Videos by OutKick
It’s unfair, but Super Bowl games define quarterbacks.
When over 100 million people watch a game, whatever happens in that game imprints itself on the cultural DNA of a sports fan and it’s impossible to erase that impression until you come back to the Super Bowl and provide us all a new story to embrace. Last night Peyton Manning forever enshrined himself as a champion and Cam Newton defined himself as a frontrunning whiny brat. Manning, who likely played his last game, now belongs to the ages. Even his most ardent critics will be forced to acknowledge that he is one of the five best quarterbacks to ever play the game. Now we debate the nuance, is Manning the greatest of all time or the fourth greatest of all time? I think Manning’s the greatest, you may disagree and feel he’s not. That’s why sports are great. If we all had the same opinion there would be no point in playing the games. But after twenty years of public games the parameters of the debate are crystal clear, at worst Manning is the fifth best quarterback ever. And he may be the greatest of all time.
But this Super Bowl isn’t really about Manning, his story is complete, it’s about Cam Newton, our newest national Rorschach test. After his petulant performance in the game — not diving for the football recovery late in the fourth quarter, storming out of his press conference after monosyllabic answers — Newton proved himself more a bratty Clark Kent than a magnanimous Superman. I’ve been arguing for two weeks that the stupidity surrounding Cam Newton’s race was a distraction brought forth by the PC bros of the world who want everything on earth to be about race. Cam Newton wasn’t disliked by some because he was a black quarterback, he was disliked by some because he was a quarterback. And every quarterback in our present era has two distinct storylines running at the same time, the pro and anti-narrative, the lover and the hater story that fans embrace. Tom Brady was either the greatest quarterback to play the game or a cheater who won Super Bowls because Belichick had mastered the dark arts of playing beyond the rules. Peyton Manning was either playing to etch his name into the record books or a choke artist who couldn’t win the big game. Joe Flacco, elite or average? Give me a prominent quarterback and I can give you a pro and con argument, that’s what sports is, a competition to choose the narrative that defines a player.
Hell, Peyton Manning “hasn’t been able to win the big game” since he was at Tennessee. Trust me, I’ve seen every big game Manning has played in the past twenty years. Sure, he didn’t beat Florida in college, but he whipped Alabama three straight years and won an SEC title. The Manning “can’t win the big game” argument was a fallacy, a constantly moving target that defined whatever game Manning happened to lose as “the big one” and conveniently ignored all the games that he did win to get to the big one. How prevalent was this story? It took winning his second Super Bowl at the age of 39 to finally vanquish it. Manning has won two Super Bowls, he’s beaten Brady 3-2 in the playoffs and 3-1 in AFC title games. But if Manning had lost last night my entire timeline would have been can’t win the big game criticism.
So what do we make of Cam? Some fans, black, white and other, didn’t like his dabbing, his celebrating, the effervescence that he brought to the football field. That’s not about race. Defining a race based on a single player’s behavior is, wait for it, racist. Correct me if I’m wrong but Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, and Russell Wilson are all black quarterbacks who have played in the Super Bowl, right? Why did we have none of these conversations about their blackness? It’s because, wait for it, despite what the PC bros and social justice warriors wanted to believe reactions to Cam’s showboating weren’t about his being black. It was about his showboating. People hate Johnny Manziel for the same reason they hate Cam, they don’t like the way he plays the game. They’re polarizing, these guys are the ultimate mirror athletes, what you think about them really tells us more about you than it does them.
Putting these guys into the context of my radio career, they move the needle. If I say, “LeBron James is,” or “Tim Tebow is” or “Johnny Manziel is,” and ask you to call in and tell me the next word that comes to mind immediately every phone line is lit. Everyone has an opinion on these players. Does race factor in? Sure, a bit. But I guarantee you there are very few people of any race who love Cam Newton and hate Johnny Manziel or vice versa. This is more about establishment vs. non-establishment than it is blackness or whiteness.
The fact that we had people saying, “Russell Wilson isn’t black enough,” to justify why this conversation didn’t happen the past two years was the most racist conversation in the Super Bowl by far. And no one even touched it. If being a member of a race forces you to behave like a member of that race, that’s the very definition of racism. Because it presupposes two things: 1. there’s a coherent racial identity which exists because of your skin color and 2. that you have to behave in a certain way to reflect that behavior set or else you don’t fit that racial category. I mean, Good Lord, this is the very essence of the arguments that were made for generations to segregate the races, that your skin color defined you and your behavior.
