There was a collective groan that overcame the sports world on Sunday night when Cam Newton walked away from his press conference following the Carolina Panthers 24-10 loss to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. The groan was split into two separate, yet equally important camps: The folks who were waiting for Newton to trip up and the folks who were sure he would not. His actions played right into the narrative that Newton, the league’s newly minted MVP, was not mature enough to be the leader of the best team in the NFL.
Every move that Cam Newton has made since leaving high school in 2007 has been examined under the lens of America’s obsessive sports media. He was kicked out of the University of Florida’s football program after allegedly stealing another student’s laptop. He endured accusations that he accepted a large sum of money to play Division I football again after leading Blinn College to a National Junior College championship. Leading up to and following the 2011 NFL Draft, Newton dealt with skeptics’ claims that he could never be a winner on Sundays – he wasn’t going to cut it as a pocket passer.
Nearly five years since that draft day, Newton was on the verge of proving his critics wrong. He still has his Heisman Trophy, the one that so many predicted would be taken away just as Reggie Bush’s award once was, and was crowned the league’s most valuable player the night before playing in the biggest game of his life. But after failing to guide his team to its first-ever Vince Lombardi Trophy, his critics feel justified by his actions on and off the field.
On April 18, 1998, the Indianapolis Colts ignored the hype about Ryan Leaf and made the comparatively safe Peyton Manning the top pick in that year’s NFL Draft. He wasn’t agile enough for some scouts, and many people were convinced that Leaf would end up as the better quarterback. One AFC personnel man said Manning was “too frigging serious” and concluded that picking Archie Manning’s son first overall would be akin to Cleveland’s decision to pick Mike Phipps with the third pick in the 1970 draft.
The Indianapolis Star‘s front-page story on Colts’ GM Bill Polian’s selection of Manning mentioned that the Colts had to hope that Peyton’s squeaky clean image wasn’t too good to be true. After all, it was those intangibles that made him the superior pick to Leaf. Leaf had a better arm and what most people considered to be a higher talent ceiling. To justify taking Manning, the 3-13 Colts had to be convinced he was ready to play in the NFL right away, and be convinced that Leaf was not.
Manning dealt with a tremendous amount of pressure early in his career. He threw 28 interceptions in his rookie campaign, and the Colts finished 3-13 for a second year in a row. The pressure lessened as Leaf struggled even more, starting just nine games in 1998, and throwing just two touchdowns while tossing 15 picks. The on-field criticisms wouldn’t become pronounced until he was unable topple the Belichick empire in 2004 and 2005.
Those criticisms were pronounced loudly during those years, though. His playoff struggles would lead many to consider him a soft QB who couldn’t handle big games or tough weather. They felt he needed to play in Indy’s weather-shielded home stadium to find success. Finally, in January 2007, Peyton Manning had his chance to exorcise his demons. After mounting a comeback from an 18-point deficit against the Patriots, Manning and the Colts pulled off a miraculous last-minute drive to beat New England, 38-34, winning the AFC Championship. The victory put the Colts in the Super Bowl for the first time since they had moved to Indianapolis.
Manning, who had won the league’s MVP award twice in the three seasons leading up to Super Bowl XLI, was the game’s MVP in a rain-soaked 29-17 win over the Chicago Bears that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. He hadn’t required a dome, and he hadn’t choked on the game’s biggest stage. While he told reporters that he wasn’t “into monkeys and vindication,” there was an overwhelming feeling that he had removed a sizable primate from his back.
Now, almost a decade since that Super Bowl victory, Manning has won another NFL title. He has done so amid allegations of HGH use following a career-threatening neck injury and swirling rumors of his impending retirement. The media have been on Peyton like a hawk in the last few years about retirement, but the hounding came to a head when he and his teammates started celebrating their championship. To their chagrin, Manning gave media members non-answers and thinly veiled endorsements of Budweiser. Any hope of Manning riding off into the San Fran sunset was dashed by his perceived professionalism.
Super Bowl 50 brought together the two best defenses in the National Football League. They slugged it out for 60 minutes on a mild San Francisco night, and when the game clock registered all zeroes, Peyton Manning’s Broncos had come out on top. That’s the story of the game in arguably its simplest form. But we don’t want simple. We want it all.
We yearn for the details and story-lines that weave the game into a gripping event. People mock the two-week delay between the league’s conference championships and the Super Bowl, but it builds everything to a towering crescendo that we can’t ignore. We eat up every single moment of coverage that’s thrown at us: Media Day, pregame shows, the opinions of former players. If we didn’t consume it all, they wouldn’t bother to produce it.
