Of anyone to get in trouble for not wearing a tie, Cam Newton seems the least likely. His excuse – that he’d shipped his clothes home and couldn’t find a button-up shirt to fit him – seems weak. For one, quarterbacks, generally leaner than their teammates (and therefore looking less like an Easter Island Moai when stuffed into a suit) would presumably find a linebacker’s collar size more than accommodating and be able to borrow one in a pinch. Secondly, a look at Newton’s sartorial history would have one thinking he travels with a staff of colorblind valets lugging Narnia-enclosing steamer trunks behind him. The man clearly loves dressing up, his looks having included De la Soul Willy Wonka, alpine pimp, member of Homer Simpson’s barbershop quartet, pumpkin spice Romeo and left-at-the-altar Navy Seal.
American athletes have a history of dandyish tendencies. This is especially true of African-American sportsmen, from heavyweight champion Jack Johnson’s cane and bowler hat to Walt Frazier’s wild technicolor animal-print suits, all the way to the current day with NBA players from LeBron James to James Harden influencing men’s fashion. And sartorial iconoclasm is something to be enjoyed, even if Newton often exercises his license with spite to viewers’ eyes.
But a controversy erupted after Panthers coach Ron Rivera benched Newton at the start of Sunday’s game against the Seahawks for violating the team’s dress code, giving backup quarterback Derek Anderson the opportunity to throw an interception and fans the chance to use their infallible 20/20 hindsight to decide that the game was lost as a result. If the game was lost because of Newton’s absence at the start (Newton himself insists that wasn’t the reason his team was destroyed 40-7 by Seattle) the question is: was it Newton’s mistake for violating the dress code, or Rivera’s for enforcing the punishment? In other words: should teams have dress codes at all?
The NFL rulebook has a surprisingly detailed dress code that reads like the obsessive work of a maritime lawyer assembling an Ikea bookshelf. It primarily deals with matters of uniform and equipment, but also delves into off-field appearance, the general aim of the policy being:
Throughout the game-day period while in view of the stadium and television audience, including during pregame warm-ups, all players must dress in a professional manner….They generally must present an appearance that is appropriate to representing their individual clubs and the National Football League.
This may seem remarkably patrician for a for a sport whose fans are known for wearing Zubaz pants.
What coaches demand their players wear off the field is up to them, and many require the generic minimum WASPy clubhouse code of jacket-and-tie. The basic principle behind a dress code is to inspire a collegial spirit and a general feeling of upstandingness, which might be a good thing to instill in a group of muscly gentlemen who spend the better part of their day trying to get each other concussed.
In the 1960s the Grambling Tigers’ basketball coach Eddie Robinson hired Mildred Moss to give his students lessons in dressing and etiquette, seeing it as a vital component in cultivating personal dignity and self-respect when his team and University were positioning themselves as exemplars of African-American pride and success. It might be quaint to think of the term “sportsmanlike” being synonymous with “gentlemanly,” in a time when players are constantly caught with a bladder full of Human Growth Hormone or accused of domestic abuse. But there may be something to be said for disciplining sportsmen for minor infractions in the hopes of avoiding major ones.
Of the NFL’s two freedom-of-expression controversies this season, Cam Newton neglecting to wear a tie ranks very far below Colin Kaepernick’s bold kneel in matters of seriousness. Games require rules, and the NFL has an awful lot of them regarding players’ behavior and expression. Newton’s transgressive flamboyance may be a subtle way to consider the relative importance of points scored versus how we view athletes in the world at large.