There is no more polarizing figure in football than Sam Newman.
He has not played since 1980, but as the class clown of ‘The Footy Show’ on Channel 9 for over twenty years, Newman has refined his act as professional button pusher to a fine art. There are those who loathe the man, likening him to a Neanderthal in his terms of his views on the sport, women, race and whatever other subject matter comes up during the course of the season. Then there are those who love him; those who think he speaks for them. Most are of the older generation. They have watched players turn from footballers into athletes, and from unique personalities into robots. They listen to Newman, and they hear him echoing their own thoughts.
The cheers Newman receives from the live audience when he takes a stand on an issue are not prompted. The ‘applause’ sign does not light up in the studio at the end of one of Sam’s rants. The response is organic, passionate and very vocal in support of him.
Newman’s detractors are many. They are a new generation of AFL followers, and they are a demographic who spend more of their time on Twitter complaining about what Sam has said or done than they actually do watching what he does and listening to what he says. Social media has given them a voice, and they use it readily. They dismiss him as a dinosaur, and respond to each incident involving Newman with increasing disdain, as though their level of offence accumulates points in an obscure, politically correct game. Any controversial comment made by Newman results in a call for his head. Sam must smile when this occurs. At 72 years old, Newman has avoided the chopping block artfully for many years, and those in the know at Channel Nine are aware that their flagship football show only endures due to the presence of Newman. When he expressed his displeasure in 2017, the entire show was revamped and Eddie Maguire was asked back into the fold to appease him. And tonight, when he floated the idea of walking away, a ten minute window was afforded him to say goodbye.
Sam Newman has only recently begun engaging in the realm of social media, taking to tweeting, largely to promote the excellent podcast he conducts with Grant Thomas and Mike Sheahan, but he has previously spoken about how much he abhors it. Despite some very public humiliations over the years, Newman has remained a very private man. Those close to him value him greatly, citing his loyalty as one of his best traits. He shrugs off the negativity of naysayers without a second thought, refusing to be bogged down in the mire of criticism surrounding him. He stands like an old oak tree, strong and resilient as flood waters rise all around him, lapping at his limbs. He knows that the flood won’t last forever. The storm will subside and he will still be there when the waters abate. Newman rides out each controversy and continues riding right into the next one.
I guess a couple of brushes with death put things like that in perspective.
Newman’s first life-threatening incident came when he was just 22. Whilst attempting to mark, Newman was cannoned into by Collingwood’s Con Britt, damaging his kidney. Sam attempted to continue playing, but at the next boundary throw in, Brownlow Medallist, Len Thompson brushed against him, and he knew something was very wrong. Newman describes it as feeling the sensation all through his body as Thompson contacted him. He was taken from the field and placed on a trainer’s table in the dressing rooms, where he stayed until half time. Football medical teams were not as attentive as they are now, and had it not been for his father’s visit to those rooms, we may never have seen Sam on The Footy Show, or ever again. Sam’s father helped him into the toilets where his injured son urinated blood.
Newman was then rushed to hospital, where he had a kidney removed. He recalls his mother being there as he was wheeled into surgery, and hearing the doctor inform her it was “touch and go.”
Sam missed his only opportunity to play in a Grand Final that year, but returned to football the next season, and completed a wonderful career over the next 13 years.
His second incident came later in life when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Sam’s medical procedure was filmed for Channel 9 as a way to promote awareness of the condition. Sam dodged that bullet too, and returned to TV not long after.
To have had your life flash before your eyes as both a young man, and an older gentleman has to give you a different perspective on other things. It would teach you not to sweat the small stuff, and would educate you on what is important. Listening to people whine and complain about what sort of person you are, and trying to change to accommodate them is a fool’s errand. Newman is aware of who he is, and aware of who others think he is. It’s reality versus perception. Reality wins every time.
“Your reputation is who others think you are. Character is who you really are.”
That is how Newman described his view on life in a fantastic interview with Mark Howard on the ‘Howie Games’ podcast. What you, I, or anyone who doubts him thinks of him is of no consequence to Sam. It doesn’t worry him. And nor should it. We are superfluous to his life, and we'll remain that way.
Newman is as qualified, or more qualified than most to air his opinions on the state of football. He has earned the right to do so. I read someone online – the kind of person Newman doesn’t pay attention to, stating that Newman was an embarrassment to Geelong.
300 games. Club Captain. All-Australian. Life Member. Geelong Team of the Century. AFL Hall of Fame. That’s some pretty embarrassing stuff, there.
There is a degree of courage about Newman that is not commended anywhere near enough. He swims against the current often, speaking his mind in a very politically-correct world, without worrying about how he will be perceived by those looking for a reason to be upset. It’s a mindset that people have trained out of them early these days. Players are afforded media training to be used during their career, and this is expanded upon as they move into the media, post-football. Newman is the anomaly. Secure in his position in life, Newman speaks his mind, and those who dislike it can be damned. He has been called a homophobe, a sexist and a racist. He has even been called a Nihilist. It matters not to him – reputation versus character again.
Whilst wearing blackface is simply indefensible, and dressing a mannequin up in lingerie and pasting a picture of Caroline Wilson's face on it deserved the condemnation it received, Sam’s views on the game echo those of many of the past greats. He sees aspects he does not like, he talks about them, and they resonate with people. When it comes to football, he actually makes good points.
Newman fronted up again as the face of the Footy Show in 2018, and as the show opened for the penultimate episode of the year, Sam took centre stage.
In what was ostensibly a farewell speech, Newman, with a quiver in his voice at times, gave a rundown of the way the show had shaped his life after football, and how it had influenced all involved with it. It was a side of Sam the public rarely sees. It was a genuine, heartfelt Sam Newman - not just the Sam Newman character.
He will continue to have a voice. Whether it be it as co-host of The Footy Show "if" it is renewed, as a guest on radio, the subject of interviews or as part of his podcast. He’ll have some dated views; the man is in his seventies after all, but he will not shy away from any issue, nor will he hesitate to criticize the game, the league, or an individual where he thinks it’s warranted.
Those who enjoy swimming only with the current will mock his opinions, secure in the hive-mind that is the current state of the AFL media. They’ll dismiss him as "past it" once again, whilst they regurgitate opinions that are strangely similar to the dozen or so people who spoke about the subject prior to them. They'll use social media to badmouth him, but Sam will endure. He'll survive. That’s what he is - a survivor.
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For someone who is considered so irrelevant, Sam has never been more important in the AFL landscape. Whilst the AFL media tip-toe around anything that may see their precious accreditation placed in jeopardy, Sam steps right over it and into what is, at times, uncomfortable territory. In the current climate, he speaks for those denied a voice - long term footy fans.
The Footy Show may be about to sing its Swan Song, but Sam will always have a voice.
With the shackles of network television now off, we might be hearing a little bit more from Mr. Newman on topics he couldn’t broach before. He’s already commenting about the US political system, the Serena Williams cartoon and transgender athletes competing in wrestling in the USA.
Personally, I’m already looking forward to seeing what Sam has in order post-Footy Show if this really is the end.
Maybe there’s a chance for a slot on late night radio available? After all, doesn’t he do his best work after midnight?
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