The Super Bowl is set. The Pro Bowl is here (yay?) and the so-called worldwide leader in sports is scrambling to find ways to pack content into their 24 hour Embrace Debate lineup in what is arguably the thinnest time of year for sports. College football has ended. Professional football has fewer teams playing each week. The NBA has until June and half the league makes the playoffs, and college basketball is mostly unwatchable. There’s almost nothing worth talking about.
That is, if you don’t have a spin machine and an agenda.
It’s bad, people. It’s honestly the reason that we have not provided a whole lot of content apart from Brian who has absolutely killed his serial NFL column each week. But, that hasn’t stopped others from trying to manufacture drama to keep viewership up. I get it. At the end of the day, it’s all about numbers. So, how do you up numbers? First, you put people who are both talented at delivering the scripted talking points as personal conviction and who are pleasant enough to look at on television. I know this is revolutionary to think about, but can we really call it coincidence that Kornheiser and Wilbon disagree on nearly everything they talk about on PTI?
This all began back in late 2015. With the NFL regular season waning and the playoff picture gaining clarity, ESPN began laying the ground work for the NFL postseason. Disney’s sports network took clips of Cam Newton, the quarterback of the 1-loss Carolina Panthers, and began airing them so regularly that the intent was to saturate the market. The images alternated, in different programs and segments, between Good Guy Cam Newton, who was shown making hustle plays and giving footballs to children, and Bad Guy Cam Newton who was shown showboating and excessively celebrating. Every clip on every ESPN show was a variation of one or the other.
It was around this same time that ESPN tasked Britt McHenry as the network’s Carolina Panthers beat reporter. McHenry was shown regularly giving the insider’s angle into the Panthers’ weekly activities. McHenry is intelligent, well-spoken, and very pretty. ESPN knows its target audience, predominantly male between the ages of 18 and 49–not surprisingly, this age range is the ‘sweet spot’ for Nielsson’s ratings as well.
Now, please don’t mistake me here. I am in no way suggesting that Britt McHenry only was put in that role because she’s attractive. What I am saying is that she appeals to a wide range of people for many reasons, some of which do have to do with her appearance. She’s comfortable in front of the camera, educated, and knowledgeable about the NFL. However, ESPN’s selection of McHenry to align with the Panthers for the rest of the season had nothing to do with any of these reasons. It all boils down to one simple fact: Britt McHenry is divisive. We’ll get to that in just a second.
As Britt McHenry began settling into her new long term role, ESPN began to work on labeling Cam Newton as a polarizing player. They were showing his virtues and his sins to viewers on constant loop. ESPN lined up experts and made sure to feature Cam prominently in both the designed debate shows and the round table discussions. They made sure to diversify the opinions on Cam across gender and race of their pundits. The last thing the Mickey Mouse network could afford was to insinuate that Cam Newton was divisive because he was black.
Now, that is not due to any misplaced notion of colorblindness or nobility on ESPN’s part. The producers simply could not allow Cam Newton to become the a victim. ESPN has cashed in heavily in the past by broadly painting underperforming black quarterbacks as victims of the institutional racism of the NFL. That angle simply would not grow legs with Cam Newton, the likely NFL MVP. Additionally, ESPN didn’t want Cam to be a victim. If the network could create a false dilemma with Cam as either a shining hero or a dastardly villain, they could gain ground with those who loved him and simply loved to hate him. So, that’s what they tried to accomplish by debating whether he was an arrogant thug, or a fun-loving kid who loves his team and his fans. As with any false dilemma, the annihilation of the middle ground was required.
Before we go any further, I mentioned a moment ago that Britt McHenry is divisive, and that was why she was the one selected to cover Cam’s team. Here’s what I mean. Consider some of ESPN’s other reporters who act in this capacity–Adam Schefter, Sal Palontonio, and Lisa Salters to name a few. Do you have strong feelings about any of them? No, I didn’t expect so. Sure, some of them may annoy you, but they’re mostly neutral on the hatred spectrum. Now, consider Britt McHenry. Do you have strong feelings about her? If you have knowledge of how she behaved last April, you probably do. Maybe you hold additional resentment for her because ESPN only suspended her for a week after her diatribe against that Tow Yard worker. Either way, if you have strong feelings about Britt McHenry, odds are that they aren’t positive feelings. So, by associating her with Cam Newton, people that dislike her would also be inclined to project that disdain on Cam Newton.
Finally, this brings me to the crux of the rhetorical question in the title. Does anyone actually hate Cam Newton? If ESPN is shifting its coverage in such a way to artificially increase the collective vitriol for Cam, that has to mean that he is predominantly well-liked. It’s easy to like the guy. Here are some of the reasons.
- He started a team-wide trend of giving touchdown footballs to kids in the stands after every Panthers touchdown.
- He is smart, articulate, and competitive without being a jerk to reporters or fans.
- After joining the NFL, he returned to Auburn to complete his degree, making him a rarity in the NFL.
- He has top five athletic ability in the NFL, and that makes him unbelievably fun to watch.
- He is a selfless leader of his team and plays as much for them as himself.
I understand that not everyone is going to like Cam Newton and that a lot of people are going to be cheering for Peyton on Super Bowl Sunday. That’s fine.
Here’s the thing, ESPN has been breathlessly trying to craft this Cam Newton narrative for months. Smaller sports outlets have taken ESPN’s lead and begun reporting on Cam’s negatives. Many even talk about how polarizing he is and wonder if he can ever move people back to the middle in their opinions on him. It’s become an absurd circus like always, but the question is whether anyone has bought into it. The sports media has proven that it’s divided on Cam as an effort to appeal to possibly divided fans. ESPN has clearly convinced the media to buy the spin. And, I’m genuinely amazed that more people don’t stop and ask a simple question.
Does anyone really hate Cam Newton?