In a conversation about Cam Newton's post-Super Bowl press conference on The Radio Blast podcast, my friend Todd Lewandowski and I got to talking about the comparison between Newton and Peyton Manning. Todd's point, and it's one I've seen a lot in the past two days, is that Newton's actions looked even worse than they normally would because he stood compared to Manning. Manning has always handled the media well, in victory and defeat, and it was a stark contrast to the way Newton reacted to the loss on Sunday.
I think this is an incomplete assessment. And it's because of the issue of privilege.
For his entire football career, Peyton Manning has had a great relationship with the media. He's been praised, celebrated, even had misdeeds erased from the historical record. A lot of this has to do with Manning's success at quarterback, how he carries himself, his family connections. In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, Manning was celebrated as one of the all-time great quarterbacks. He's been in a position of privilege.
For his entire football career, Cam Newton had had a relatively poor relationship with the media. He's been criticized and questioned and had past misdeeds brought up again and again. He had his recruitment investigated by the media and the NCAA, his character questioned when he entered the NFL draft. A lot of this has to do with actions Newton's own actions, how he carries himself, the controversies in his past. In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, Newton was often questioned for his on-field behavior and attitude.
But this juxtaposition also comes from a place of privilege. There's the privilege of race - we're adults here, so we can admit that the fact that Manning is white and Newton is black plays at least some role in this, even at tacit, societal level. There's the privilege of success - Manning has had years of success at the college and pro level, while Newton hasn't had the same level of professional success. There's the pedigree of position - Manning plays quarterback in the traditional way, Newton plays it in a more modern manner. There's the privilege of pedigree - Manning comes from football royalty, Newton did not.
Whichever privilege you think it is - I think it's a combination of all of them, and others I haven't thought of - that colors how these two quarterbacks are viewed by the media as well as their relationships with the media. After a win or a loss.
This isn't meant as a defense for Newton's behavior - I'm on record saying he acted like a jerk and deserves to be called on it. But it's important to see the whole board. To view behavior without at least trying to understand the cultural forces that influence it yields an incomplete picture.
After a loss, when Peyton Manning enters the media room, he sees people he sees as partners, allies, people with whom he has a professional working relationship.
After a loss, when Cam Newton enters the media room, he sees people he sees as enemies, adversaries, people whom in his eyes have been out to destroy him.
In part, the way they deal with the media after a loss reflects this difference. And it's a difference rooted in privilege.