The Panthers made a big investment in Cam Newton by taking him with the first pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, and appear positioned to make their future franchise quarterback a Week 1 starter in 2011. But does that mean Jerry Richardson is right to ask Newton to refrain from getting tattoos or piercings, as he did in a meeting in April?
On one hand, Richardson's obviously overstepping his bounds a bit in asking any player to do something that his contract doesn't require him to do, and he's unfairly singling out Newton in hopes of keeping his young star pristine — Richardson also complimented Newton's attire and haircut in that meeting — despite having dozens of other players with all manner of body alterations.
On the other, Richardson's request is probably sound business advice that could pay off for Newton. Yahoo!'s Chris Chase notes that achievement will be the primary driver of Newton's marketability, but it's not unreasonable to expect that he has a wider range of possible endorsements available to him if he keeps his body free of things that could be objectionable.
The place where these arguments meet and get messy is in the middle, where the concept of tattoos as abnormal and undesirable meets with the idea that asking a player to do something above and beyond play football.
It would also be dishonest to ignore that there is a racial component to this, though Richardson's request seems paternalistic and race-conscious rather than racist. Richardson, Newton, you and I all know people who have complained about NBA players (mostly black, often tarred with the brush that included coded language about "hip-hop") "ruining" their bodies with tattoos, right? Fan perceptions factor into Madison Avenue discussions, and that's at least part of what Richardson has in mind here.
(I could go further and compare this situation to George Steinbrenner's long-standing request that Yankees players remained clean-shaven as a part of his team's ethos, but I'll save that.)
But being smart about that factor doesn't mean Richardson will get his way. If Richardson wants to ask Newton to lay off the body augmentation, he can; it's his right to have that opinion, and consider it "reasonable," as he did when PBS' Charlie Rose told Richardson that his request made him sound like Vince Lombardi. If Newton wants to adhere to it in turn, that's his right.
It would also be fine, however, if Newton exercised his right to ignore a non-contractual request by his employer and got a picture of a panther on his forearm, a cross on his bicep, a "THANK$ FOR EVERYTHING AUBURN" on his torso. Newton's body is his own, and he'll do what he wants to with it, whether Richardson likes it or not, because Richardson not going to have a No. 1 draft pick released over a tattoo.
So we come back to the beginning, with Richardson's request seeming as well-minded and ultimately meaningless as ever. This isn't an easy question. The best answer for all involved, though, is making the question moot with a stunning on-field turnaround. If Newton can do that for the Panthers, my bet is that Richardson's thoughts on tattoos will fade well into the background.