teams -- incapable of even imagining a black man competently playing quarterback, where he had been a star at the University of Washington -- to move to tight end. Without that, his refusal to do so would almost certainly not have led to him going undrafted and heading to Canada. The part where Moon quickly became the best player in the CFL was mostly on him; that he had to wait until 1984, when he was 28 and had just shattered the CFL’s all-time single season passing record by throwing for 5,648 yards as an Edmonton Eskimo, was probably the black thing again. Moon’s last touchdown completion came in 2000, when he was 44. Warren Moon made all that happen, but it was also, to a great extent, made to happen a certain way, for certain familiar reasons. You know all this.

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So, last week, when Moon spoke up in favor of Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers phenom turned heel who is currently struggling through his second NFL season on what looks increasingly like one of the NFL’s worst coached and constructed teams, it’s likely he saw something we didn’t. Moon has mentored Newton closely, and is not without bias in sticking up for the young quarterback. But bias, of the dimmest and most obvious kind, is all over the place, here. It’s certainly at the heart of the comparisons that drew his ire: those made to Newton’s fellow black quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III and Vince Young. 

As Moon pointed out, Griffin and Newton have little in common besides their Heismans, complexions and an ability to run for first downs when needed. Given that the two also have the first and third things in common with Tim Tebow, it’s reasonable to wonder, as Moon did, why that middle factor keeps coming up, pushing these two young quarterbacks together.

In fact, it’s hard to think of two quarterbacks that have taken more divergent paths to the NFL.

RG3 is the son of two soldiers who were stationed in Okinawa and graduated from Baylor University with a 3.7 in political science after three years; and he has credits towards a Masters degree in Communications.

Cam comes from a family of football players--his father Cecil was a safety who never made the league; his brother Cecil, Jr. plays center for the Baltimore Ravens; he didn’t graduate from any of three institutions he attended.

Griffin is a dynamic pocket passer with world class speed, and plays in a system designed to highlight his strengths and which incorporates the offensive philosophy (and a number of the actual plays) that he learned in college. Because of this, he found himself ranked third in passer rating before last week’s games, behind only future Hall of Famers Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning.

Newton has been less lucky. The Auburn standout finds himself at the center of a confused offensive approach that is seemingly leveraged entirely on his ability to “make things happen,” which meant big boy passing numbers in the first half of his first NFL season, and has mostly meant “fumbles at inopportune times” since opposing teams realized that the thing that Panthers running backs are best at is collecting checks. Struggling to keep his head above water on a rapidly sinking ship, he’s in the bottom third of the NFL in completion percentage, and has done a progressively worse job in recent weeks hiding his disdain for the badly underperforming team on which he plays.

Historical/contemporary comparisons to the pair further show the split, as Robert Griffin III is probably best compared to Steve Young or his draft classmate Andrew Luck; while Newton more closely resembles Ben Roethlisberger or Andy Dalton. They are not similar, really, and their circumstances even less so .

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And, to be clear, as is often the case with perceived media bias, the thing that nominally links Newton and Griffin is both shallower, if no less pernicious, than the most obvious aspects. Yes, these are two young black quarterbacks, but they also fit sports media’s need for a simple, contrast-rich binary of some kind. Newton is cocksure and gifted; but his resume is stained with shit-eating grins and inappropriate celebrations. Griffin, in the bright contrast of the media spotlight comes off as confident and gifted; and also, for the moment, spotless.

There’s no natural rivalry between the two: they came from differenct conferences, and now play in different divisions with no history on the field against each other. Skip Bayless and the machine designed to keep him fed, paid and burping up huffy certainties absolutely do not care about that; having never once let facts get in the way of a good story. And so Newton seems, if for no reason other than timing and narrative convenience, to be being groomed for the “best bridesmaid” title vacated by Peyton Manning (after winning his Super Bowl championship in 2007) and more recently by LeBron James. Newton, like James and Manning, carries the weight of being the first overall pick. He is also tasked with an inept supporting cast he's  supposed to lead to the promised land; there will be (stupid, loud) questions about his greatness if he can’t.

And, as with LeBron’s “rivalry” with Kobe—which included a documentary aired on ESPN about the chances the two had to meet in the NBA Finals in 2009— or Peyton’s rivalry with Tom Brady, which will likely get its own Disney film, sports media needs another half of the equation. Preferably, as was the case with Bryant and Brady, some player less clearly, if perhaps only marginally, preordained for greatness than him. Griffin, a dazzling football talent, is no one’s underdog. But this is his role.

It’s trite, of course. But it’s not that there aren’t any reasons to compare the two. As they are both former Heisman winners running the read option, some connection and cross-assessment is probably inevitable and to go completely the other way would be just as damning, if quieter. But while that commonality--and the way that Griffin’s instant coronation as King of D.C. recalls Newton’s rapid rise last year--makes the comparison easy, an easier one is left un-made. The quarterback who has most resembled Newton thus far, both stylistically and in the shape of his frustrations, is Griffin’s draft mate Andrew Luck, who has already mastered the Newtonian mix of intermittent brilliance and terrible decisions against good defenses (and also the Jets). Comparisons of either to Andrew Luck—Griffin because they’re from the same class; Newton because of draft position, playing style, quality of supporting casts and lineages (Luck’s father Oliver also played in the league)—seem significantly more apt. The historical comparisons may be more telling. But the binary is hardening.

