The mainstream media is really having a tough time articulating and managing the phenomenon that is Cameron Jerrell Newton, isn’t it? For a good period of time now—at least since the early 1990s when I came of age in an era of American sports dominated by “His Airness” Michael Jordan—most of the mega-sports stars hailing from the African-American community have, for lack of a better term, “behaved” in their respective fields and courts of play. To be sure, I don’t recall MJ taking a victory lap after burying that decisive, series-ending jumper over Byron Russell in Game 6 (and yes, Jordan did push off Russell), nor do I remember the “Black Mamba” Kobe Bryant crankin’ that Soulja Boy after any of a number of critical jump shots leading to his Lakers’ 2010 NBA title.
Now that’s not to say that MJ and Kobe—in my estimation, the two greatest players the NBA has seen in the last thirty years—didn’t have their share of issues off the court which, by the grace of God and the then as-yet-still-not-overwhelming presence of social media, remained mostly in the realm of dismissible hearsay, speculation and innuendo. But what remains absolutely remarkable about MJ and Kobe—and yes I’ll state the obvious, they’re both African-American—is the extent to which they’ve been embraced by fans the world over, bounding past lines of race, class and economics, and not just owing to their seemingly limitless on-court ability; let’s be honest…these guys managed the pervasive media coverage they received with brilliance and converted their carefully curated brands into the kind of empires that made their multi-million-dollar NBA salaries look like the loose change you might find in their living room couches. Even today, it’s still pretty difficult to find much in the way of negative press about these two giants of the sport.
But without detracting from their indisputable marketing genius, I’d argue that by-and-large, the extent to which members of the media marveled at MJ and Kobe—and their steadfast willingness to pass on reporting those things that might have reflected less glowingly on these two greats—grew more out of what MJ and Kobe weren’t than what they were. You see, MJ and Kobe chose to play by the unspoken but clearly delineated rules of the mostly white media establishment: and that meant checking a not insignificant portion of their blackness at the arena entrance.
Enter Cam Newton: also African-American, far more physically endowed than either Jordan or Bryant, just as charismatic and impossibly talented. So what is it that some white folks (and to be clear, they aren’t alone) despise about Cam Newton? Is it his extensive and unassailable record of generosity and service to disadvantaged communities and children? No, but that certainly exacerbates their rage. Or is it his superior skill in delivering a football from point A to point B with a degree of precision that at times I must admit seems virtually effortless? No again, but I’ll note that this reality burns them up all the more. Is it the fact that he’s the only American footballer in the modern era to win a college national championship, secure the Heisman Trophy and claim the first spot in the NFL Draft in the same year?
Do you see where I’m going here?
What is it about Cam that infuriates certain folks so much that they’ve gone so far as to complain that he ought to be giving footballs to the children of less affluent parents on Sundays rather than to the holders of first-row seats in the end zone? Yes Cam, being that you claim to be Superman, it follows that you must have some weird hang-up with flying to the upper decks of Bank of America Stadium and handing out footballs to the less fiscally fortunate boys and girls hailing from the Queen City…
What is it about this man?
Here’s the relevant news flash: The issue some folks have is that while Cam has taken many of the kernels of advice that other black athletes have received from seasoned public relations experts, he has almost entirely ignored one—the guy just refuses to be anyone other than himself. And so while Cam does the unthinkable—celebrating his touchdowns and handing souvenirs off to multiple children whose parents’ bank statements he doesn’t have time to request—herds of cantankerous pundits across the country strain to find something about which they can safely complain (no matter how ridiculous) when in reality what’s really eating at them is Newton’s unabashed display of his blackness and the rich hip-hop culture that has in all likelihood informed his existence since before he can remember.
