Commentary

The Mailbag: Cam Newton and 'Rocky'

Not to mention questions (and answers) about race, Tim Tebow and 'Days of Our Lives'

Originally Published: September 15, 2011
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

"Why are you such a racist?"

I'm asked that every time I write a column about race. It baffles me. I've never used a racial slur in a column. I've never advocated discriminating against anyone based on race, gender or religion. I like white people. I like brown people. I like black people.

If they existed, I'm sure I'd like green people.

But according to many of those who responded to my recent column on Cam Newton -- in which I point out that Panthers owner Jerry Richardson did Newton a favor by discouraging him from getting any tattoos or earrings -- bringing race into the Newton discussion was unwarranted and further proof that I'm obsessed with race.

Michael Morris of Little Rock, Ark., wrote: "Why do you insist on writing about racism in the NFL? Racism is alive because people keep bringing it back into the picture."

To me, it's a copout when people admit that "racism is alive" or that it still exists in some form. It reduces racism into something abstract. It becomes a mythical idea, and this distances us from pushing ourselves to think about where racism does exist, how it exists, and whether its existence impacts how we think, feel and process.

All of us have been influenced by race. It doesn't make us bad people. Our country has a long, ugly history of racial division. Anyone who assumes that the unpleasant remnants of that history aren't still present in our culture and the way we think is being wonderfully naive. Yes, it would be a tremendous relief if every time race played a role in a situation, a blinking sign would flash, "HEY, EVERYBODY, THIS IS RACISM!" But that's not the way it works, and thinking that it should work that way marginalizes the issue.

[+] EnlargeCameron Newton
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesIf race is in any way an influence in the Cam Newton-Jerry Richardson relationship, it's better to discuss it, is it not?

Besides, I don't write about race to create a stir, but rather to promote open and honest conversations. And despite what some think, I don't tackle these subjects often.

If you peruse my archive, you'll find that I've written about race only four times in the past eight months, and that includes the recent column on Newton. And I haven't written just about how black athletes are affected by race but white ones, too.

Now on to a racially charged mailbag &

Standard White Guy Caveat (I mean this sincerely): I'm sure that you, and almost all black people in this country, experience racism in one way or another, and that is either sad or infuriating depending on its scope and depth. None of my comments are intended to minimize that experience. If you're suggesting that black athletes are judged more harshly about what they're saying about themselves, then I would simply point to how Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are received. None of the criticism they get is related to body art, and they both have copious amounts of it.

Rob Lantz, Spotsylvania, Va.

You're right. Not all tatted-up black athletes are subjected to unfavorable opinions. But not everyone -- especially those who issue the paychecks and make important decisions -- is so liberal.

If appearance is truly irrelevant, why did NBA commissioner David Stern feel compelled to implement a dress code?

It's because Stern wanted the league to remain appealing to mainstream fans. Translation: He wants white America to feel comfortable watching his product.

Although I have no beef with hip-hop, a lot of NBA players emulate hip-hop culture, which some consider to be threatening. And some of those potentially threatened people purchase courtside seats or luxury boxes or want to see their company logos splattered throughout NBA arenas.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesAppearance matters in the NBA, though few seem to begrudge LeBron James his tats.

The NBA probably is stereotyped more than any other professional league. Some of the players in Stern's league have been characterized as lazy, overpaid thugs who play in a league that's just as undisciplined as the And-1 streetball tour. In 2008, ESPN The Magazine commissioned a poll that exposed some alarming racial stereotyping of NBA players. The poll showed that most fans believed the typical NBA player is less likely than his counterparts in other professional leagues to respect the fans, remain loyal to his team or even love his wife, but more likely to carry a gun, use recreational drugs and have an entourage.

No wonder Kevin Durant, who is considered by most to be squeaky-clean, recently revealed that he got his tattoos strategically placed so they couldn't be seen when he put on his jersey.

Jerry Richardson's questioning of Cam Newton's tattoos or piercing was outright racist. But you comparing Tim Tebow and Mike Vick making similar hard-nosed plays in meaningless preseason games is irrelevant and also incorrect. It is irrelevant because while both plays were a "display of toughness and leadership," it was also risky and stupid for Vick to try and make a head first tackle since he is guaranteed to be the starting quarterback on a team many consider a Super Bowl favorite. Tebow on the other hand isn't even guaranteed to be Denver's No. 2 quarterback.

Kevin McKeever, Philadelphia

First, I don't consider what Richardson did racist. He also made it clear to Jeremy Shockey, who also has a fondness for ink, that he could "do without the tattoos."

