Doug Flutie was a short quarterback. Colin Kaepernick is a skinny quarterback. Dan McGwire was a tall quarterback. Jared Lorenzen is a fat quarterback.
It’s beyond me how anyone blessed with the gift of vision doesn’t notice those physical distinctions, claiming to be height-blind or weight-blind. Are they hair-blind, too, oblivious to the long-flowing locks of Richard Sherman and Clay Matthews?
Of course not.
Yet, some folks insist we should ignore the obvious when it comes to, say, Cam Newton, or racial minorities in general. We’re supposed to be colorblind, acting as if black and brown skin isn’t discernible from lighter hues.
If you think that viewpoint is ideal, or even realistic, you’re deluding yourself.
The problem isn’t recognizing that Newton – gasp! – is a black quarterback. It’s the assumptions, preconceptions, biases and stereotypes that can follow the acknowledgment.
People don’t face nearly as many subliminal judgments based on height or weight compared to skin. Instantaneous assessments based on the latter have been seared into our nation’s consciousness since before we became a nation. Most of us are unaware of the implicit pre-judging that occurs in our minds and subtly shapes our thought process.
Newton’s color is irrelevant from the moment the ball is snapped until the whistle blows. Sure, we can ascribe racial traits to his style of play but that’s intellectually lazy, as if John Elway wasn’t a precursor to Newton like Steve Young preceded Michael Vick.
It’s everything else about Newton that fans the flames of melanin-based animosity: the exuberance, the dancing, the clothes, the out-sized personality. That what gets outright racists riled up and can stir subconscious negativity in good-hearted, well-intentioned folks as well.
But what happens after the whistle really doesn’t matter. It was irrelevant during his MVP-caliber season and it will be irrelevant in the Super Bowl.
“The average NFL play is only run from four to six seconds,” Newton told reporters Tuesday, when asked about his freedom to express personality. “In that four to six seconds you can pretty much be who you are, or listen to coaching and make sure you play out the exact things that you’ve been coached to do. Everything after that is just kind of fluff.”
That fluff can be life-and-death dangerous outside of football, which is why we shouldn’t shy from talking about race through the prism of sports. Though it’s amazing we’re still having “black quarterback” discussions 28 years after Doug Williams’ MVP performance in Super Bowl 21, the conversation is worthwhile if it helps the nation deal with its nagging problem that persists to this day.
Researchers over the last few decades have demonstrated the pervasive power of subliminal thinking, where the mere flash of a black man’s face sparks fears of the worst. Ambiguous behavior is viewed as aggression. Neutral postures are seen as threatening. In experiments using video games, people of all races, ages and attitudes fired at an unarmed black man quicker than a white man carrying a gun. Unarmed blacks were more likely to be shot than unarmed whites.
“Research shows that people associate ‘blackness’ with ‘threat’ in study after study,” Stanford professor Jennifer Eberhardt told The Los Angeles Times. “It’s not something that is just about the police. It’s not something that is just about white people. It’s a function of how we’re socialized.”
What does that have to do with Newton? Everything and nothing. But notice how reactions to him largely differ with reactions to other over-the-top, “I-gotta-be-me” QBs such as Aaron Rodgers, Joe Namath, Brett Favre, Jim McMahon and the late Ken Stabler. Newton is the first black quarterback who refuses to play sports’ most-sanctified position as if he’s running for Congress.
He likely confused some folks when he mentioned race’s role in others’ perceptions last week – saying he “might scare some people” as a black quarterback – but declined to discuss the subject Tuesday. “I think we limit ourselves when we just label ourselves just black, this, that and the third,” he said. “I wanted to bring awareness because of that, but yet I don’t think I should be labeled just a black quarterback, because it’s bigger things in this sport that need to be accomplished.”
Bigger things in sport and bigger things in every walk of life.
You don’t need a good reason to dislike someone. But you should know what it is nonetheless. Maybe you think the person is too showy or too arrogant. You might feel he’s too playful or too demonstrative. Plenty of my generation’s members hold such thoughts about today’s youngsters.
Or perhaps you have something against short or tall people, heavy or thin people, bald or long-haired people. It happens. Same is true for black or tan people. The physical distinctions are real, whether or not you acknowledge them.
The key is refraining from judgments based on those distinctions.
And recognizing that conscious efforts are required to defeat the subconscious mind.