Monday, February 8, 2016

On Cam Newton, the Press, and False Expectations

Cam Newton laid a bit of an egg in Super Bowl 50. Whether most of that can be chalked up to the Broncos historically great defense (80% of it), poor play from the Panthers tackles and Cam himself is somewhat irrelevant; but the onus falls on the league's newest superstar and MVP to elevate his play on the biggest stage, and he didn't do that. Though he was smiling when talking with Peyton Manning after the game ended, he was not showing the same joy in his postgame presser. He appeared with a hood on, a stark contrast from his usually flashy suits, and remained terse, quiet and a man of few words before he either heard a question that rubbed him the wrong way or a few Broncos players gloating near him, and walked out.

Naturally, every media member and fan has an opinion on what this means about Newton, his character, his race, and everything in between. Black and white blanket statements are clouding the space where grey is the dominant color. As ever, these situations cannot be painted with one brush stroke, since there is more to this situation than Newton walking out of a postgame press conference after the biggest sporting event in the American calendar.

Let's begin with Newton himself. He is a brash, colorful and energetic character the likes of which the NFL hasn't seen in many years. Naturally, he has ruffled feathers with the way he plays, the way he conducts himself and the way he celebrates. No human being that has ever changed the world in sports or anywhere else didn't annoy people along the way. There shouldn't be any surprise that some in the media are bristled by what Newton does, as this is a trend in sports writing and sports commentary that has existed since the whole practice began. In today's era of "PC" being the buzzword of choice and messages being more tightly controlled than ever, an athlete going off-script isn't just rare, it's an endangered species. He should be celebrated for being colorful and different.

Cam Newton in some circles is celebrated for dabbing, his dancing, his joy in playing a game that is becoming increasingly joyless, but in others is blamed for most of society's ills. If Cam Newton is a great winner, it's not a stretch to assume he's probably not a great loser. This was a criticism thrown at him early in his career when his Panthers were not very good, and in many ways he's grown immensely over the past few seasons when Carolina has tasted success.

But him at his most raw, most emotional and most uncensored probably would look like exactly like what he showed at the post game scrum. But wouldn't most of us act emotionally after an equivalent moment in our lives? If any of us were asked why we didn't get the job we so craved and gave up so much to try to get, would we react thoughtfully and rationally? Certainly not. His natural reaction is to be disappointed and on an adrenaline crash, and that is a better glimpse into his thoughts than the recycled platitudes most athletes give even after crushing disappointment. "This will motivate me, we worked hard and couldn't come up with enough plays," etc., etc., are boring, banal statements that come from human beings that have been morphed into robots. Cam gave the media something different. He can't put a lens to what happened, only those who are charged with interpreting that can. And speaking of the media...

While many in the media are acting arrogant and entitled, they aren't doing anything all that different from the athlete they are lambasting. After a game, many of these writers already have published a raw game story without any quotes, because that's their job. Then, they are given anywhere from 45 minutes to 90 minutes to write a beefed up version of that gamer with quotes, 1,000 words, expert prose and analysis while having to sit at a postgame scrum more gigantic than any they'll see all year. They are stressed, fueled by adrenaline and less than adequate press box grub and therefore will react emotionally and minus some of their cunning that they usually have. Interviewing is a difficult skill to perfect anyway, and then boiling it down to press conferences where little is gleaned regardless makes the entire situation a mess, and it is somewhat surprising that these situations don't happen more often. Most writers have pre-written skeletons of stories that they take with them into the locker room, and when there's no meat to put on those bones, they react with the same raw emotion that Cam Newton did. They're stressed, and so is he. That's a bad combination.

Compounding this mess is this was a Super Bowl that can be summed up in one word: "meh". The game was meh, unless you absolutely love defense, the commercials were meh, the halftime show was meh, everything was blase. That doesn't mean there isn't a shortage of stories to write of course, but with so many voices in the pack, it's hard to stand out. So when the game's most compelling character plays poorly and then can't explain why, this reaction and the reaction to the reaction aren't surprising in the slightest. Should athletes be forced to speak to the media after the game? It would be tough for everyone involved to do their job if they didn't, but giving the same truisms and canned responses heard after every single sporting event ever contested makes life banal and repetitive. It's no wonder that some sportswriters become the hardened, out of touch dinosaurs they can often be portrayed as.

Will Cam Newton eventually regret walking out of that presser? Yes. He's 26 years old, acted emotionally and upon further examination will probably regret that. Doesn't everybody do something reckless in their youth that they look back upon with regret? You're probably not human if you don't. He just has a far larger microscope than almost every 20 something who makes a mistake, and for doing the right thing he doesn't get nearly the credit his peers will. Such is the paradox of the Court of Public Opinion, where it is nearly impossible to win. And it's not like writing a Cam Newton story needs Cam Newton to talk in it to be written or compelling. Journalists are so good at finding other people to talk about any subject, often times they don't even need the subject. It's the Super Bowl... everyone is talking!

Could Cam have acted better here? Of course, but expecting him to is holding him to a standard that's impossible to meet. Could the media ask better questions? Sure, but the situation makes it impossible to do that too. Will Cam Newton regret this and use it as motivation for next season? You bet. He's already overcome transgressions far bigger than walking out of a postgame scrum, so even one in a Super Bowl should be a walk in the park.

Nothing that happened last night is new, or different for sportswriters who should have by this point seen it all, or enough to make them surer in their judgments. Cam's done this exact press conference in front of five reporters, 55 reporters and 555 reporters, so this shouldn't be new to him either. This turned out to be a situation where everyone reacted irrationally, and its result is what we see today. The reaction is probably worse if Cam says something out of raw emotion instead of walking out, too. He wasn't even asked why he didn't dive after his fourth quarter fumble, and in hindsight that may not be a bad thing.

Cam Newton was a broken man last night, physically and emotionally. Time will heal both sets of wounds, and time will also cure the media's ills from last night. There's merit to those who believe the media holds Newton to an unfair standard, and merit to the idea that Newton made a mistake. In this black and white era, the grey area is often where the truth lies.

Thankfully, American society offers most everyone a second chance. Von Miller violated an NFL rule on PED's and cheated his way around it, and yet is being championed as one of the best defensive players of his era after winning MVP. Cam Newton can surely be forgiven for this "transgression", as will the media, who have far bigger ills than criticizing a man for giving three minutes of his time after one of the most crushing moments of his life.

Both the media and Cam Newton have made bigger mistakes than they both did last night. It would be wise to shed light on that too, even though the lights of the Super Bowl shine brighter than all of the others.

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