This year, more than any other before it, was less about what was happening on the field than off of it. Turn on ESPN or hit your favorite sports website, and you’ll see that the prominent coverage of Super Bowl 50 focuses on two people: Peyton Manning and Cam Newton. You don’t even have to dig to realize that the moments people are focusing on didn’t even happen during the game: Peyton Manning didn’t say whether he would retire, and Cam Newton walked off in the middle of his post-game presser.
Never mind the incredible play of Von Miller, who forced two fumbles in a smothering defensive effort by the Broncos, and you can’t forget about how impressive Panthers’ cornerback Josh Norman was while suffocating Denver’s passing attack. Those things are practically forgotten in the mire of microphones and audio recorders that are being shoved in the faces of two quarterbacks that are experiencing life-altering moments.
While it may have been turned up to eleven in the last few days, this trend of words meaning more than actions in sports has been occurring for years. It’s gotten downright absurd: Interviews after games have been a staple for decades, but MLB on FOX broadcasts now regularly feature Q-and-A sessions with managers during the baseball games they are managing. Most of the time, these pointless interviews feature banal questions and clichéd answers, yielding little of value for anyone involved.
But every once in a while, you get a golden nugget: The media catches someone right after they’ve just given every ounce of energy they had to their sport, and that person says or does something at least moderately surprising.
We have bizarre expectations of professional athletes. Richard Sherman’s post-game interview (above) from the Seattle Seahawks’ NFC Championship Game win over San Francisco in 2014 is probably the greatest example. Sherman had less than a minute to collect himself before Erin Andrews cheerfully came over with a microphone to ask him to recount the final play of the game. Somehow people were surprised that the guy who is paid to tackle other grown men at high speed for a living couldn’t pull it all together less than sixty seconds after doing exactly that.
Peyton Manning faced a similar situation after winning the second Super Bowl of his career on Sunday. Immediately following the final snap, he was bombarded with reporters and cameramen. He gave his obligatory interview to CBS, where he was asked whether he would ever again play the game he has loved for his entire life. Because, you know, who has time to celebrate being a champion when millions of strangers want to know what’s next for the guy? His answer was predictably circular and cliché-ridden, avoiding any commitment to his plans for the future. It was the carefully crafted, professional answer we all feared: An overwrought “no comment.”
Cam Newton, on the other hand, fed right into what we want. We placed him on a literal pedestal, and he ran off of it. He got frustrated with the media over the last few weeks (probably even longer than that), and while the rumors of Chris Harris, Jr.’s comments driving Newton from the podium may be true, can we really blame him if it was truly a disinterest in speaking to the media? He just lost the biggest game of his life, and he knows the questions are going to be pointed at him. He’s dealt with detractors since day one, and he knows they’re giddy with excitement at his failure to deliver a trophy to Charlotte. We eat up that kind of drama, and the media serves it up in droves.
I wrote the first two sections of this piece (on Cam Newton and Peyton Manning’s early careers) almost entirely from prior knowledge of the two players. I say this to acknowledge that I feed right into the very machine I am here to harp against. Those stories are exciting and dramatic, and they are what keep us engrossed in sports even during the offseason. We treasure them because we get to say, “Look, those guys aren’t perfect after all!” We bring them down to our level, but it’s just for a moment.
The reason they even fall from those pedestals is that we put them there in the first place. We envision that all of our favorite athletes are perfect people that will never let us down. We imagine their lives as pristine; after all, they have that money and fame that we crave. Any time they act uncomfortable with that game or fortune, we cry, “That’s what you signed up for!”
I once aspired to play professional sports in my life, but I never dreamed of being bombarded with questions about every minute error and mistake, let alone as a requirement by my employer. And while “money can’t buy happiness” is a tired adage, it is so because it’s true. No matter how many hundred-dollar bills make up a person’s mattress, it’s hard to sleep under the stress of the American sports media. Sometimes, it’s just too much to contain all that frustration, and athletes, who are trained to be aggressive and tenacious, exhume their buried frustration in front of microphones and cameras.
It’s unfair to expect professional athletes to be professional spokespeople, and it’s worse to be shocked when they are not. I love the drama of sports, but when we are goading players into creating drama, it’s not worth it. There’s plenty of drama available within the game and the processes that go along with it, i.e. amateur drafts and free agency. We don’t need to be adding to it by trying to pry controversial responses from the lips of the distracted.