Taken to its logical extension this becomes patently absurd. Were Donovan McNabb and Steve McNair black enough when they played in the Super Bowl? How about Doug Williams back in 1988? What about the future quarterbacks in the league? What’s the state of blackness of Teddy Bridgewater and Jameis Winston? What about Marcus Mariota? Is Johnny Manziel an honorary black quarterback? What about Tim Tebow? Do we need to have a summit to analyze and assign future blackness categories to quarterbacks?
I mean, this is the height of stupidity.
But this is where the PC bros would lead us if we followed their lead back to the future. Their obsession with race actually has more in common with the racists they claim to hate than those of us in the middle asking why we let idiots on both sides demagogue on issues of race in this country. But that’s another, longer column.
Let’s take Cam Newton outside of sports. Because, really, when we talk about sports we’re talking about the larger society. That’s what sports is, a cultural battlefield that all of us enter with our own prevailing beliefs. Then we toss these opinions onto fields and courts and try to pretend that our sports opinions are clean of political interference. So let me remove that veil and toss you a thesis: Cam Newton is the Donald Trump of the football universe, an emotional, expressive powder keg in a world where the prevailing sentiment — for quarterbacks and presidents — is to stay within the boundaries of acceptable discourse. If you step outside the boundaries you get more attention, but you also open yourself up to more criticism.
Go read the reviews of Donald Trump’s caucus loss in Iowa and his subsequent behavior and tell me you don’t find the exact same adjectives attached to Cam after this Super Bowl loss — petulant, spoiled, bratty, arrogant, snappy, self-centered, sulky, fake — as have been attached to Trump after he lost Iowa.
Cam Newton and Donald Trump are two sides of the same coin, the story of brash and audacious bravado and how America responds to this behavior when failure arrives. Is Donald Trump black enough? Hell, this dude was the first east coast rapper. No one has spent more time telling you how rich and successful he is than Donald Trump. He was Jay Z before Jay Z had started to rap. The original swag, the bitches, the buildings, the cars, the swag, Trump was the dude who would definitely have said, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man,” if he’d thought of it.
America’s response to Cam Newton is not about race, it’s about story. America loves to see cocky people fail. And it wants to see how cocky people respond when they face those failures. Ronda Rousey, Mike Tyson, Donald Trump, Cam Newton, black, white, Asian or Hispanic, male or female, if you tell us you’re the greatest either by word or deed and then get your ass kicked, you better own it. Either show some humility, sprinkle in some humor, or double down on your greatness. But whatever you do, don’t be a whiny brat. Don’t turn into a frontrunner without expecting to become a national punchline.
Sports are defined by stories and all of us buy into one story or another and then use whatever evidence there is to advance the cause of our own narratives. When we debate players or teams or coaches or future presidents, we aren’t debating so much as we’re choosing the story which we believe in. When you really break it down, it’s what humans do, we pick a side and ridicule the other side, we are a tribal people. It’s how our ancestors survived. Religion, politics, movies, players, coaches, presidents and teams, when passion becomes involved our beliefs govern the stories we choose to believe.
And the Super Bowl is the biggest stage and story in all of American life. Twenty five million more people watch the Super Bowl than vote for President. This is when our national character reveals itself, not in the voting booth. It doesn’t matter what you do in the regular season or the playoffs, in order to be great you have to win a Super Bowl. Dan Marino, who went to one Super Bowl and lost, would never be able to survive in the social media era. The jackals would tear him to pieces. Nothing matters but the ring. Cam Newton was set to become the new Tom Brady, a supremely handsome young quarterback with a hundred million dollar smile and a rocket for an arm. Instead in one night he became the NFL’s own Donald Trump, a fractious child who was great at celebrations but eschewed the nitty gritty details involved in winning.
A first rate frontrunner.
All week most fans and media believed this was to be Cam Newton’s coronation as the next great football superstar. The 26 year old with a quick smile and boisterous celebrations was set to take on the mantle of football exceptionalism — goodbye Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — hello Cam.
Except, he lost, and got exposed in the game and the subsequent press conference. The crown will have to wait for next season or the one after or, maybe, given how frail football futures can be, forever.
Donald Trump’s headed to New Hampshire to pursue his own electoral redemption, to change his story, to prove he’s the boy who still might be king. Cam Newton’s crown is in the mud. Because on the way to his coronation something strange happened, Von Miller took the crown right off Cam Newton’s head and slapped him in the face with it.
If Cam Newton’s dabbing now, it’s not to celebrate, it’s to cover up his black eye.