Football is back and we already have our first onfield officiating controversy after the first 60 minutes, namely Gene Steratore and his crew’s treatment of the league’s reigning MVP, Cam Newton, during Carolina’s agonizing 21-20 loss to Denver on Thursday night.
Newton, the 6-foot-5, 260-pound athletic marvel, was battered time and time again by the ferocious Denver front in the second half, as well as an impressive Wade Phillips blitz package that sent defensive backs buzzing from all angles.
The superstar took a number of borderline hits that had many in Carolina’s locker room believing that Newton is not given the same protection as other NFL quarterbacks because of his imposing size and escapability.
“That’s nothing new,” Linebacker Thomas Davis said when discussing how things are called with Newton on the field. “…They look at his size. It’s kind of like the NBA used to allow guys to get away with that against Shaquille O’Neal because of his size. But when you dig deep down into it, they talk about player safety all the time and they need to protect that player as well.”
Davis is correct, of course, but the intent of the special treatment is what most are missing.
Back in November of 2014, I was ringside for what turned out to be Bernard Hopkins’ last boxing match (at least for now because you never say never with Hopkins) in Atlantic City when the then 49-year-old lost a unanimous decision to Sergey Kovalev for the light-heavyweight title.
Kovalev was one of the rising fighters in the world at the time, unbeaten in 25 previous tries and known as a knockout machine.
Hopkins, meanwhile, was long past his prime as one of his generation’s greatest fighters, morphing from “The Executioner” to “The Alien” because his last KO was against Oscar De La Hoya in September of 2004 and it’s really difficult to pass yourself off as a killer in the boxing game when you haven’t finished anyone off in over a decade.
What Hopkins was, though, even at his advanced age, was one of the greatest defensive fighters of all-time with a reputation of usually finding a way to use his veteran savvy to frustrate opponents and find a way to win decisions.
Kovalev, who is still undefeated today and also won his four subsequent bouts since dispatching Hopkins, was a different animal, though, and battered the veteran from pillar to post. What he couldn’t do, however, was force the Philadelphia native to raise the white flag and had to settle for the virtual shutout and the unanimous decision.
What does that have to do with Newton?
Simple, the fight was so lopsided and Hopkins took so much punishment that if he had a different name and a lesser reputation, it would have been stopped multiple times.
Referee David Fields gave Hopkins the benefit of the doubt because of his reputation, skill and history of defying the odds, something he would not have afforded to a lesser fighter. He certainly wasn’t trying to get the multi-time world champion hurt but to the casual public, it certainly looked uncaring and far from wise.
Similarly, Newton is treated differently than most other quarterbacks because of the things he’s capable of, and Davis’ Shaq analogy is also a very good one.
It’s about respect, and the nod that Newton is capable of things others are not, the polar opposite of disrespect.
The bigger issue for the league, though, is the optics of a superstar getting targeted high on a number of occasions and being left in the game despite the obvious concern of a concussion even though the independent neurologists on both sidelines and the booth spotter never flagged Newton for observation.
Unlike after the Super Bowl, however, Newton himself wasn’t sulking and had no issues with the crew or his treatment.
“It’s not my job to question the officials,” he said. “I really like this officiating crew. It wasn’t something that I know they did intentionally. But it’s not fun getting hit in the head. We didn’t lose the game off that; I know that for a fact.”
-John McMullen is a national football columnist for FanRagSports.com and TodaysPigskin.com. You can reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter @JFMcMullen — Also catch John each week during the NFL season ESPN South Jersey, ESPN Southwest Florida, ESPN Lexington, KDWN in Las Vegas, and check @JFMcMullen for John’s upcoming appearances on SBNation Radio, FOX Sports Radio, CBS Sports Radio as well as dozens of local radio stations across North America.