Now I’m going to tell you something that I’m sure will shock you into the 22nd Century. There’s a double standard in American professional sports—reflecting the one in American society—and that dichotomy is particularly pronounced and insidious in the NFL. During talks with friends in the days leading up to this past Sunday’s AFC and NFC Championship games, many of them expressed their fervent hope that Americans would be treated to the epic Super Bowl 50 matchup of Newton v. Brady—not just because this would be a particularly entertaining game (and it assuredly would have been), but more so because this battle would have epitomized in high definition this century’s version of the longest running American drama: the clash of the demonized African-American with the untouchable beneficiary of white privilege.
You see, some black folks wanted to watch Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers defeat Tom “Golden Boy” Brady’s Patriots with a vigor not too far off from that with which many hoped Johnnie Cochran and his Dream Team would secure O.J. Simpson’s 1995 acquittal (and for the record most of us had, at a minimum, serious doubts about his innocence). When I asked one particularly ardent Newton v. Brady proponent—a successful and highly educated African-American male friend of mine—why it was so important to him that Cam face and defeat Tom, he responded by saying simply, “I’m just tired of watching white folks get away with murder.”
Now while my friend didn’t mean murder in the literal sense of the word, his use of that term underscores the depth of the searing anger framing his frequent lectures about the double standard in American professional sports—and in classrooms, courtrooms and boardrooms across our nation.
Like Cam Newton in 2011, Stanford standout quarterback John Elway was selected first in the 1983 NFL Draft, but not by Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos. Elway was drafted by the then Baltimore Colts, and having informed the Colts’ front office that he would take his chances with baseball (Elway played baseball at Stanford too) before playing and living in Baltimore (Elway used another more colorful term to describe Baltimore which I will not repeat here), Elway successfully maneuvered his way to Denver. The rest of course is history, and more than 30 years later, both the media and the majority of the football-viewing public still suffer from that particularly virulent strain of selective amnesia that seems to sprout up whenever it comes to the personal failures of certain American athletes at both the collegiate and professional level (the list is far too long to reproduce here).
And look—I’m not saying that John Elway, the Broncos’ current GM and EVP of Football Operations, should forever be defined by one racially insensitive comment he made as a twenty-something. We all make mistakes. But what disgusts me, and so many other people of color, is the long record of demonization and perpetual second-guessing of black athletes who take care of business and do the right things both on and off the field while refusing to recast themselves into someone else’s archetype of what a successful black athlete should say, do and think.
In the wake of the Carolina Panthers’ 27-10 defeat of the Tennessee Titans on November 15, 2015, Rosemary Plorin—a concerned Nashville mother—wrote Cam Newton a letter in which she took the soon-to-be-named league MVP to task for his “egotism, arrogance and poor sportsmanship;” and for his “chest puffs” and “pelvic thrusts” and “arrogant struts.”
My first thought was, of course, “Was this Rosemary’s first football game?”
Ms. Plorin also described her nine-year-old daughter’s reaction to Newton’s antics: “Won’t he get in trouble for doing that? Is he trying to make people mad? Do you think he knows he looks like a spoiled brat?” Some of you are probably thinking, “I wonder where she got that from?” Me too, because I know just as well as you do that nothing comes from nothing.
Ahhh…just another day at the ball park—politics as usual in America.
What is it about Cam Newton? Showing out all the damn time. And while we’re on the topic of black athletes showing out, how dare American Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos wear black socks and raise their fists into the air after being awarded gold and bronze medals, respectively, at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City? What shameful, un-American behavior! Here’s how TIME Magazine described their antics (italics added):
“Faster, Higher, Stronger” is the motto of the Olympic Games. “Angrier, nastier, uglier” better describes the scene in Mexico City last week. There, in the same stadium from which 6,200 pigeons swooped skyward to signify the opening of the “Peace Olympics,” Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two disaffected black athletes from the U.S. put on a public display of petulance that sparked one of the most unpleasant controversies in Olympic history and turned the high drama of the games into theater of the absurd.
That Barack Obama is a petulant child too, ain’t he Governor Christie?
What is it about Cam Newton? Wrong Question. What is it about the United States of America? Well—now we’re getting somewhere…