Commentary

Vick, Newton and our double standards

If we've learned anything about them this fall, it's that a QB's race is still a factor

Originally Published: August 31, 2011
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

The reason Touré's ESPN The Magazine piece entitled "What if Michael Vick were white?" is stirring such an emotional debate is that a lot of African-Americans just innately believe that white people's actions -- whether they are failures or successes -- are perceived differently by the mainstream.

[+] EnlargeVick
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesIt's still an inescapable reality: Some people view Michael Vick differently than white quarterbacks.

When Tim Tebow bowls over a couple of defensive players for a touchdown in a meaningless preseason game, it's considered a display of his toughness and leadership. But when Vick launches himself at Troy Polamalu after throwing a costly interception, it's considered risky and stupid.

The same goes for appearance. The Denver Nuggets' Chris "Birdman" Anderson, who is white, has so many tattoos that you can barely see his actual skin. And despite a troubled past that includes serious drug abuse, he's a fan favorite who is characterized as a free spirit. But that wasn't the way a lot of people felt about Allen Iverson, whose tattoos and diamond necklace were airbrushed out when he appeared in the NBA's publication, HOOP magazine, in 2000.

We try to pretend these double standards don't exist, hurling the phrase "race card" at one another that cheapens any kind of contextual racial discussion. But the double standards aren't going away anytime soon.

And Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson probably knows it.

There was an understandable outcry after Richardson proclaimed on "The Charlie Rose Show" that before he made Cam Newton his franchise quarterback-in-waiting and the NFL's No. 1 overall pick this year, he asked Newton if he has any tattoos or piercings. According to Richardson, Newton told him that he does not. In the interview with Rose, Richardson said he told Newton, "Good. We want to keep it that way. We want to keep no tattoos, no piercings and I think you've got a very nice haircut."

Depending on what you've read, Richardson is either just a concerned capitalist or an outright racist. In his column addressing the flap, my good friend Dave Zirin wrote, "No word if he then checked Newton's gums" -- a pointed reference to how blacks were physically appraised by prospective owners at slave auctions.

[+] EnlargeNewton
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesSo Cam Newton doesn't have tattoos or piercings. Was that ever an issue for Jimmy Clausen?

But Richardson wasn't being a racist. He was doing Newton, who will start the Panthers' final preseason game Thursday, a favor.

Richardson has been alive for 75 years, so I'm sure he's at least somewhat aware of the double standards for black athletes, as well as for franchise quarterbacks in general.

If you've been listening to any of the discussion generated by Touré's piece on Vick, it's obvious that some people will never forgive Vick for operating and financing a dogfighting operation despite the two years he served in federal prison for the crimes.

But it's just as obvious that quite a few people have forgiven Vick.

Now, the primary reason Vick has reclaimed fans and generated another $100 million contract is that he's one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

But let's credit Vick's image overhaul for assisting in his career resurgence, too. Perhaps he's been coached by a public relations professional; but in his interviews now, Vick appears much more polished than he was in his Atlanta Falcons days. He is saying the right things and seems more thoughtful.

Whether his willingness to be a spokesperson for PETA is genuine or a well-crafted ruse, it likely factored into Nike's decision to reinvest in an endorsement contract with Vick. Pre-prison, Vick reportedly had a 10-year, $130 million contract with Nike, but the company severed ties with him after the dogfighting arrest. The new deal, signed this summer, is considered to be the first time in history that a brand of this magnitude dumped an athlete and later re-signed him.

Not that Newton has done anything as heinous as Vick -- it'll garner a big shoulder shrug from me even if it is one day revealed that he took money while a player at Auburn -- but Newton nonetheless should be taking notes on Vick's transformation and heeding Richardson's words.

It isn't clear if the Panthers owner ever asked Jimmy Clausen, the team's incumbent starter, or any other white quarterback, about having tattoos or piercings.

That's because Richardson doesn't have to.

Clausen could get "thug life" tatted on his stomach like Tupac and it would either go largely unnoticed or just be fodder for a "Saturday Night Live" skit.

But if a prominent black athlete -- especially a high-profile quarterback, the No. 1 overall pick and the de facto leader of the team -- has tattoos or piercings, it takes on an entirely different connotation.

Personally, I don't care. I'm not sure fans do, either. And no, it isn't right to judge anyone's character based on body art or piercings.

But I'm not a team owner, an advertiser, a corporate sponsor or the marketing executive who decides which athletes are worthy of endorsing a brand.

Newton's first goal is to help the Panthers win games, of course. But his next one should be to take advantage of all the opportunities that come with being the franchise guy.

[+] EnlargeJerry Richardson
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonAt the end of the day, Jerry Richardson is a businessman. He knows the value of presentation.

In asking Newton about his tattoos and piercings, Richardson wasn't subjugating him. He certainly was looking out for the best interests of his franchise, but he also was approaching Newton businessman-to-businessman. There's a reason the majority of franchise quarterbacks in the NFL carry themselves a certain way, why they try to maintain a meticulous image. Richardson supposedly told the heavily tatted Jeremy Shockey he could "do without the tattoos," but last I checked, teams weren't hinging their franchises on tight ends. More is expected of a quarterback. And more is given to a quarterback, too.

Before the NFL draft, Newton publicly expressed a desire to be bigger than just a football player.

"I see myself as an entertainer and an icon," he said.

He was criticized for those remarks, but there's nothing wrong with those goals.

Richardson already is a successful businessman. He understands that how you present yourself is as important as what you know and how you perform.

Especially if you're black.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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