Of all the strange things that happened at Super Bowl 50, the one that seems to have caused the most controversy came when star quarterback Cam Newton was speaking to the media after the game. Videos of the interview show a brief affair: Newton tersely answered a few questions before declaring he was done and walking out of the room.
Almost immediately, a contentious debate about his actions developed on social media and within mainstream news sources themselves. People accused Newton of being rude to his teammates, disrespectful to his opponents and even, in the case of Stephen A. Smith, straight up cowardly. It seemed as Newton had spat on some long-standing tradition, insulting everything that the Super Bowl stood for in the process.
Newton probably shouldn’t have stormed away like he did. He’s a human who acted out a bit in the heat of the moment, something I can guarantee that every NFL player, celebrity and resident of the United States is guilty of at least to some extent.
As someone who has sat through many postgame interviews myself, however, these stronger interpretations of Newton really miss the essence of the relationships between athletes and the media in the first place.
Postgame interviews serve almost entirely to give storylines to inventive sports writers. For winning teams, they can be a good outlet for them to reflect about how much work they put in and bask in their glory. These messages can be inspiring stories or just promotional sound bytes for Budweiser, but either way, it’s a good thing that we give athletes at least a chance to touch people’s hearts.
For teams that lose, however, press conferences are really kind of awkward. There are so many restrictions on what athletes are supposed to say in these situations that more often than not, it ends up robbing all emotion from the process. Even taking responsibility for the loss is frowned upon, unless you’re the coach, since it has been ordained that individual performances aren’t everything and teams must both win and lose as a group.
What is it that we really seek from these interviews then? Sure, it’s nice if losing athletes provide a bit of context for why they came up short, something that Cam did not manage. But mostly, it seems like we want them to acknowledge how their performance was just a game and that they’re more than football players, but grown men who are capable of getting over losses.
This message is strange in itself when in literally every other instance, it seems like the game is the only thing that the NFL emphasizes, even in the face of legitimate controversies. When Ray Rice was caught on camera hurling punches at his fiancée, the league initially responded by handing him a “two-game suspension,” as if missing a couple of weeks of play was some sort of befitting punishment. Similar accusations against Johnny Manziel haven’t convinced many that his career is over because he’s paid to be a football player, not a stand-up guy.
The real issue with these postgame interviews, however, is not so much that they’re morally inconsistent but merely that they’re utterly predictable. Almost every answer given is really just a slight rephrasing of every answer given before. The one answer that Cam Newton did flesh out, about how the team just got outplayed, is more or less how the transcript for a “successful” postgame interview would read. The only real difference is that, if the media had got what they wanted, the response would have been a little bit longer.
Ultimately, it’s hard to fault Newton for breaking the script a little under the circumstances. The quarterback admitted after the game that he’s a sore loser, but he needn’t have even gone that far to explain his actions. In reality, Newton’s message was that he didn’t feel, after the biggest loss of his career, that he needed to sit there and say the same things about the game he had just played that had already been said thousands of times before, in all the press conferences of history.
Maybe, if people had listened to Newton’s silence, they would have noticed.
Cam Newton’s post-game antics evoked memories of a certain Andrew Mather swearing at a referee after losing an IM football game last year. Tell Andrew to grow up at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.