Two cannons of confetti rained on American sports when the final gun concluded Super Bowl 50 last Sunday. The first was literal, the meaningless strips of colored paper celebrating Von Miller, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. The second, which came later in the form of the weeklong narratives surrounding Cam Newton's postgame news conference, Peyton Manning's last-stand triumph and allegations of sexual assault, was metaphorical, resembling pieces of a jigsaw puzzle tossed high, disparate but interconnected, and this confetti is not harmless.
The pieces are scattered on the floor. In between each is noise -- angry, perplexed, frustrating, resigned, aggrieved noise. For a week, Newton's sour news conference has received the treatment of the major news event of the day, bigger than Miller, bigger than the Broncos, even though Newton never once raised his voice and did not verbally attack the assembled press -- in a time when Bill Belichick and Gregg Popovich unprofessionally make daily sport out of belittling professional journalists and it's laughed off as curmudgeonly genius.
In a time of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Johnny Manziel and Baylor University, Newton being upset that he lost a football game has received far more attention than Manning's involvement in being named in a lawsuit against the University of Tennessee alleging the university has fostered a hostile work environment for women. The lawsuit alleges that Manning -- already hounded by HGH allegations this summer -- placed his naked genitals on the face of a female athletic trainer in 1996 while she was examining him for an injury. Manning has denied that he assaulted the trainer, saying instead that he was "mooning" a teammate. And in spite of his inclusion in the lawsuit, the mainstream power machine -- the networks, the NFL itself, the media -- is reluctant or outright unwilling to add Manning to a list that in the past it has been so unworried about naming.
The world is filled with false equivalents, but without discussion of all of the pieces, without journalism actually doing its job and connecting them, the public is left to its own devices to explain the noise between the pieces. Right now it concludes conspiracy: It concludes the football machine has created Manning as the untouchable, corporate golden child whose legacy as a role model will be destroyed by covering the allegations. Then, in an era of concussion concerns, the corporate dollars and public goodwill he generates as the humble face of ability and class (something the anti-Dabbers believe Newton lacked and for which he deserves eternal punishment), well, that will disappear, too. Thus, the recourse is more conspiracy: to bury the story, to let Manning walk.
In the black community, the public has concluded the conspiracy is, yes, that the price of protecting Manning is sacrificing Newton: Because the airwaves won't cover one, it must be filled by castigating the other. In New England, still wounded and enraged by Deflategate, it concludes the NFL will go after the Patriots, that the league was willing to sacrifice Tom Brady. It has concluded the NFL will go after everyone and anyone but Peyton Manning, who has created a narrative of football royalty -- born a prince of a football family, embedded with NFL business partners and rumored as potential Tennessee Titans owner someday. It concludes that the NFL machine will not only avoid investigating him, but it also will trip over itself to protect him. And thus, Manning is insulated from sexual assault and PED allegations and anything else that would diminish his currency, and by extension, theirs.
To women, the conclusion of conspiracy is that a professional such as Dr. Jamie Naughright, the woman who says Manning sat on her face two decades ago, does not matter, either to the runaway college money machine or to the NFL, if the cost is holding Peyton Manning accountable and risking the narrative of wholesomeness he represents. Naughright and women like her have for decades been sacrificed not only by the league but by the media outlets that decide whose stories get told and whose don't.
Challenging Manning required confronting the entire monument of his enormous privilege, from his being the face of the first family of the NFL to challenging one of the most powerful college conferences, the SEC, to the task of revisiting the uncomfortable beliefs of some that maybe women don't belong in the locker room after all.
This cannot be avoided, either.
The truth is that in many ways, all are correct, and like with all conspiracies, everyone has to take their piece of it. That racially, the filter of professional sports is this: Black players, who make up the majority (or in baseball, where the near majority is Latino-African American), are filtered through a predominately white season-ticket base and predominately white talk radio-broadcast media machine, and the result is distortion. Maybe the coverage of Newton is payback for an athlete who dared defenses all season to take him down and finally received his comeuppance. Maybe it's that special alchemy of admiration and hatred fans can have for black athletes. There were people who wanted to see Ali get his ass kicked, others who wanted to see him get his black ass kicked.
Newton, a week after the Super Bowl in a media that supposedly moves faster than a bullet train, is still the topic the machine seems to want to discuss in all of its paternalistic racial codes of how much Cam will learn from this and whether Cam showed enough contrition. This all occurs while a pending lawsuit discusses Peyton Manning -- representative of the Nationwide jingle, mediocre pizza and, ostensibly, NFL family values -- accused of placing his genitals on the face of a woman as part of a larger action regarding the culture at the University of Tennessee.
If a verdict had to be announced today, it almost certainly would conclude that the answer is no, the public, teams, leagues and media do not want to connect these pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. These pieces are not just important individually but explain the reaction to why Peyton Manning is getting a free pass or why Brady can visibly swear on television with no repercussion to his standing; why Brett Favre could race down the sideline after scoring a touchdown with his helmet off and somehow have it not be taunting the other team -- and why a week after the Super Bowl, when game has been won and the Disney floats are back in the garage, Cam Newton is still, as they say today, trending.
Nor, it must be said, have media outlets showed much courage in confronting other truths: That while the Naughright deposition against Manning was just that, a one-sided document explaining her view of what occurred that day in 1996, media routinely carry full news cycles for weeks on often one-sided documents that explain one viewpoint of what occurred in a given incident, with often devastating consequences for people and their reputations. They are called police reports.
Every day, whether it is too much Newton or too little Manning, the pieces of confetti fall from the sky. They land on the street, each separated by noise but waiting to be connected. The question is whether the public, the leagues, the fans and the media have the courage to confront and fit the pieces together, and whether we can handle what the finished puzzle says about all of us.