It's easy to dismiss Cam Newton's complaints about NFL officiating. Rarely does a week go by, after all, when a player or coach doesn't take issue with some call or decision that impacted the outcome of a game.
In this instance, however, it's important to separate a simple rule interpretation or judgment call from the much larger and more important issue of player safety. Officials make questionable decisions in every game of every season in all levels of sports. That's not going to change as long as humans remain imperfect.
But more than in any other league, NFL officials also are charged with protecting players from avoidable danger. When officials make mistakes, or they are saddled with unenforceable rules, people get hurt.
And it's the latter concern that Newton so plainly and forcefully voiced Sunday after the Carolina Panthers' 30-20 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Let's face it. Newton has had the crap beaten out of him this season, starting with a Week 1 pounding he absorbed from the Denver Broncos, and he has a right to be upset. Some of the hits have been legal, and some should have been penalized, but in seven games this season Newton has suffered one concussion and been tested for another.
Sunday, Newton said he could have torn his ACL when Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell hit him below his right knee in the pocket after a pass near the goal line. The contact seemed to violate a rule the NFL has tried to strengthen in recent years, one that prohibits rolling or lunging to hit a quarterback in the pocket at or below his knee. But referee Walt Coleman's crew did not make a call, and Newton could hide his disgust no longer.
"It's really taken the fun out of the game for me," he said afterward. "Honestly, it really has. Because at times, I don't even feel safe."
To be clear, Newton is far from alone in the NFL. Pick a handful of games to watch in a given week and you'll see any number of preventable and potential injury-causing hits.
If Newton has a beef, then so does Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. In Week 7, Wentz's left leg locked and bent awkwardly when Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Tom Johnson rolled into it. Wentz was fortunate not to suffer a serious injury.
If Newton and Wentz have a case, then so does Washington Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson, who absorbed at least two legal but violent head shots from Cincinnati Bengals defenders Sunday in London. Jackson left the game twice but passed all concussion tests. On both plays, Jackson was considered a "runner" and thus did not get protection from helmet-to-helmet hits.
I know Newton suggested officials are using a different standard with him, a theory not unlike the one advanced about retired NBA superstar Shaquille O'Neal. As the argument went, referees called only the most egregious fouls against players guarding O'Neal because he was so superior in size and strength. I'm not sure I buy that in Newton's case -- plenty of other quarterbacks take unpenalized hits -- but let's not quibble in those details.
The point here is that the reigning MVP of the NFL, one of its very best and highest-profile players, has now exposed the fears of a new generation of players.
These men love the game and, for the most part, they understand the physical and mental risks they are taking by signing up. But they are no longer willing to sacrifice their future health beyond the standard that the NFL has codified and put in writing. As a matter of course, Newton accepts the risk of playing quarterback with the assurance that he will be protected from certain levels of injury-causing contact.
In his mind -- and given his stature in the league, his opinion carries substantial weight -- the NFL has failed to hold up its end of the bargain.
"Enough is enough," Newton said.
This is not a matter of labor or money or collective bargaining. The NFL can't have a long-term future if its best players don't feel safe on the field. Newton said he plans to take up the issue with commissioner Roger Goodell, and this is one case where Goodell would be well-advised to listen and act with all due sincerity.