Tuesday, November 9, 2010

of Newton, conspiracy theories and "family"

I promised myself I wouldn't write any more about Cam Newton, except to discuss his performance on the field. I'm about to break that promise. I apologize in advance. I can't allow the biggest story in the state of Alabama to be ignored here.

Things I should make clear at the outset, just so my biases are all on the table: I'm an Alabama guy, graduated from there, tailgate there 8 times per year, spend most of the time on this blog talking about things going on there (one of the many reasons I attempted to stay out of this); I'm a former sportswriter and current newspaper editor, so my natural inclinations are to defend sportswriters and "the media" from the masses who tend to demonize both those professions because ... well, that's just part of our culture.
Having made those biases clear, allow me to add one more: I'm a football fan. As such, I can say with certainty that I have loved watching Cam Newton play football in 2010; he's been the most dominating player in the country, and he's done it all with a childlike enthusiasm that's struck me as 100 percent genuine. It's been enjoyable enough that I haven't even bothered to think about what the guy's probably going to do to Alabama at the end of this month (and considering our defense just made Jordan Jefferson look like an all-star, it's probably going to get ugly early).

This, of course, is what has made the past 5 days so disheartening: instead of merely appreciating the spectacle of watching the guy play football, we've instead endured the following cycle: a series of scandalous stories about Newton and what his entourage may or may not have done, followed by angry responses from local columnists and bloggers, followed by conspiracy theories tossed out left and right against Urban Meyer (note: he's denying these vehemently) and Dan Mullen (not really doing much denying or discussing of anything) and (of course) Alabama (because no good Auburn conspiracy DOESN'T include Alabama).

It is a part of the culture of being a fan that we naturally defend our own. Which is why, at first, I found the outcry from many within the Auburn base somewhat curious. Cam Newton doesn't belong to Auburn the way Bo or Cadillac did; he showed up on campus an hour ago, almost like a free agent right fielder brought in to shore up the clean-up spot.
Think for a moment what the world would look like had he chosen, say, to stay at Florida, or to enroll at Mississippi State. He'd probably be enjoying a career season for the Gators or Bulldogs; heck, he might even have them in the same spot he has Auburn right now (undefeated, planning for a BCS party in January).
And what would we (Auburn fans and 'Bama fans) say about him? Most likely we'd all think of him as a thug with a sordid past; we'd bring up the laptop thing ad nauseam; we'd poke fun at his needling parents relentlessly; and we would definitely wonder whether he was on the take from those dirty programs that wanted him around in the first place. In short, we'd treat him the way we treat an enemy.
So where's all the righteous anger coming from?

The answer: it's complicated. First, the obvious: Cam Newton is an outstanding football player, the best in the country and inarguably the reason Auburn is currently 10-0 and No. 2 in the BCS. Yes, I know Auburn has other players who have played well this fall — Onterrio McCalebb, Michael Dyer, et al — but No. 2 is the man who makes it all go. Without him, that offense changes fundamentally. Them is the facts.
Moreover, and we discussed this before, quarterback is a different position than any other in sports. We call our quarterbacks by their first names, fret about their mental states, that kind of thing. And when they succeed? We respond like proud parents. I'm not kidding: when Greg McElroy held up the MVP Trophy after last year's SEC Championship Game — a game in which he soundly outplayed the Great Tim Tebow — he looked like a little kid who had just brought home a report card full of smiley faces. Do you see? Do you see what I've brought you? Do you love me now? Do you?
Newton has done everything on the field for Auburn this fall: he's run for over 1,100 yards, averaging a ridiculous 6.5 yards per carry; he's thrown for over 1,800 yards, with completion percentage over 68 percent, a yards-per-pass average over 10 and a quarterback rating of 182.77.
But it's more than that. Partially because he's so grateful to be back on the big stage, and partially because Auburn fans tend to relish the program's image as a "family" unit, Newton's become an adopted son over the course of 10 weeks. There was a great moment at the end of the win over LSU, when Newton turned and ran to the nearest set of bleachers and just stood there, soaking in the cheers. He didn't even seem like he was showboating — just a kid who was in junior college last year, savoring the moment. 85,000 people are cheering right now ... for me. This is awesome.

So it's been a dream season, a perfect marriage between a fan base and a student-athlete. Now this string of stories has threatened to tarnish that dream, to essentially take away an incredible season and the adopted son who's made it possible.
And so they've lashed out. Vehemently. My personal favorite: someone I went to high school accused the reporters responsible for these stories of "slander" and suggested that no one believed Newton is "innocent until proven guilty." It's not that I don't understand. I think we all do.

As for the stories themselves: in the study of human communication, we discuss at length the Aristotelian concept of ethos. Essentially, in persuasion each arguer must establish his own credibility, in order to gain the trust of his audience. In essence, this is the biggest problem with the Newton thing: there appears to be a distinct lack of ethos. At every turn, every source is either anonymous, or, in the case of John Bond, telling a reporter what he says someone else told him (and by the way, that guy says he never told anybody anything of the kind). In every case, we're basically supposed to take the word of the reporter that the sources are trustworthy. It's a mess at every turn.
Even so, as someone who sort of casually studies the media, the pace of the thing has been breathtaking. In the span of less than 48 hours, we had a story, analysis of that story, then other stories in response to the first story, then analysis of those counter stories, columns, blogs, message board chatter ... and eventually, another round of stories. Rinse, lather, repeat. Before Auburn ever even took the field Saturday, most of us (OK, me) were already tired of it, only we couldn't turn away from it.

And I still am. To paraphrase Bill Simmons, I just want to watch football. Really, that's all I want to do. I just want to watch football and enjoy it, without having to worry about agents, payouts, criminal records or anything else.

I never thought I'd miss reading about the injustices of the BCS.

1 comment:

Fishinthebrook said...


Your final paragraphs sum it up. A lack of 'ethos' in journalism, and the current trend to sensationalism and one up's man ship hurt not only the professionals in the business but their credibility as reporters and writers. But marketing wise - it sells papers,TV time and media frenzy. Thanks for a great article in response to this matter.

John Feagin
Birmingham, AL