Richardson never insinuated that he wouldn't draft Newton if he had tattoos or piercings, or that Newton would somehow be in trouble if he chose to do that now. Richardson is old-school; and because Newton himself indicated that he wants to be a star off the football field, having a clean-cut image doesn't seem like too big a sacrifice.

If loathing skinny jeans makes me a racist, just call me Archie Bunker.

Anyway, as for Tebow, bowling over people is his identity. Of course, I wasn't suggesting you are a racist if you think Vick's hurling his body into Troy Polamalu after an interception in the preseason was risky. I'm aware of Vick's injury history and that he's positioned differently with the Eagles than Tebow is with the Broncos.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesThere is a difference between the physical play of Tim Tebow (a backup) and Michael Vick (a starter), though negotiating the language to describe it can be fraught with danger.

But I'm sensitive to how coded language can be. For years, I've listened as white athletes were described as if they are a cross between Chuck Norris and Captain America. Or it's been strongly suggested that the only way white athletes can survive in sports dominated by African-Americans is by being smarter.

These stereotypes denigrate both black and white athletes. Last year, superstar Saint Mary's Gaels center Omar Sanham told columnist Mike Freeman that he was sick of people underestimating his primarily white team.

"Some people still see a white team or white players and think we can't play," Samhan told Freeman. "It's offensive sometimes. It still goes on. That perception is wrong. It makes no sense. We're all good athletes. White, black, red, whatever."

As a mom who put four kids through college as a teacher and several other jobs, how can you say athletes aren't paid? Have you ever paid tuition and living expenses? If you have, then you know how much they get paid.

Patricia White, Garland, Texas

I was fortunate enough to have earned an academic scholarship that covered my tuition and fees, but comparing my situation (or your children's) to that of a college athlete isn't fitting.

According to this newly released report, the average Football Bowl Subdivision player is worth $121,000 per year and the average basketball player at that level is worth $265,000.

Key word: Average.

If one of your children invents a theorem that generates millions for the university, my guess is you won't consider a scholarship -- especially one that isn't fully guaranteed -- a fair exchange.

"Days of Our Lives" is the best soap opera of all time. And I fully understand that, by admitting I enjoy it, I'll be relinquishing any 'street cred' I have.

Shane Beam, Windsor, Vt.

The real reason your street cred is being revoked is because you aren't watching the real best soap opera of all time -- "The Young and the Restless," which has been the top-rated daytime soap for 22 years, my friend.

[+] Enlarge'The Young and the Restless'
AP Photo/Kevork DjansezianRemember when Victor had a heart attack? Now that's some serious street cred.

I proudly admit I've been watching this show for 15 years, which means I remember when Nikki was a stripper, when Victor had a heart attack in his office and Jack left him to die, when Phyllis tried to kill Paul and Christine, and when Nick left for boarding school as a preteen and returned two weeks later as a 21-year-old. Oldest soap opera trick in the book next to the good old-fashioned baby switch.

By the way, anyone know who killed Diane?

I spent two hours debating "Rocky III" versus "Rocky IV." My theory on "Rocky III" is that it's Adrian's only "stomachable" performance. Clubber Lang is better than Drago. Apollo alive is better than Apollo dead. What say you?

Bryan Nichols, Gastonia, N.C.

Adrian Balboa is one of the worst movie wives in history. When did she ever think Rocky could win? How many times did she threaten to divorce or leave him because she realized -- gasp -- fighting is dangerous?! If it were up to Adrian, Rock would have spent the rest of his life aimlessly punching dead meat. And how come, despite knowing Rocky was a functional illiterate, she never suggested he get an accountant to take care of his money?

Alex Forrest was less cold-blooded.

But I disagree that "Rocky III" is better than "Rocky IV." Clubber Lang was epic, But he's no Drago. Could Clubber emit emotion with just the sweat on his forehead? Sure, Clubber had clever lines -- "My prediction? Pain!" -- but who doesn't prefer tormented Drago screaming to the Russian faithful, "I win for me! FOR ME!" Or how, despite being beaten for 26 straight rounds, Rocky manages another epic comeback and single-handedly achieves world peace on Russian soil.

Certainly Apollo's death was sad, but I personally was uplifted because "Rocky IV" gave us two of the greatest rock montages we've ever seen: this and this.

Remember, there's no easy way out. There's no shortcut home.

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

MORE COMMENTARY

Jemele Hill | email

ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine