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Race, not football, is the major storyline of Super Bowl 50


The two-week buildup for the biggest sporting event in the United States did not focus much on Xs and Os, offenses versus defenses, or the differences between the two Super Bowl opponents. Instead the American public has been engaged in another racial debate, since the Carolina Panthers will feature a Black quarterback, Cam Newton, when they face the Denver Broncos, who feature a White quarterback, Peyton Manning.

If the Panthers win the Super Bowl this Sunday and Newton is be named the NFL’s MVP, he will be the first quarterback to do so after winning both college football’s Heisman Trophy and a nationals championship. The only other player to accomplish that feat is NFL Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen.

Newton is racking up the accolades at a historic rate, while Manning is looking to cap off one of the greatest careers that an NFL quarterback has ever had. But those storylines have taken a distant backseat to the never-ending topic of race.

Whether it’s social issues, politics, entertainment, or sports, this country cannot get past this debate.

“The minute that it comes down to an issue of a Black quarterback, you know that there is a problem,” said legendary sports sociologist Harry Edwards, Ph.D. “Nobody has referred, yet, to Peyton Manning as the White quarterback of the Denver Broncos. He’s just the quarterback.”

Historically, the quarterback position has been manned by White players. Coaches and scouts were able to keep Black athletes away from the position by questioning their intelligence.

Warren Moon is the greatest example of that. When he came out of Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, college scouts tried to convert him into a wide receiver, but he choose the University of Washington because they allowed him to stay at quarterback. After leading the school to a Rose Bowl victory, and being named PAC-8 Player of the Year in 1978, he was forced to play in Canada after college, because NFL scouts again wanted him to switch positions.

It was not until he won five consecutive Canadian Football League championships that the NFL gave him a shot, and he went on to become a NFL Hall of Fame player. But his road, as well as the road for many other Black quarterbacks, was extremely difficult merely because of the color of their skin.

“We live in a society that has deep-rooted issues of race consciousness that are really part of the cultural heritage of this country,” Edwards said. “And they’re inescapable. Attached to that are certain prescriptions in terms of what is expected. The first thing that is expected from the Black quarterback is that he can’t play the position; that he is somehow out of his place. So everything that the Black quarterback does is scrutinized, dissected, chewed over, spit out, and chewed over again to determine, if he’s smart enough; to determine is he too athletic? Does he have a pocket presence?”

Over the last 30 years, Black quarterbacks have slowly proven the doubters wrong, but Edwards does not believe that the opportunities have increased because this nation’s race relations have improved.

“We have Black quarterbacks, but not because of some sea change in terms of racial attitude or dispositions towards Black intellectual capabilities, organizational capabilities, leadership capabilities, abilities to read defenses,” Edwards said. “None of that is changed. (It’s) because of changes in terms of the demands of the game. Once the game became a game of passing, the defenses adjusted in recruiting athletes, training athletes to get to the passer. The sack artist became as big a personality as the quarterback. So, the minute that happened, it wasn’t enough to just have a pocket presence. You had to have escapabilities. ”

“The result of that was the kinds of things that the Black quarterback was criticized about—if he got a chance to play the position at all—eventually became an asset. The athleticism allowed the Black quarterback to escape (pass rushers). And so all of a sudden, at both the advanced collegiate level, and the professional level, you begin to have Black quarterbacks.”

According to Edwards , (NFL owners) felt they could not afford to pay what were typically the highest paid player on the team, when they were missing a substantial numbers of games due to injury. Consequently, the sociologist said the Black quarterback began to get a shot at the position. “But he was never really accepted. That’s why we still talk about it.”

“What changed was that issue of escapabilities,” Edwards continued. “Pocket mobility wasn’t enough. You had to have escapability. When you look at pocket mobility, with regards to (Tom) Brady two weeks ago (in the AFC Championship Game), it didn’t save him. He couldn’t get it done. What gave us the Black quarterback were pass rushers Charles Haley, Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, Kevin Greene, Chris Doleman. Much like the lion gave the antelope it’s speed.”

Today there are many more Black children playing quarterback in youth football and high school, which has had a trickle up affect. Today, there are more Black quarterbacks in college football and in the NFL than ever.  After this Sunday, the last four Super Bowls would have featured a Black quarterback, with the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson winning the big game once. But the majority of quarterbacks in the NFL are still White.

“The tip off that nothing has changed is that we’re talking about Cam Newton, ‘the Black’ quarterback,” Edwards said. “We need to get to the place where Newton, and Manning, and Brady, and Drew Brees, and Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick, and Teddy Bridgewater are just quarterbacks.”

Many people in sports media and football fans have put Newton into a box that fits most Black quarterbacks—a superior athlete who uses his legs more than his arm; an athlete who is more likely to run from pass rushers, when receivers are not open instead of making a play with his arm. On the surface, that appears to be the case, as Newton has ran the ball 132 times this season, and he impacts the game as a runner as much as he does as a passer.

