Don't confuse criticism for racism

BY Jason Whitlock • September 28, 2012

Here we go. The crippling of Cam has begun. As I feared before he was drafted, we’re going to bathe Cam Newton in the same racial pool of denial that drowned Vince Young, incarcerated Michael Vick and might one day undermine RG3.

Three weeks into his sophomore season and at the first sight of mild criticism, a well-intentioned voice sounded the racial alarms for the reigning NFL rookie of the year. A clever, appropriate and harmless cartoon in the Charlotte Observer is being characterized as the first step toward angry white southerners burning jerseys in Cam Newton’s front yard.

In what I suspect will be an occasional ploy to distance himself from the stench of working alongside Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith, the ESPN yapper, a man I consider a respected peer and friend, played the race card in defense of Cam Newton. Well, to be fair, Smith played the “uncomfortable card” on Thursday’s version of “First Fake,” the TV show he co-hosts with Bayless.

“It reeks of something a little bit extra than football,” Smith said of the cartoon that depicts Newton revealing a Hello Kitty cat rather than a Superman S on his chest. “I’m not saying racism. It makes me uncomfortable.”

Oh, Smith said racism, and he relied on geography to do it. He referenced the newspaper’s southern location in making his point. Smith went to college in North Carolina. In the interest of transparency, I should mention that the fine folks at the Charlotte Observer gave me my first full-time job in newspapers, and a bunch of southern white journalists groomed a football meathead (me) into a promising young journalist in the early 1990s. I LOVE the Charlotte Observer. That is not written to suggest the Observer is some utopian place free of biases. It is not. It’s written to give you additional background to judge this column.

Smith opened his comments by saying only African-Americans can determine what is racist toward African-Americans the same as only Jews can define what is anti-Semitic.

That logic sounds good but doesn’t pass the common sense test. It’s the kind of logic that fuels unfairness. It’s the kind of logic that baits people to live inside a delusional bubble of their own making.

The truth is, fair-minded, informed people with a touch of backbone -- regardless of color -- can easily identify racism and act against it. The world’s history is filled with examples of people -- of all colors -- doing just that. To be fair, the world’s history is also filled with trillions of examples of mindless, cowardly sheep staring directly at unfairness and pretending it’s not there.

I’m not a sheep. I have no problem identifying and speaking against unfairness. I enjoy it. It’s my passion.

There isn’t one thing remotely unfair about the editorial cartoon the Charlotte Observer ran that lampooned Cam Newton. Not one thing. It’s certainly not racist. Cam Newton is a multi-millionaire with one of the three highest-profile jobs in North Carolina. Coach K and Roy Williams hold the other two. High-profile millionaires get lampooned. High-profile millionaires who showboat and label themselves Superman definitely get lampooned and mocked.

What’s troubling about Smith’s comments is that an enthusiastic choir heard them as gospel. There’s a significant segment of the black sports community that loves to dismiss all criticism of black athletes as racism. Before Cam Newton was drafted in 2011, Nolan Nawrocki of Pro Football Weekly wrote a scathing scouting report that questioned Newton’s demeanor, personality, leadership and attitude. Warren Moon, Newton’s mentor, called the scouting report racist. Smith connected Nawrocki’s scouting report to the Observer’s cartoon. Smith read excerpts of Nawrocki’s report on Thursday.

“Does not command respect from teammates and always will struggle to win a locker room,” Nawrocki wrote of Newton.

Hmm. It was funny to hear Smith read this passage in light of Newton’s teammate, Steve Smith, criticizing Newton this week for poor sideline demeanor and a lack of leadership. Steve Smith, who is black, did far more damage to Newton’s reputation than the Observer’s harmless cartoon. Steve Smith, who is black, legitimized Nawrocki’s scouting report.

Years ago, in the months before Vince Young was a first-round pick of the Tennessee Titans, I wrote a column for explaining why Young was headed toward professional failure.

I’m black. As a child, I fell in love with the Los Angeles Rams because James Harris was the team’s quarterback. I believe Doug Williams belongs in the Hall of Fame. I loved Donovan McNabb when he was with the Eagles. I’ve had a lifelong love affair with black quarterbacks.

When I pointed out the obvious flaws in Vince Young’s approach to his NFL career, I was called an Uncle Tom and a sellout by black sports fans. During Michael Vick’s time as an Atlanta QB, I wrote several columns blasting him for spending more time playing video games than preparing for actual games. I was called an Uncle Tom and a sellout by black sports fans for pointing out the obvious flaws in Vick’s approach to his NFL career.

There are obvious flaws in Cam Newton’s approach. Smith, who is black, pointed out one. Nawrocki pointed out a few. The Charlotte Observer cartoon basically told Newton to scrap the Superman routine if he’s going to drape a towel over his head and sulk when things go poorly. Superman checks into a phone booth, puts on a cape and saves the world when things go poorly.

Whining about racism when there clearly is none would make Superman very uncomfortable. Cam Newton has all the tools necessary to be a QB Superman. The race card is his kryptonite.