Certain stereotypes exist in sports and no matter how hard you close your eyes and pretend not to see them, you’re just as aware of them as everyone else is. You may not admit it. You may express faux outrage when someone else brings them up – but you know what they are. And because everyone knows what they are but nobody really wants to address them, a serious discussion about their inaccuracies and the inherently bigoted perceptions that create them never actually get brought up.
In basketball, the stereotype is that white players aren’t athletic enough to be anything but big bodies in the paint. In hockey, black players are such a rarity that, even in 2011, stuff like this still happens to them. In baseball, the tension between black and Latino major-leaguers has given birth to a bevy of stereotypes about work ethic and cost not even worth listing.
And in football, there are two prevailing stereotypes: 1.) black quarterbacks are “athletic” but lack the “intangibles” to successfully lead teams and 2.) white running backs aren't "athletic" enough to compete.
Despite the fact that guys like part time Denver Broncos quarterback and full-time Santa's Little Helper Tim Tebow essentially turn that first football stereotype on its ear, it’s still prevalent enough to have impacted the latest batch of NFL rookies. Recently, Carolina Panthers superstar passer Cam Newton discussed the unfair criticism and constant disparagement he had to deal with upon entry into the league in an interview with ESPN:
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The reviews were so harsh that Newton's mentor, Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, wondered whether they were fueled by racism. "But I can't sit up here and look at it like, oh man, my critics are racist," Newton says. "I blame JaMarcus Russell and to some degree Vince Young. If you have the opportunity to make that kind of money doing something you love to do, why would you screw it up? I'm trying to be a trailblazer. If Baylor's Robert Griffin decides to come out, I want people to say 'He can be the next Cam Newton' instead of 'He's gonna be the next JaMarcus Russell.'"
The interesting part of those quotes is that Newton sort of, without directly doing it, admitted that he felt like racial stereotyping negatively impacted the initial reception he got from various NFL big shots who found reasons to critique him. Sure he says that he doesn’t want to refer to his critics at racist but, in the very same breath, he alludes to the fact that he feels like two black quarterbacks in Russell and Young ruined it for him.
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It’s hard to really know what to make of Newton’s comments. Clearly, he’s very self-aware, and you have to admire the fact that he wants to be a positive model for other black quarterbacks like Griffin. But, by the same token, you also can’t help but notice that he’s tip-toeing around the issue of pre-existing black quarterback stereotyping -- and racial stereotyping in sports, period -- by saying that he doesn’t want to call racism, well, racism. And he’s not tip-toeing around that topic by accident. He’s tip-toeing around it because he knows that a lot of people don’t want to have the discussion about stereotyping and racism in sports; rather, fans are content blasting away at anyone who they perceive as playing the “race card” by pulling the always nifty, “you played the race card” card and turning a blind eye to the facts.
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Who knows, maybe as Newton gets more comfortable in his role as one of the NFL’s most promising young stars, he’ll eventually develop the confidence to address these sort of issues head on. For now, though, he’s doing his part just by getting discussions like this one going.