Highbrow Sports — September 27, 2012 2:44 pm

Stephen A. Smith is Uncomfortable

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Stephen A. Smith is uncomfortable, and I’m not sure why.

The Charlotte Observer recently published an editorial cartoon depicting Carolina Panthers Quarterback Cam Newton– who has recently been criticized for pouting on the sidelines– wearing a Hello Kitty t-shirt. The cartoon plays off of Newton’s signature celebration, where he mimes Clark Kent ripping open his shirt to reveal the Superman “S.” The cartoon doesn’t strike me as particularly funny, but I (at least think I) get the point. It’s making fun of Newton for being a bit of a baby, and implying that if you present yourself as a team leading “Superman” when things are going well, you should show some composure when things are going poorly.

Stephen A. Smith seems even more emotional than usual, and certainly more serious. He repeatedly states that the cartoon made him “uncomfortable,” and implies that there is some element of racism here. He also makes a heartfelt statement asserting that only African Americans are qualified to determine if something is racist towards an African American, and that white people don’t get to tell black people how to feel.

I’m white, and I won’t tell Smith– or anyone else– how to feel. But I have to admit, I really don’t understand the basis for his discomfort here.

It’s possible that I’m missing something (let me know in the comments). There are no real stereotypes in play here to my knowledge. NFL Quarterbacks are mercilessly criticized all the time. Jay Cutler is consistently mocked for being the most disinterested-looking athlete ever. Tom Brady is deemed a pretty boy. The list goes on.

I hesitate to draw any sweeping conclusions from Smith’s reaction, but I will say that I think it embodies a potentially dangerous mindset. Most NFL fans see Cam Newton as a Quarterback. Smith clearly sees him as a Black Quarterback. Newton’s race is important to who he is as an individual, and I’m in no way advocating for colorblindness or silence on issues of race in sports. But this eagerness to jump to racial controversy where it doesn’t appear at all obvious seems unhealthy. Newton, notwithstanding cartoons to the contrary, is a tough guy. He can take criticism just like any white QB. Smith is welcome to feel uncomfortable if he likes, but he’s not helping anyone by saying so.

  • http://twitter.com/ChrisTaylor956 Chris Taylor

    Let me begin by saying that I am so happy to see sports discussions coming into Harvard. As an alum, it makes me very happy to see the HPR is continuing in new directions.

    Now onto the issue at hand. You may not be aware, but the NFL has had a history with the black quarterback. The black men been, until recently, deemed incapable of playing the role of quarterback. If you look at South Carolina college football, their coach Steve Spurrier refuses to to play a black man as a quarterback because he does not feel they are intelligent enough to play it. This has been underscored by the Wonderlic test, poor performance by black quarterbacks in the past, and natural magnifying glass that exists on the quarterback position. As stated in your article, the quarterback is an extremely scrutinized position.

    Now onto the facts of Cam Newton and why Stephen A. Smith is uncomfortable with it. This is not an example of Stephen A. Smith simply getting defensive of black quarterbacks, though many will assume so. Stephen A. Smith has been very vocal in challenging black athletes, in particular black quarterbacks, to be more than what they are. If you Youtube “Stephen A. Smith Jamarcus Russell,” you will find Stephen A. Smith calling him Mr. Jabba the Hutt for being lazy and a scrub.

    The issue at play here is not simply the commentary, but the timing and manner of the commentary. Cam Newton just came off of a NFL record setting season in his rookie year and is 7-12 in his career thus far. For the city of Charlotte that is destitute of anything sports-wise (God help Michael Jordan and the Bobcats), Cam Newton is the only shining hope for all sports fans in the region. The fact that the editorial board (not the sports page) ran this cartoon is disrespectful of what Cam Newton has done for the team, franchise, and the city of Charlotte.

    When you combine all of the aforementioned statements with the region of the country this is (the South), it will make you uncomfortable because it is too reminiscent of the racially motivated critiques that occur toward black athletes. For those who believe that this is a black issue or an overreaction by a black man, I would urge you to listen to Skip Bayless’ response which agreed with Stephen A. Smith. In fact, Skip Bayless argued that had Cam Newton been a white quarterback, Cam Newton would never have been lampooned the way he was.

  • Paul Schied

    Hey Chris. Thanks for reading.

    I’m definitely aware of professional football’s racist past at
    the quarterback position. I think that, having only personally witnessed the
    past few decades of NFL history (when plenty of black quarterbacks, and
    coaches, have been given the ball and succeeded) I take a more optimistic view
    of the NFL’s present and future. Put simply, I do not think that any NFL team
    would hesitate to play a black quarterback because of racial stereotypes. That
    doesn’t mean that players in today’s NFL can’t be the targets of racism, but I
    just don’t think the NFL’s history at the position is especially relevant
    here. Moreover, this cartoon is not portraying Newton as stupid– the most
    prevalent and damaging stereotype against black quarterbacks. It is clearly in
    reference to specific actions of his that very easily could have garnered the
    same negative response had they been taken by a white quarterback (especially
    if that white quarterback was as normally gregarious as Newton is).

    Perhaps because I’m a Bears fan and so am most familiar with
    the hyper-critical media of a major sports market, I’m not at all persuaded
    that athletes are typically granted deference after they’ve had a good year.
    Yes, Cam Newton has been great for the Panthers. That doesn’t mean that
    Carolina fans or media must refrain from criticizing him (which, by the way, he
    happened to deserve in this instance). You could argue that in general we
    shouldn’t be so quick to criticize athletes, but the fact of the matter is: it
    happens. We live in a “what have you done for me lately” sports world. I also
    fail to see why it is important that the editorial board published this cartoon
    and not the sports section. Editorial cartoons cover a wide variety of issues,
    including sports. Why does the distinction matter?

    I’ve never lived in the South, so I can’t speak with authority
    on how that element plays in here, but it does strike me as somewhat perverse
    to assume the worst about a newspaper because of where it is located (just as
    it would seem perverse to, say, assume the worst about the intellect of a
    quarterback because of the color of his skin).

    Towards Skip Bayless’s opinion: that’s fine and good, and he’s
    entitled to his opinion, but I try not to make a habit of thinking something is
    true just because Skip Bayless said it.

  • Rickster83

    What is the “racist” image here? Also, crying racism every time you don’t like something lessens the effect of true racism because people stop listening. Stephen A is getting that rep.

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