Mythmaking, Race and Super Bowl 50.

Originally published on

American sports have a grandiose knack for storytelling. But no one is able to infuse athletics with such Shakespearian flair as the National Football League. With its players a mere trident away from Roman gladiators – the originators of inflicting bodily harm upon others for the sake of public entertainment – the game of football is the quintessential vehicle for modern myth making. Add to that a relatively long off-season, and sportswriters and TV pundits are left with an abundance of time and a whole lot of pages and screens to fill for frenzied fans. It’s self-aggrandizing, maybe even somewhat cheap, and is as such a microcosm for the misguided mythmaking that is rampant in American society as a whole.

Without a doubt, this upcoming Super Bowl’s homerun story has been Peyton Manning’s (presumably) last hurrah. Months away from turning 40, Manning has been a quarterback on football’s largest stage since 1998. As a future Hall of Famer, he holds multiple all-time records for passing yards, touchdowns, and games won. And the media won’t give it a rest. After defeating long time nemesis Tom Brady and his Patriots in the playoffs, the predominant media story has been of Manning as the old gunslinger strapping on his boots one last time and walking away riding off into the sunset with his second and last Super Bowl ring in hand. The visual promotes an archetypal American story in the vein of “The Searchers” or ‘Unforgiven”: Good ole Peyton, taking one more stand to find either glory or possible decapitation by a Kawann Short tackle. It is a beautiful, touching storyline. It also makes no sense.

The problem with this narrative is simple. Peyton Manning has not been playing very well this season. “Not very well” is a euphemism – granted he was injured for a while, but in the 10 regular season games he played he only threw for 9 touchdowns and got intercepted 17(!) times. Manning, the battered, old field general, was not the one that led his troops to the Super Bowl. His brutal defensive line did that for him. It’s almost safe to say the Broncos got this far despite Manning. It’s a harsh take, but a lot closer to reality than the cinematic tall tales regurgitated left and right. An almost universally liked and respected player, many – myself including – would love to see Manning end his impressive career with a victory on the biggest stage. But not even Manning himself seems to be buying into the media’s mythologizing. All season, his facial expression on the sideline has been full-on Danny-Glover in “Lethal Weapon”: “I’m too old for this shit.”

The real problem with Manning’s overwrought narrative, however, goes beyond mere sensationalism. It emerges mainly in juxtaposition to his Super Bowl opponent’s story. Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton had a career season. He threw the ball with almost inhuman laser precision. He ran for 10 touchdowns. His team was beaten only once during its entire Super Bowl campaign. He is likely to be crowned this year’s Most Valuable Player. He also dances a lot and seems to be having a good time playing the game, which is basically all people can talk about. If we’re sticking with movie references, Cam Newton is Kevin Bacon in “Footloose”.

NFL writers, commentators, and fans can be equal parts conservative and hypocritical. “Sanctity of the game” and “Honor of the Shield” are both terms used to describe the faux-military code of conduct they claim players should display. Any frivolity is seen as an affront to the respect and dignity they maintain defines the grand spectacle that is the NFL. You know, the same NFL that hardly cares about structural brain damage among (former) players, or has no qualms removing a team from their fan base just because their hometown doesn’t want to use public funds for a new stadium. But a player celebrating a touchdown by performing young America’s dance-du-jour? By god! Think of the children! One lady actually complained she had to divert her children’s attention to the cheerleaders during Newton’s victory celebration because his dancing was “too sexual”. Let that one sink in for a second. Of course I’m not the first to point out the underlying problem here. Cam Newton is a young black man, and the notion that this kind of judgment is somewhat laced with racial preconceptions keeps rearing its ugly helmet.

The discrepant storylines between Newton and Manning don’t stand alone. When Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, a well-spoken Stanford graduate, gets excited after a win and yells into a camera he is called “a thug.” When Rob Gronkowski attempts to plow an opponent through a camera after the play stops, he has a “perfectly reasonable explanation” and celebrating said act is merely “Gronk still happy, Gronk like dance”

While Payton Manning has enough time to film several Papa Johns Pizza and Nationwide Insurance commercials every month, he is also lauded for his “Rain Man”-esque commitment to The Game. According to popular sports-writing lore, he lives a hermit-like existence in a secluded room where he watches endless re-loops of game film. Cam Newton, on the other hand, is assumed to demolish opposing defenses with such ease without putting in hours and hours of hard work and game study. Manning’s season was mediocre, but he “works so hard!” Newton, arguably this seasons best in his position, “just doesn’t respect the Sacred Game of Football!” The discrepancy between the work ethic attributed to their performance is, to say the least, baffling, and it’s a legitimate question to ask if racial prejudices taint the media’s contrasting treatment of these players.

There’s still a long ways to go for America in terms of how it portrays, mythologizes, and spins the stories of its diverse population, and it obviously doesn’t stop at football. Think about the Black Lives Matter movement or the recent Oscars controversy. And as if “just” the incongruent portrayal of black people in the media weren’t enough: If Cam Newton wins this coming Sunday he will only be the third (!) black quarterback to win a Super Bowl since its inception 50 years ago. Around two-thirds of the players in the league are African American, which makes it hard to explain why so few hold the position as the undisputed leader of their team. Warren Moon, one of the most gifted quarterbacks of his generation and a black man, notoriously went undrafted in 1979. He had to fight his way into the NFL. Three decades later, he was one of Newton’s mentors on his way to becoming the draft’s first pick. If Cam Newton will be the one to hold up the Vince Lombardi trophy at Sunday’s last whistle, now that will be a story rife for mythologizing.