By Jason Keidel
The problem with any sport, like any big business, is the swollen gray areas between the lines, between the rules. There’s not enough fine print to regulate everything.
That’s where Cam Newton dwells today. Just look at the way he was treated — or mistreated — last night.
For the sake of brevity and levity, we can now call him Shaq Newton. Shaquille O’Neal was the most dominant big man west of Wilt Chamberlain. Equal parts center and celebrity, he was the archetype of the big man with a savage game and soft heart. So there are the obvious, natural similarities in size and strength. And now we find that Cam, like Shaq, is getting both sides of that double-edged sword.
Cam Newton was clobbered last night. And we’re not talking about the scoreboard, where the Broncos slipped by the Panthers thanks to a missed FG in the last minute. Newton was battered for four quarters, a redux of Super Bowl 50, peeling himself off the turf too many times to count.
Newton, like O’Neal, is not getting the calls. Like O’Neal, Newton is too big and too good for his own good. Like Shaq — who rarely got fouls called because there was an implicit belief that he was too big and strong to be truly fouled — Newton is paying for his greatness.
And, frankly, he has to expect and accept some of it. Reggie White, arguably the best defensive end ever to play football, hurled 300-pound linemen like dolls across the field. So those linemen had to rely on every tactic in the book, legal or otherwise. They scratched, poked, punched and held White. They jumped him, gang tackled him, literally yanked him to the ground.
But the refs rarely called it, because Reggie White was too good for his own good. If that weren’t enough, this great player was an even better person. In the most violent and vulgar team sport in human history, White didn’t even swear. All of that worked against him.
You won’t hear a national chorus in Cam Newton’s defense. We all pointed to the league-wide hypocrisy of the NBA, lamented the “Hack-a-Shaq” game plan. Unlike Cam, Shaq was not polarizing or controversial. Shaq managed to have fun without offending us.
So why won’t we implore the NFL to address the way it regards or regulates Cam Newton?
Had Peyton Manning been similarly smashed last night, the refs would have needed Tommy John surgery from flipping the flag so frequently. Likewise, Tom Brady would have had a police escort after the first hit.
It’s no secret that Cam has ruffled a few feathers. It’s not confidential that his dabbing and other spastic gridiron dances have chafed his foes and critics. Newton’s antics have spawned an army of detractors.
It’s silly, really. Newton has kept his childishness to the turf. He has no criminal reputation, rap sheet or entourage. In a very real sense, he’s a model NFL citizen. His greatest crime is bad dancing and handing the pigskin to screaming kids. He gives the league perfect PR photo ops every Sunday. Yet it’s hard to think of anyone more vilified.
In a league that has employed Aaron Hernandez, Ray Rice, Rae Carruth and Greg Hardy, Newton is a virtual saint. He’s a young man playing a kid’s game and enjoying the heck out of it. As far as sins go, Newton’s are innocuous.
Sure, we were all irked by his post-game pout following Super Bowl 50. It was bad optics, and in direct contradiction to his public, fun-first coda. The Denver Broncos literally slapped the smile right from his face.
So what? He shouldn’t pay for his poor sportsmanship now. And he surely shouldn’t pay for it with his health. His skill shouldn’t cost him his skull.
Players literally launched themselves, head-first, into Newton last night. And that’s unacceptable.
Newton is fighting for a spot he’s already earned — a perch among top rungs of the sport. When discussing the top-10 quarterbacks in the NFL, it would be criminal to omit Newton. Yet he rarely gets the benefit of the doubt.
Unless Newton’s head hangs from the base of his neck, refs will assume he was tackled legally. You’ll know the calls they missed when the league announces the list of fines assessed to Denver’s defenders. It will likely start with LB Brandon Marshall, who hammered Newton right in the head, dome-to-dome violence. The contact sounded like Giancarlo Stanton cracking a baseball 450 feet.
But unlike the smaller NBA players who hanged from Shaq’s arms like tree limbs, there is a perilous impact to these hits. Indeed, it doesn’t take a knockout, a writhing Newton rolling around the sideline, for these hits to hurt. It’s all the sub-concussive hits that add up and make these men forget their names and wives and lives by the time they turn 50.
There is, of course, a delicate balance between protecting and nursing the quarterback. Twenty years ago, defenders bludgeoned the QB with impunity. The league’s allergic reaction was so swift and slanted that now it feels like the QB plays with the red jersey used in training camp.
But there were at least three hits last night that were almost felonious. It offended even our old-world sensibilities.
Young players have to earn their place on the totem pole, and even earn a few flags. But the NFL MVP should not have to worry about his health on every play simply because it takes two players to tackle him. The NFL has to find a balance between pampering and protection. And it starts with Cam Newton.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.