A POST SUPER BOWL THOUGHT
Right after suffering a tough, dispiriting loss to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 this past February 7th, Carolina Panthers quarterback, Cam Newton, sat down for a post game press conference, a ritual that is expected in the wake of every, hotly contested national championship competition.
Newton, however, surprised everyone by first refusing to speak, instead sitting there solemn, almost mournfully, and abruptly rising from his seat and stalking off into the sanctuary of the locker room. As I write this, he has yet to say another word. Almost immediately, the Twitterverse exploded. The main thrust has been to criticize Cam Newton for his behavior and lack of "leadership." Other opinions have focused on a sense of "bad sportsmanship." But more specifically, young African American fans were critical of Newtown's lack of "maturity." When Cam Newton was "flying high," winning the NFL 2016 Most Valuable Player Award, leading his team to within one game of having an undefeated regular season, deflecting media criticism for his celebratory displays after scoring touchdowns, and putting up the kinds of numbers on offense that any quarterback would dream of, he was in effect "talking the talk." But, his post Super Bowl performance, when he failed to stand up to the scrutiny that comes with a loss in a critical game became, for many, a failure to "walk the walk."
Many young black people in America may have hoped that a Carolina Panthers victory in the Super Bowl would prove to be a vindication of what they saw as Newton's representation of an assertive and self-affirming "unforgiveable blackness;" a kind of, "we're black, it's a fact, get used to it." It was bad enough that his team lost. What really hurt was his decision, in their eyes, to "cut and run" from a news conference as opposed to standing firm, facing his detractors and proving himself to be as stalwart in defeat as he had been in victory.
In the African American community, and most specifically among its young adult NFL fans, Newton's post game behavior is a very special disappointment because, ever snce he entered the NFL and throughout this, his most successful season thus far, Newton has been a lightning rod in the national media for every negative critique of black youth one can imagine: "Arrogant." "Strutting" "Too loud." "Willful." "Brash." "Gloating." "Moody."
Newton's wide, toothy smile, adorning a smooth handsome visage is, particularly when on display after a victory, a reminder of the irrepressible insistence of presence that Jack Johnson represented over a century ago or that the early Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali forced the country to acknowledge a generation ago. His physicality, like that of good friend LeBron James, brings to mind not simply a real-life African adonis but more the deep-seated fears of dominance, of implied physical impotence on the part of a white-dominanted society that is still grappling with a huge non-white population that lives within and around it all over the continent. Newton gives a lie to the deeply imbedded ideas of black inferiority that still linger deep within the psyche of too much of America. Just as Newton cannot be ignored, neither can black America. And just as black America has to be consistently constrained and contained, so too must Newton be contained and constrained; every utternace, every nuance of behavior, scrutinized for acceptability. Is he - are "they" - "safe."?
Certainly, all "celebrities" will find themselves held to a certain standard by the media, and this is no less true of high status athletes of any color. However, African-American athletes and celebrities find themselves consistently under more scrutiny and often more likely are held to what black people see as a "double standard" that seems to excuse or ignore excesses among white athletes and celebrities while alledgedly criticizing or excoriating the same behavior in black athletes and celebrities. For years, white Philadelphia Phillies baseball pitcher Steve Carlton's refusal to speak to reporters post game in the lockerroom was seen as "stubbornness" or "silly." But, black Phillies slugger and All-Star outfielder, Rich Allen, who also stopped speaking to the press after awhile, was "arrogant," "sullen," a "cancer in the clubhouse."
The expectations for and treatment of Cam Newton by the national media and press reflects the larger Inclusion/Exclusion national conversation currently roiling all sectors of American society. Black voices and the voices of other people of color are not well represented there. Consequently, the cultural modes that govern the way we live and how we view ourselves are not reflected in the opinions that these media outlets express about young black athletes. Instead, interpretations of them are filtered through the same kinds of descriptions reserved for too many young Black or Brown males. Cam Newton is no exception and, if truth be told, neither was Barack Obama. Yea. I went there. Both have had to learn, first, how to handle public perception, how to shape and control their own image of themselves, how to be "leaders" and ultimately how to turn "negatives" into "positives." At the end of the day, however,look at the new generation of quarterbacks beginning to dominate the NFL, along with Cam: Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston, Terry Bridgewater and Tyrod Taylor -- tall, rangy and athletic dual threats, who can run and pass the ball, and all solid leaders in the lockerroom and on the field. Slowly, very slowly, they will redefine not only how the position is played, but also how the game is covered.