Significantly more troubling, and more familiar, is the way that the conversation surrounding Cam Newton has become swamped in racialized sports-talk code language that Warren Moon would recognize well. Newton is “undisciplined” or “unable to comprehend the intricacies of the game”, he “showboats” or (this is a good one) “tries to do everything on every play, making it all about him.” as though to imply black players only try in order to make themselves look good. All of these are maybe true of Newton, at moments; all of them also have a long enough lineage to make anyone uncomfortable. The implication is old and ugly: that Newton is not smart enough or mature enough or otherwise good enough to measure up, and that those failures are innate. This is an ancient stupidity, but it isn’t just history. It isn’t even the past.

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That’s because there’s a lot to be said for the development of racial theory in the United States, and most of it is depressing and even more of it is infuriating. There is no country more obsessed with race, and less willing to talk about what any of it means or the validity of any of its tenets, stereotypes, effects on the culture, the economy, our future and how we teach our children about the past.

We’ve created a system based entirely on the “other” and have used it to propel our business and our advertising and we have done so while shouted as loud as we can “Things are Better Now! We Swear!”.

America’s imagined antidote against racial bias -- which pervades our schools on the highest and lowest levels and creates rigidly defined paths upon which minorities are expected to travel -- is the purest meritocracy, and as imaginary solutions go it’s an appealing one.

If such meritocracy were a thing that existed, it would indeed be a good solution: do better, explode some cancerous bit of racial cant forever, and on to the next. This isn’t how it works, of course, because biases are made of tough stuff. But sports is not like politics; there are numbers here, more and progressively better numbers, that allow us to assess beyond partisanship. There is, for all the sentimentalism, something of the American ideal in it: sports really has offered some singular common ground in our culture over the last century, it really has been the only place where an ethnically, financially and morally diverse group of people can come together to play by the same rules and celebrate the same thing in the same way.

What’s more is that athletics’ natural inclination towards that  meritocracy--as scoreboards, of all things, are not biased--and the rise of these advance statistics make possible ever more rigorous (and color blind) comparisons between players. This hasn’t made the sports discourse more objective or more rigorous, necessarily. But it has made it easier to identify and take apart bullshit juxtapositions. The numbers tell us that there’s no real reason for Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton to keep being compared to each other. A look at the way America still deals with the idea of race, and especially at the crudely Calvinist approach to race that has so stubbornly stayed in the discourse—the idea that African Americans are genetically predisposed to certain things, and only through sheer luck do any of them transcend their “racial handicap” (see: the Bell Curve)—it’s hard to imagine that the two will stop being compared anytime soon.

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It’s cliche, but important, to note that race is a social construct, something rarely incorporated in previous “great” civilizations (who focused more on just killing everyone except for their own to feed their people) and which began to gain a full head of steam when after the Civil War, unions began using propaganda to discredit newly freed blacks who stood to take their jobs.

But what a long-running construction process this is, all these new edifices to justify old prejudices and ignorance. All these false “guidelines” to rule/compare our lives, all those new narratives to explain extraordinarily complex social and economic conditions, all of them built to serve old ideas that weren’t worth serving when they were new.

When a return of the Olympics reignited popular interest in sports in the early 20th century, sports thinkers identified those who seemed to be preordained for greatness in particular contests. In his book “Farewell To Sport,” the famed New York Daily News sports editor Paul Gallico, for instance, identified the race best suited for dominance in basketball:

The reason, I suspect, that basketball appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart-aleckness.

It was simple: Jewish basketball dominance was a function of their genetic makeup. Other races, who were less adept at artful dodging, would be left in the dust.

This sort of unconscious crap has persisted for African-Americans basketball players, Korean female golfers and tall, stolid quarterbacks from Northern Europe. Genetic research has made it clear that—although genetic differences between phenotypes (the technical term in genetics for the output or “consequences” from the input of our genes, which manifest as things like skin color)—do occur, they are negligible. The world's genetic makeup has become less and less delineated by ethnic lines. As marriage (and other such ahem, cultural diffusion) has increased between those across social and ethnic barriers, the likelihood that a black relative and a white friend could have similar DNA profiles has increased immensely.

And, anyway, sociological conditions do a much better job of predicting who is going to be involved in sports and who won’t.

Sports, being the closest thing we've got to that Platonic meritocracy, allow people who are gifted and capable to rise to the top without as many barriers to entry as they find in other fields. Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III are both broadly products of this system—they cleared the same barriers—but started in different places. Both were dealt winning hands in terms of athletic genes, but what makes them different—and makes them such easy fits for their roles on the light and dark sides of this media comparison—are their paths to prominence, and the biases that inform how those paths are viewed. NFL talent evaluators presumed that Warren Moon could only be one thing. Griffin and Newton are, thankfully, playing in a different age. But there are still presumptions—old, sticky, unconscious and judgmental ones—about how they got there, and the style and signifiers they picked up along the way.

It is remarkable that a  high-achieving student born in Japan to two of our nation’s servicepeople has become the starting quarterback of the team in our nation’s capital. It's also remarkable that, as Cam Newton has proved, athletic legacies in major sports matter just as much as academic legacies do in college admissions processes. These two players are fascinating to watch, and more interesting when viewed in their legitimately novel context. But, decades after Warren Moon, the broader sports discourse seems intent upon finding its own, old way to understand something that isn't quite as new or as different as it looks.


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