September 1, 2011
Recently, Jerry Richardson, a former teammate of Johnny Unitas, business owner, and the majority owner of the Carolina Panthers had a conversation with his new franchise quarterback, Cam Newton. The 75 year old Richardson asked the 22 year old, Heisman Trophy winning Newton if he had any tattoos or piercings, to which Cam promptly answered, “No sir, I don’t have any.” Richardson responded, “We want to keep it that way.” He followed with, “We want to keep it that way, no tattoos, no piercings, and I think you’ve got a very nice haircut.”
The media spun this story into something much larger than it was and transformed it into something completely different from the original intent of the owner of the Panthers. Some members of the sports media community, like Carl Dukes, a former NFL player and current sports commentator, called the comments blatantly racist. In fact, Dukes, a black man, went into slave master speak with the sounds of whips playing in the background on his radio show. He and many other people of different ethnicities were offended by the seemingly innocuous comments by the Richardson. People are outraged that Newton was subjected to this line of questioning when there were no stories of similar conversations with the former or current starting quarterback, Jake Delhomme, the grizzled veteran or the young, second year quarterback Jimmy Clausen.
Inextricably, no one in the media knows if Jerry Richardson talked to Delhomme or Clausen about tattoos or piercings before they became Carolina Panthers. But, those proposed conversations or the lack of them altogether are all a moot point anyway. Richardson did not talk to either of the other two quarterbacks because he did not have to talk to them. They would have been accepted as the leaders of the team regardless of their appearance. If Clausen pierced his ears and donned a few tattoos, he would be the rebel quarterback that might have just enough attitude to lead the young Panthers on Sundays. If Delhomme did the same thing, he would be the old warrior that was connecting with his young team. However, if Cam Newton decided to get multiple piercings and extremely visible tattoos, he would effectively alienate his teammates and the Carolina fan base. No one wants to say it, but Cam Newton is a young, black man who plays the position of quarterback. Delhomme, Clausen, and the average National Football League season-ticket holders are white men. Whether it is moral or not, whether it is deserved or assumed, Newton will be scrutinized. Quarterback is the most important position on the field and the most visible, and perception is reality for the fans. If Cam appears clean cut and refined, then he will be more readily accepted by the Carolina fans. With tattoos and piercings, he could be stereotyped as an ignorant thug regardless of his leadership ability or his physical skill set. There were exactly 6 black quarterback starters in the league last year. One is a possible Hall of Famer, but was embarrassed by his coach publicly after subpar play on the field. One is a former felon that almost won the NFL MVP. One is talented, but went crazy and lost his job. One is a model citizen, but is a mediocre talent. One is just an average NFL quarterback, and the other is a promising talent. But, none of the quarterbacks are as easy a sale as Brady or Manning, because they do not have the same appearance. Richardson is a business man and realizes that the clean-cut Cam Newton is more appealing to the people that buy his product.
Everything is not racist. Yes, Jerry Richardson is a white man and Cam Newton is a black man. Yes, it is a sad indictment of the general public that a black man may be critiqued more harshly based on his appearance. But, it is the truth in marketing. The skate-boarding, heavy metal, and hip-hop cultures do not support Richardson’s NFL franchise. If they did endorse his Carolina Panthers and pay millions of dollars to Richardson, then he might push for a team leader that adorned his body with ink and metal. The money that he makes from subcultures is minimal. The money that he makes from minorities is minimal. About 79.6% of the population of the Carolinas is white. And, only about 8% of the white people there live in poverty. Middle class and corporate America puts money in his pockets, so he caters to them. Richardson was a businessman before he owned the Carolina Panthers; he owned his own chain of fast food joints. He understands branding and marketing, because his businesses were dependent on them. He built his brand from the ground up once he left football, and it excelled because he made sound decisions about the quality of the product and the image of the brand. The Panthers have been a mediocre team for some time now, and the last “leader” of the team was a tattooed, hot-headed Steve Smith. Though Smith was the best talent on the team, and actually volunteered with some youth in the off-season, he never shook people’s perceptions of him based on his temper and his tattoos. The Carolina Panthers have hope now since they have acquired the best player in the draft in Newton, and Richardson wants his image to match people’s expectations. He is paying Newton millions of dollars to represent his team well. And, any manager, supervisor, or owner should relay their expectations to their employees, no matter their skin color.
Jerry Richardson’s questioning of and suggestions to Cam Newton were not at all racist. They were economical. He told Cam that he would be the leader of the Carolina Panthers over the next decade and expressed clearly what was expected of him. And, he had the right to do so. Jerry Richardson is not a racist. He is a realist and probably pretty good at turning a profit.