Originally Published: January 29th, 2016
As he prepares to take the greatest stage in American sport, Cam Newton has used the spotlight on him to discuss our country’s most persistent and vexing problem: racism.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Newton, the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, ensured that Super Bowl week would have a fiery discussion point when he suggested that the criticism of his exuberant style of play might be rooted in racism.
“I’m an African-American quarterback that scares people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to,” Newton said.
As a result, Newton suggested, he does not receive his due as a player: “I don’t think people have seen what I am or what I’m trying to do.”
Racism is the third rail of American consciousness, but raising it just before Super Bowl festivities begin next week, ahead of the game against the Denver Broncos on Feb. 7 in the San Francisco Bay Area, is fascinating.
Good for Newton.
He is being talked up as a top contender for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award after leading Carolina to a 17-1 season, throwing 35 touchdown passes in the process.
He is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds. He likes to celebrate his achievements on the field with dances like the dab or the hit dem folks.
A lot of people laugh along with this, or dismiss it as the crass showboating some athletes resort to, but some are offended: On talk radio and social media, he has been called arrogant and immature, and a picture on his verified Instagram account with friends wearing bandannas generated over 1,400 comments, some of which called him a thug or a gangster.
A lot of attention was paid to a mother in Tennessee who, in November, after the Panthers beat the Tennessee Titans, wrote a letter to The Charlotte Observer taking him to task for not presenting a positive image for children.
“Unfortunately, what you modeled for them today was egotism, arrogance and poor sportsmanship,” she wrote, though there was a sustained backlash against her letter.
Many have sought to explain what sets people off about Newton, be it his conduct or his complexion, or both.
“Newton is a young, successful black man celebrating through culturally relevant means,” Justin Jones, a sportswriter who covers the Panthers, wrote in The Charlotte Observer.
Newton is not a civil rights activist.
But Newton — minus the activism and the championships — has aspects of a latter-day Muhammad Ali. Handsome, talented and bright, he is transforming the position inside and outside the arena. Even before Ali refused to serve in the military, he was disliked by those who disliked how he broke the mold of heavyweight fighters and how they should comport themselves in public, a mold defined by boxers like Joe Louis.
Heavyweight boxing champions were not supposed to write poetry. N.F.L. quarterbacks are not supposed to dance — or talk about race.
But at a moment when violence against African-Americans has given birth to a vibrant Black Lives Matter movement and an intense discussion is being waged about the movie industry under the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, Newton has forcefully introduced black participation in sports into the discussion.
I have followed several generations of black quarterbacks: James Harrisand Marlin Briscoe; Eldridge Dickey and Joe Gilliam; Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham; Doug Williams, Steve McNair and Michael Vick.
The thread that bound them was a sense of having to prove that they belonged, that they had the intellect, the leadership skills and the courage.
Newton and Russell Wilson are the leaders of a new wave who seem to have the world on a string. The compensation is unprecedented and coaches, far from holding them back, are telling them to do their thing.
Yet Newton sees racism in the underlying sustained criticism of the verve with which he plays the game.
He comes from a generation of young African-Americans who, despite the historic path President Obama has carved, have been sobered — and traumatized — by the reality that no matter what elite schools they attend, no matter how diverse their social network, they are not immune from racism.
Many in this generation harbor resentment, much of it subconscious, of people who dislike them, or perhaps fear them, because, like Newton, they are young, gifted and entitled.
Of course, Newton should expect to be judged through an array of prisms.
He has chosen to play the showman. He has embraced that role, and must accept the criticism that comes with it. There is a thin line between the entertainer and the buffoon, the difference being success. As long as Carolina wins and Newton is the reason for the franchise’s success, he can stand on his head and the fans will cheer.
Endorsements are sure to follow, and he is mindful of that.
I prefer spontaneous, unscripted celebration, but that is a part of a long lost era that has given way to marketing and branding. I still become uncomfortable when people refer to “my brand,” though I realize branding is simply another way to connect with people who enjoy what you have to offer.
Players long ago accepted this, even if they chafe at taunting celebrations.
During an appearance Wednesday on “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore,” on Comedy Central, Jets receiver Brandon Marshall said that he did not want his quarterback dancing, but he left room for other people doing it.
“I’m from the old school,” he said. “I want my quarterback to get back in the huddle and lead us. But what we have to understand is, this is the new generation.
“This is what they’re doing next. They’re disruptive. They’re disrespectful. They don’t give a damn about anyone. And I kind of like it.”
There was a time not so long ago when a football player who looked like Cam Newton, with the speed of a wide receiver and the physique of a linebacker, would never play quarterback, whatever his race or ethnicity. Black players might immediately be switched to linebacker, tight end or wide receiver, without so much as a tryout.
Ozzie Newsome, the Hall of Fame tight end of the Cleveland Browns, remembers growing up in Alabama as an accomplished high school quarterback. He was 6-foot-4, 225 pounds and possessed the leadership skills that would eventually make him one of the best front-office executives in N.F.L. history.
Newsome knew then that if he had any shot at playing in college and the pros that he had better switch positions, so he did.
“I was a pretty good quarterback growing up, but when it came to organized football, I knew I should become a wide receiver because from everything that I was reading, all the blacks were getting their positions changed,” Newsome once told me.
Now, young black players aspiring to play quarterback can look to a rich class led by Newton and Wilson and envision the possibilities.
“Now you’ve got some heroes that you can look at; there is someone you can emulate who is black,” Newsome said.
I find it refreshing that in the lead-up to the N.F.L.’s greatest showcase, a young, talented quarterback has put racism front and center by suggesting his critics have a problem with him for reasons that run deeper than his performance.
Newton has thrown the hard-to-catch pass in traffic. Will we make the catch? Or will we hear footsteps and drop the ball?
Read the original article from The New York Times here: