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Russell Wilson’s benching and the casual disrespect of Black quarterbacks

From Cam Newton to Lamar Jackson, the idea of the Black signal-caller still exists in the realm of underdog

Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson is better than me.

This might sound like a concession in a world where athletes and analysts, journalists and jocks, are often at odds with one another, but I’m saying Wilson is better than me in Black vernacular. Wilson has been a reservoir of patience in spite of his prima donna coach, Sean Payton, who has seemingly had it out for the signal caller since his “stop f—ing kissing babies” bit in the offseason. After a season of outbursts and cheap shots, Payton handed Wilson a final indignity when he benched him ahead of the Broncos’ final two games, even with the team in (precarious) playoff position.

Certainly, the Denver quarterback’s on-the-field play from 2022 deserved scrutiny, but his public image? Pristine and certainly above reproach from a coach with ties to Bountygate. “Diva” might be an odd qualifier for a Super Bowl winning-coach such as Payton, but then I remember the foot-in-mouth moment regarding former Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett and how it inspired the New York Jets to win a game for their beleaguered offensive coordinator. Meanwhile, folks seem to have no difficulty attacking the character of a Super Bowl winning-quarterback such as Wilson, whether it’s about his personality or an imaginary rivalry with rapper Future.

The slander has far exceeded Wilson’s accomplishments, and the casual disrespect of him and Black quarterbacks in general has gone on far too long. A graphic on an episode of “Get Up” recently reiterated why that ridicule is so senseless, as two of the three quarterbacks who were responsible for the highest percentage of their team’s touchdowns were Black – Wilson (84%) and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (80%). Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen was sandwiched in between them at 82%.

It was ironic to see a former Black quarterback who endured that aforementioned burden of responsibility interject himself into the conversation about a slew of modern-day QBs. Former Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton filed the feats of Dallas’ Dak Prescott, Detroit’s Jared Goff, Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa and San Francisco’s Brock Purdy under the work of “game managers.” What resulted, quite naturally, was casual disrespect – about Newton’s clothes, his body of work as a Panther, and so on.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton warms up prior to a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Jan. 9, 2022, in Tampa, Florida.

Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

As a Carolina native, I watched almost every second of Newton’s career in black and blue, from his 4,000-yard passing season as a rookie to the heartbreaking campaign in 2018 essentially ended when Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebacker T.J. Watt wrecked his shoulder. Respectfully, we don’t count what happened in 2021.

There have been two times, to my knowledge, where Newton seemed profoundly unsure – the misbegotten fumble that he hesitated to recover in the Super Bowl, and the subsequent GQ interview in the offseason where he was unfortunately neutral on race, a far cry from the brotha who said he was an “African-American quarterback that scares people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.”

Of course, Newton’s response to casual disrespect would be cogent – he’s used to the slander. They called him “Scam Newton” in college.

“Address the point that I made, not me,” Newton said in a video that went viral on social media. “And oftentimes that happens in regards to athletes trying to make their point.”

Newton’s perspective comes from lived experience, of being the face of a franchise which botched the contract situations of a number of fan favorites, including Steve Smith. I have been that fan who wondered loudly about the failure of football franchises to build around their Black stars under center and suggested it was sabotage. I could only go off of my lived experiences of systemic racism and how Black men have been treated in the workplace.

I see a lot of Br’er Rabbit in Cam Newton and the Black quarterback. While brothas like Newton and Hurts are physically talented and profoundly strong, the idea of the Black quarterback still exists in the realm of underdog. Br’er, or Brother Rabbit, is a figure from African folklore which made its way to the states the same way many Black folks did – through the transatlantic slave trade. One encyclopedia describes the story this way:

The character’s adventures embody an idea considered to be a universal creation among oppressed peoples — that a small, weak, but ingenious force can overcome a larger, stronger, but dull-witted power.

Under Armour did a spot with Newton back in 2016 that tapped into the rabbit mythology, with a harrowing introduction from a female narrator: “All the world will be your enemy, prince with a thousand enemies.” It was an excerpt from Watership Down, a 1972 adventure novel about survival written by English author Richard Adams. The entirety of the dialogue is a conversation between gods and men, about power and control.

“Jalen Hurts is admired and beloved here, but Brock Purdy would be a god in Philadelphia. A god,” Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski wrote earlier this month, and the backlash was inevitable. He insisted that he was only noting Purdy’s underdog past, but there’s a bigger rags-to-riches story here, Hurts’ own path notwithstanding – the journey of the Black quarterback from myth to reality.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson warms up prior to a game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium on Dec. 25 in Santa Clara, California.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Even with the success of Patrick Mahomes, and the rise of brothas at the signal-caller position, the rest of the story is still rife with uncertainty. Think of Justin Fields in Chicago, and the possibility that he might be moved so that the Bears can take another brotha in that spot. Caleb Williams? Jayden Daniels? Prescott’s backup in Dallas is a young brotha named Trey Lance, who was taken third in the NFL draft only two years ago. Dak is garnering MVP votes now, but drama with the Cowboys is never too far from being the theater of the absurd.

There is a standard-bearer in Baltimore now, an indomitable force on offense in a town known for its defensive greats. Lamar Jackson is the closest to Br’er Rabbit, his savvy, speech and swagger. They tried to divert him away from quarterback at Louisville, but his mom wasn’t having it, and it was clear that he got his game off the field from his momma. When he won the Heisman, Bill Polian infamously said Jackson should switch to wide receiver.


After Jackson and Baltimore dispatched of the San Francisco 49ers on Christmas Day, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh declared his choice for MVP – his superstar quarterback. Social media, meanwhile, took aim at teams such as the Panthers and Atlanta Falcons – the once and forever home of Michael Vick – for “colluding” with other NFL franchises that didn’t pursue Jackson during tenuous contract negotiations with the Ravens earlier this year.

“Make your apology as loud as the disrespect” is another beautiful phrase in the Black vernacular. But the most compelling thing about the likes of Jackson, Newton and the other game changers is simple – they never sliced through casual disrespect with their words. They stared the impossible standard in the eye, and in the tradition of Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham, Super Bowl be damned, carved themselves into an indisputable mythology devoid of stereotypes.

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his sons.