Cam Newton, Robert Griffen III and The Shifting Perspective of ‘Race’ in Professional Football

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4,051 – This is the number of passing yards that Cam Newton threw for last season. It is not only impressive, it is a record that Newton now holds for passing yards for a rookie.

14 – The number of rushing touchdowns that Cam Newton ran for. Also, a rookie record.

2 – The spot in the draft where Robert Griffen III was picked.

These numbers don’t really illustrate, on their own, something that I have come to appreciate about the National Football League. This change was gradual. It would be unfair to credit these two young men (Newton and Griffin) with the prestige and acceptance that black quarterbacks can now experience. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the likes of First round pick (Buccaneers) Doug Williams, the first black Quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Or Randall Cunningham, Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb. Or the men that paved the way at the college level like Charlie Ward (who went on to play professional Basketball).

There are many others, that I will not mention as I think I have clearly made the point.

The acceptance that Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III now experience is what many blacks in America have been looking for.

Black quarterbacks have been viewed as physically gifted, but not intellectually up to the task of being a quarterback. Many times, people would suggest that they lacked accuracy or the leadership abilities necessary to lead a team. The athleticism “compliment” is still the most persistent and the question of whether or not they can handle the “mental rigors” of professional sports looms like an ominous cloud over our world of sports.

However, the break out season of Cam Newton has caused many of these notions to be re-evaluated, in a way that has never been done. An example of the dark side of this reality is Donovan McNabb. McNabb has been, and still is, near the top of the all QB lists in a lot of important categories: Posting Eight 3,000+ yard passing seasons in his 13 year career, with 234 TDs and 117 Interceptions for his career. He has been to 5 NFC title games and won numerous division titles. However, he is not seen as a quarterback that “wins” and is often criticized for his great athletic talents, but lack of throwing accuracy (even though he has one of the lowest interception ratios of active and historical QBs in the modern era). This all points to the fact that, over time, McNabb has made good decisions and was a dynamic leader. But he will likely go down in history as a guy who couldn’t get over-the-hump.

So, back to the main portion of my story. Cam Newton’s success, when he was sent through the same commentary machine that praised his athletic ability, while disparaging his mental capacity, (and famously forbidden to get “braids or tatoos” by the panther’s owner) forced pundits and league officials alike to re-think what they previously believed about him and others as he shattered rookie Passing and Rushing records, on a team that struggled to win games the year previous to his arrival.

Andrew Luck and Robert Griffen III

Along comes Andrew Luck, in many ways, the prototypical QB. He can throw, he’s accurate, he’s “the best prospect since John Elway.” Andrew Luck, no doubt, was a rare talent at the College level, and projects very well to the pro game. However, his counterpart, Robert Griffen (who was lauded for his athletic ability) grew in his popularity as a passer…Eventually beating Andrew Luck as the Heisman trophy winner and (although he was the #2 pick behind luck) leads the NFL in Jersey sales.

Robert Griffin III is a completely different beast than both Cam Newton and Andrew Luck (who measurably, are athletic equals – though pundits rarely consider Luck a “running” QB even though he ran more times than Griffin and is athletically on par with Newton). Robert Griffin is almost like a “created player” on a video game. He finished his Bachelors degree in his first two years of college, went on to finish his Masters in his last two years. He won the Heisman Trophy, was an academicall all-American, an AP All-America, All-Big 12, #2 pick in the NFL and supposed “savior” of the Redskins franchise.

He has a “big” arm, throws the deep ball well, has exceptional leadership ability, and happens to be one of the fastest Quarterbacks to ever play college football. He is both dynamic and intelligent. His charisma (similar to Newton) has a magnetic quality. This is first that we have seen black men, truly hold respect at this position in the manner that they have commanded it.

There is little doubt that if they young men continue to improve, that we will be talking about them for years to come. Their popularity is uncommon for their position, and their style of play and charisma force a level of respect that no longer dwells on the stereotypical shortcomings that are attributed to black quarterbacks. The language, rather, has finally beginning toward the revelation that black quarterbacks are equal to their white counterparts.

The Unintended Consequences of ‘Race’ in Football

While we can see the popularity and acceptance of Newton and Griffin as equals, we also see the underbelly of the situation: White athletes that do not play traditionally “white” positions missing opportunities.

Toby Gerhart is a recent casualty of this reality. During his time at the combine he had the pressure to run the 40-yard dash well; not so that they could see how fast he was, but rather, to see how slow he wasn’t. It was frustrating, and likely humiliating for him, as he ran faster 40 times than half of the backs there, and yet was seen lacking in top end speed. No one would make the argument that Gerhart is Chris Johson, but neither is Matt Forte.

On the other end of things, we see almost the complete extinction of the white defensive back. Tom Zbikowski and Chris Conte being some of the more recognizable names. However, both of them are safeties! Can you name a white corner in the NFL? I can, Pete Ittersagen. He is currently out of the league, but played for the Tennessee Titans and was on the practice squad for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Pete possess good speed for the position, but like Gerhart, is seen as lacking the necessary “athletic ability” to excel at the position. Gone are the days of the Dick LeBeau’s and the Jason Sehorn’s.

The negative attributions that we have created, and are insistent on perpetuating, in our society have been creating many unnecessary mountains for so many of these men to climb in order to reach their dreams.


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