I’ve written before that there has been a dramatic shift in tone and perspective in much of the mainstream sports media over the past decade. When I was writing for The Starting Five in 2007, the center of gravity in sports discourse tilted very heavily toward a default judgment/disparagement of black athletes who in any way failed to conform to acceptable modes of behavior and comportment. In 2007, new NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was a God to many in the sports media (not me!), the new sheriff in town who made it his signature issue to “discipline” misbehaving football players. The Malice in the Palace was still fresh in people’s minds. The Michael Vick prosecution was beginning. Barry Bonds had just broken the all-time homerun record as public enemy No. 1.
That tilt hasn’t vanished. But it less pronounced today by comparison, in part because of a larger set of cultural shifts, and in part because of the addition of newer voices to high profile media platforms who brush off those older cultural tropes or actively challenge them. Bomani Jones is one clear example. Nick Wright, of CBS radio, is another. Dan LeBatard was very well known by then, but is a bigger star now. Dave Zirin has cultivated a much larger media presence in the past ten years. The folks at Deadspin, including the terrific Greg Howard and Kevin Draper are on the beat. Even prominent guys then, like Mike and Mike, who are bigger than ever in 2016, have changed in some interesting and notable ways. The manner in which they used to pummel an athlete like Steph Marbury, for example, is something I don’t think you’d hear from either of them anymore.
I’m not being pollyanna here. We don’t live in a post-racial society (duh!). Media both informs and reflects culture. The mere fact that we have to spend *so* much time discussing Cam Newton’s behavior, “character” and so on, is a testament to that reality. As I’ve said before, Cam’s only real transgression since he became a pro, apart from a few pouty moments on the sidelines, appears to be that he’s really enjoying himself while he and his teammates are simultaneously kicking everyone else’s ass. We’re far from the promised land.
But at least a growing chorus of voices, including Mike and Mike, and Colin Cowherd, are as dismissive as they can be of the criticisms. And the really smart cookies – Jones, Wright, Le Batard – are meanwhile engaging large national audiences in great conversations about how anti-Cam sentiment might well be, as the saying goes, a “you” problem, not a Cam problem.
This morning, with Ian Fitzsimmons and Mike Golic, Jr. in for Greenie and Pop, provided a good illustration of some of the change in the quality and breadth of conversation in mainstream outlets. Domonique Foxworth, former NFL cornerback and President of the NFL Player’s Association was on to offer his take on yesterday’s discussion about Cam and race (Foxworth, who holds an MBA from Harvard, is now COO of the National Basketball Players Association). Newton spoke at a pre-Super Bowl media availability and was asked about how he is perceived, whether he’s a lightning rod and how he’s changed.
Here’s part of what Newton said (Courtesy of Bill Voth and the Big Lead):
They talk about maturity with me; they talk about skillset with this team. Nobody has changed. It’s been the same Ted Ginn that was drafted by the Miami Dolphins. It’s the same Jericho Cotchery, the same Philly Brown, the same Cam Newton. Nothing’s changed.
The only thing has changed is that we’re winning. I said it since Day One: I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to. It’s funny, I get inspired — It makes me go out there and practice even harder because I remember when I was working out for the Draft. I would see the Senior Bowl playing and I see these guys out there busting their tails trying to get drafted, try to have a job to provide for their family or themselves. And it’s like, 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. Nobody changed me. Nobody made me act a certain type of way and I’m true to my roots.
I can’t transcribe it at the moment, but let me summarize some of Foxworth’s comments this morning, when asked what he thought of Cam’s comments:
1)it gave him chills to hear a black man talk unapologetically about who he is. Foxworth repeated this and noted how proud he was of Newton.
2)Foxworth regards Newton’s emergence as a superstar to be a huge step forward, great role model insofar as he doesn’t feel a need to conform to acceptable cultural notions of proper comportment.
3) when told that former NFL player and regular ESPN commentator Ryan Grant had said that the discomfort had more to do with culture than race, Foxworth demurred. It’s both, he said. Foxworth then provided a nice, succinct discussion of prevailing research in psychology about implicit bias, including how we affirm preconceived beliefs by hunting for data that confirms those beliefs. In other words, implicit bias is real, and given the realities of the sports world, especially the sports media (which remains overwhelmingly white), that has special implications for black (and other minority) athletes.
4)Foxworth acknowledged what he described as his own biases. He’s been on team Cam from day one, he said, because he is part of Cam’s “team.” He and Cam could have a half hour conversation about “razor bumps,” whereas white guys would have no idea what he was talking. I am confident Foxworth wasn’t trying to go down some biologically-essentialist rabbit hole here. His point was more basic: that, by and large, black men and boys are going to see Cam’s behavior differently than will many whites, because they will identify wit him, his experience and his background in a way white folks can’t. And that Cam is refreshing precisely for refusing to apologize for or paper over that fact.
At least for today, I’m more interested in focusing on this positive side of the ledger.
(Which is why I’m side-stepping, for now anyway, Mike Francesa’s more negative comments yesterday about Cam. Francesa regards Can as a “me” guy. Which is somewhat eyebrow-raising since Francesa is himself an indefatigable self-promoter. Francesa is very complementary of Cam as a football player, for the record).