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Imagine if Jay Cutler were black ... critics would be foaming at the mouth

While Jay Cutler has received plenty of criticism for his role in the ongoing saga in Denver, I can't hep but wonder what the reaction would be around the league and among fans and members of the media if he were black. I know race is still an incredibly contentious issue in America, and that a lot of people are tired of hearing about it.

But I'll say it: If he were black I have no doubt the response would be more intense, more visceral, and generally more over the top. Instead of reading stories from influential and well respected members of the media about Cutler's fate that make no mention of his seemingly petulant behavior, as I've read, I think the critics would be falling over themselves to demonize him. Almost every story would make mention of his selfish behavior and openly wonder if, despite his talents, it was worth the risk to trade for him.

Instead, I sit in quarterback-poor Chicago and watch as the local football writer openly campaigns for the Bears to sign Cutler and doesn't speculate about whether in a year or so he'll be crying about the team's lack of a top-flight receiver. And then I read one of the top football analysts on ESPN.com wondering what team would be the best fit for Cutler, and again there is nary a mention of his immaturity and how that will play in his new lockerroom. 

Yes, the year is 2009. Yes, we just elected our first black president (no thanks to most states in the south and west). And yes, there has been a lot of criticism of Cutler out there. But I also think it's incredibly naive to believe that race still doesn't play a role in the coverage of the games we watch and in the attitudes of many fans.
It seems when a white guy finds trouble it’s just that, one dumb young man who screwed up. When a black guy does, it’s a symbol of a deeper problem in sports today and yet another example of how the world has changed for the worse. A black guy shows a rebellious streak and some flamboyance and he's being selfish and a likely clubhouse cancer. A white guy does it and he's showing his individuality and fighting off the marketers who want to sign him up to pitch their products.
Being in Chicago I often think of the example of Jim McMahon, the cult hero former quarterback who was on the only Super Bowl-winning Bears team but who otherwise had an inconsistent career marked by frequent injuries. After being drafted by the Bears in the first round, McMahon arrived in a limo to meet coach Mike Ditka and team officials for the first time, and stepped out wearing his ever-present sunglasses and carrying a beer. He became known as a rebel and the ‘punky QB,’ making magazine covers from Sports Illustrated to Rolling Stone. A black guy tries that and the columnists and talking heads would start sizing him up for his prison jumpsuit.

Ok, that was more than 25 years ago, and we've made a lot of progress since. But I would argue we've still got a ways to go, and it shows in the pass many fans and members of the media seem to be giving Cutler. Race does still matter.

I was sitting watching a game last season with a distasteful older man (let’s just say it was a holiday gathering with various relatives and others around and I had no choice), when Jeremy Shockey caught a pass and popped up screaming and hollering and signaling a first down. “He’s as bad as the shines,” the man said. “All those Miami guys are like that.”

So even when it’s a white guy acting out it’s the fault of the ‘shines.’

Ok, so most fans don't regularly throw out racial epithets while watching sports on TV, but I think it would be naïve not to acknowledge that race still plays a factor in the way fans and the media, overwhelmingly white, react to what they see and hear. And Jay Cutler should be thankful for that when he lands in Tampa or New York or Chicago or wherever and is welcomed as a savior.