American sports have a grandiose knack for storytelling. But no one is able to infuse athletics with such Shakespearian flair as the NFL. With its players often a mere trident away from Roman gladiators – no strangers to inflicting bodily harm upon others for the sake of public entertainment – the game of football is the quintessential vehicle for modern myth-making.
Add to that a relatively long off-season — one in which sportswriters and TV pundits are left with an abundance of time and column inches to fill for frenzied fans — and it’s not surprising that the storytelling machine tends to go into overdrive. Unfortunately, the results are often cheap and self-aggrandizing, although the practice is simply a microcosm of the misguided myth-making that is rampant in American society as a whole.
Without a doubt, this upcoming Super Bowl’s homerun story has been Peyton Manning’s (presumably) last hurrah. Months away from turning 40, Manning has been a quarterback on football’s largest stage since 1998. As a future Hall of Famer, he holds multiple all-time records for passing yards, touchdowns and games won. And the media won’t give it a rest.
After defeating long-time nemesis Tom Brady and his Patriots in the playoffs, the predominant media story has been of Manning as the old gunslinger strapping on his boots one last time and walking away (or perhaps riding off) into the sunset with his second and last Super Bowl ring in hand. The visual promotes an archetypal American story in the vein of The Searchers or Unforgiven: Good ole Peyton, taking one more stand to find either glory or possible decapitation by a Kawann Short tackle. It is a beautiful, touching storyline. It also makes no sense.
The problem with this narrative is simple: Peyton Manning has not been playing very well this season. In fact, “Not very well” would be putting it mildly. Granted, he was injured for a while, but in the 10 regular season games he played he only threw for nine touchdowns and got intercepted 17(!) times. Manning, the battered, old field general, was not the one that led his troops to the Super Bowl. His brutal defensive line did that for him.
It’s almost safe to say the Broncos got this far despite Manning. It’s a harsh take, but a lot closer to reality than the cinematic tall tales regurgitated left and right in the run up to the game. As an almost universally liked and respected player, many — myself included — would love to see Manning end his impressive career with a victory on the biggest stage. But not even Manning himself seems to be buying into the media’s mythologizing. All season, his facial expression on the sideline has been full-on Danny-Glover in Lethal Weapon — “I’m too old for this shit.”
The real problem with Manning’s overwrought narrative, however, goes beyond mere sensationalism. It emerges mainly in juxtaposition to his Super Bowl opponent’s story. Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton has had a career-making season. He threw the ball with almost inhuman precision. He ran for 10 touchdowns. His team was beaten only once during its entire Super Bowl campaign. He is likely to be crowned this year’s Most Valuable Player. He also dances a lot and seems to be having a good time playing the game, which is basically all people can talk about. If we’re sticking with movie references, Cam Newton is Kevin Bacon in Footloose.
Sadly, NFL writers, commentators, and fans can often be equal parts hyper-conservative and hypocritical. “Sanctity of the game” and “Honor of the Shield” are both terms used to describe the faux-military code of conduct they claim players should adhere to. Any frivolity is seen as an affront to the notions of “respect” and “dignity” that they maintain defines the grand spectacle that is the NFL. You know, the very same NFL that hardly cares about structural brain damage among former players, or has no qualms about removing a team from their fan base just because their hometown doesn’t want to use public funds for a new stadium. But a player celebrating a touchdown by performing young America’s dance-du-jour? By god! Think of the children!
One lady actually complained she had to divert her children’s attention to the cheerleaders during Newton’s victory celebration because his dancing was “too sexual.” Let that one sink in for a second. Of course, I’m not the first person to point out the underlying problem here. Cam Newton is a young black man, and the notion that this kind of judgment is somewhat laced with racial preconceptions keeps rearing its ugly helmet.
The discrepant storylines between Newton and Manning don’t stand alone. When Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, a well-spoken Stanford graduate, gets excited after a win and yells into a camera he is called “a thug.” Yet, when Rob Gronkowski attempts to plow an opponent through a camera after the play stops, he has a “perfectly reasonable explanation” and is just “Gronk being Gronk.”
While Payton Manning evidently has enough time to film several Papa Johns Pizza and Nationwide Insurance commercials every month, he is also lauded for his Rain Man-esque commitment to the Game. According to popular sports-writing lore, he lives a hermit-like existence in a secluded room where he watches endless re-loops of game film. Cam Newton, on the other hand, is assumed to demolish opposing defenses with ease without putting in hours and hours of hard work or study.
Manning’s season was mediocre, but the media love him because he “works so hard!” Newton (arguably this season’s best talent in his position), on the other hand, “just doesn’t respect the Sacred Game of Football!” The discrepancy between the work ethic attributed to their performance is, at best, baffling, yet at its worst, deeply troubling. It’s a legitimate question to ask if racial prejudices are playing a deciding role in the media’s contrasting treatment of these players.
Clearly there’s still a long way to go for America in terms of how it portrays, mythologizes, and spins the stories of its diverse population, and it doesn’t stop at football. Think about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, or the recent Oscars controversy. And, as if the incongruent portrayal of black people in the media weren’t enough, if Cam Newton wins this coming Sunday he will only be the third (!) black quarterback to win a Super Bowl since its inception 50 years ago.
Around two-thirds of the players in the NFL are black, which makes it hard to explain why so few hold the position as the undisputed leader of their team. Warren Moon, one of the most gifted quarterbacks of his generation and a black man, notoriously went undrafted in 1979. He had to fight his way into the NFL. Three decades later, he was one of Newton’s mentors on his way to becoming the draft’s first pick.
If Cam Newton turns out to be the one who gets to hold up the Vince Lombardi trophy after Sunday’s last whistle, then that really will be a story worth mythologizing.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
- Words: Robin van der Kaa
- Main image: Opn Lttr / Fox Sports