But looking deeper into the numbers, 103 of Newton’s runs have been off of designed running plays, with only 29 coming off of designed passing plays. On the season, Newton has attempted 495 passes, but he has only scrambled 58 times. Research reveals that on 95 percent of the Panthers’ passing plays, Newton stayed inside the pocket, as opposed to bailing out and running, like many people believe. Based on that number, Newton is not a much different passer than Manning, Brady, or the other top passers in the league.

Newton was also better inside the pocket than out of it. He only attempted 29 passes while scrambling, and completed only nine of those passes. Only two of those completions were good for more than 20 yards. While scrambling, Newton only ran the ball 29 times this year, with a 7.7 yards per carry average. In two playoff games this year, Newton has ran the ball 21 times, all off of designed running plays.

As a passer, Newton is not much different than the typical White quarterback. However, what sets him apart is his ability to run the ball on designed running plays. There he is as effective as the top running backs in the league. That has allowed the Panthers to become the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense.

But that is not the only thing that separates Newton from the White quarterbacks. Watching the games, it’s easy to see he does not hide his Black culture, and many fans have made an issue of him celebrating after making big plays. While White quarterbacks can spike the ball like Brady, or make a reference to putting on a championship belt like Aaron Rodgers, Newton has been heavily criticized for showing a similar type of emotion, when he performs hip hop type dances after touchdowns.

“He’s in that position (quarterback), he’s successful, and then to celebrate it is like pushing the heads of those who legitimately don’t think that he belongs in that position into the manure, and then trampling it,” Edwards said. “To celebrate will rub some people in this society the wrong way.”

Some people have said that the quarterback position is different from other positions. Wide receivers and running backs celebrate all of the time, when they score touchdowns or gain first downs. Pass rushers have sack dances. Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders performed his famous high step before he even made it to the end zone. But some people make it seem as if the quarterback has to be more reserved. But when looking at White quarterbacks who also celebrate, that may not actually be the case. The problem appears to be more attached to race.

“For generations, after Jack Johnson (first Black boxing heavyweight champion of the world), the expectation of the Black athlete was that he would go and do what he does on the field, and then quietly go away and shut up, while you had White athletes who were bragging, dancing, dating out in the public,” Edwards said. “This was the mode with Joe Louis. This was the mode right up to Muhammad Ali, who stood up and said ‘I’m the greatest, I’m beautiful, nobody can beat me and you’ll have to live with it.’  And people hated him for it. That’s some of what Cam Newton is dealing with.”

The much bigger problem than a silly touchdown dance that Newton performs is that this country is still hung up on race.

“It’s this whole issue of race that America is obsessed with, can’t get away from, and at a certain level, is still unprepared to deal with in any kind of rational way,” Edwards said. “There is a visceral, almost knee-jerk reaction, to successful Black men who stand up and say, ‘yeah, I’m successful.’ If they’re like Cam, and like Ali, and also have this unmitigated brass to say that ‘I’m beautiful, and I’m big, and I’m bad, and I’m a winner.’ A lot of people in this country have a problem that. That’s what Obama’s problem is. He’s too successful, his family is too solid, and he’s not even a braggadocio. But as the president, when he shows up, he’s bragging (simply because he is in the office). But a lot of people can’t handle that. Not from a Black man. And that’s what Cam’s problem is.”

This race issue can be traced back to slavery, but according to Edwards, there is a much bigger issue that led to this problem. While Black people are no longer enslaved, the major issue still persists.

“The original sin of America was not slavery, it was White supremacy,” Edwards said. “That mandated slavery, as well as the genocide (of the) aboriginal natives, as well as segregation, as well as lynching, as well as attacks against Obama, and Cam Newton, and anybody else who is Black and has success. Slavery was just another manifestation of the original sin. The original sin was White supremacy. That continues. That moves forward.  And that is with us to this day.

“So when you look at the treatment that an African American president gets, that the African American first lady gets, that Russell Wilson gets, that Colin Kaepernick gets, that LeBron James gets, it’s due to America’s persisting original sin. Which is White supremacy.”

“What is happening with characterizations of the president is what’s happening with Cam Newton, what’s happening in the streets of American society,” Edwards continued. “In Ferguson, in Baltimore and so forth, it’s the result of White supremacy. It’s what brought about slavery. It’s what brought about the genocide against aboriginal natives. It’s what brought about the isolated Black ghettos of American society. It’s what brought about the Black quarterback issue. It’s White supremacy.”

White people are not the only ones who have been caught up in this race issue, because many Black people are rooting for the Panthers simply because of Newton, believes Edwards.

“The race consciousness, the White supremacy, it’s so pervasive that even Black folks are getting caught up in it,” Edwards said. “I talked to Black folks who don’t know a football from a soccer ball, but you ask them about the game, ‘well I hope that brother goes out there and represents.’ Well what the hell does that mean?”

In the big picture, this Super Bowl is not about race, because the bulk of the players on both teams are Black, and this is not a game between Newton and Manning. This is not Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson, or Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell. Newton and Manning will not take the field together. Unfortunately, this race debate is happening in the media and on the Internet.

“When it comes down to it, it’s going to be an issue of the best team that shows up on Sunday winning the game,” Edwards said. “This other stuff that’s going on in the race-conscious American mind distracts from the game. It’s a travesty.”