By Eli Lederman
The quarterback runs into the end zone, spikes the football and does his patented touchdown celebration. You’ve seen this one over and over on replays and commercials—even YouTube videos, because people love to imitate it. Yet Aaron Rodgers has never been given the title of “show boat.”Surprised, aren’t you? It sounded a lot like Cam Newton, and, depending on how you feel about him, you might have rolled your eyes or gritted your teeth at the thought of him dabbing and dancing, enjoying himself on the field.
How many times have you seen Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, J.J. Watt or any member of the Green Bay Packers who still has the energy to hoist themselves into the stands after scoring a touchdown celebrate their big play with a dance or spike? More than you can count. Touchdown celebrations are a staple of football from playgrounds all the way to the NFL. Almost every Gronk spike, or Discount Double Check, is always met with cheering, praise and sometimes even a Vine. Yet any time Cam Newton has the audacity to do a dance and hand the football to a child in the stands, people act as if he has brought about the ruin of sportsmanship and civilization. But why?
If you’re a black athlete in this country, white America will cheer for you; it will attend your games; it’ll even buy your jersey so long as you make sure to display endless amounts of humility, meekness and gratitude. The ire that has been seen directed at Cam Newton this season has come as a result of his alleged defiance of this ideal.
To be fair, Newton has always been a divisive figure. From allegations that money influenced his decision to attend Auburn, to those contending that he should give back the Heisman trophy, Newton, for years, has been a lightening rod for judgment. When the Carolina Panthers drafted him as the first overall pick, some called him the “worst NFL draft pick ever.” That headline is laughable today, but it illustrates the kind of vitriol Newton attracts. Even as he’s led the Panthers to the Super Bowl this season, he’s faced heavy criticism. He was criticized for his dancing; he was criticized for his smile; many despised the towel over his head; some said he set a bad example by being an unwed father; and he was called “Classless Cam” for tearing down a Seattle Seahawks 12th man flag. There is even a #BanTheCam Change.org petition stating, “Cam Newton is one of the most unprofessional, unsportsmanlike individuals on the face of the planet. So I say for the 2016-2017 when the Panthers come to play in Seattle he should be banned from entering the stadium. This should teach him to put his arrogance in check!”
The rants from ESPN personalities, the articles about his “aloofness,” and the racially coded letters written to editors calling him “a poor role model” have all come in response to Newton’s braggadocio. But his bombastic actions and his race alone aren’t the reason Cam has received such acrimony. Newton plays in a league where black athletes represent two thirds of its players. And he’s hardly the first black football player to bring his confidence onto the field. Players like Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson turned touchdown celebrations and on-field personality into an art form long before Cam was even in high school. Newton does a lot of the same things Owens and Johnson did, but so have Randy Moss and Richard Sherman. What makes Cam Newton different is that he does all of the same things while playing the position of quarterback—a position that, until 25 years ago, belonged almost exclusively to white players.
The NFL has had plenty of black quarterbacks before. In that sense, Cam Newton is doing nothing revolutionary. There have been numerous black quarterbacks who’ve started in the NFL, and five who have played in the Super Bowl. Doug Williams, Warren Moon and Donovan McNabb have all played the role of black quarterback in the NFL. But none of them did so with the same brashness that Cam has. They fit more into the narrative of the typical quarterback—reserved, cliche-spitting, and unbearably bland. The difference between Newton and the black quarterbacks before him is the way he is so subversively
unapologetic in his embrace of black culture. He does everything he is supposed to do; he answers questions at the press conferences; he gives credit to his teammates; he does charity work in the community, but he does it all his way. That is, he does not try to hide the fact that he was reared in an all black, working class environment. If the press asks him a question, he answers them in a black southern vernacular that only emphasizes his confidence. As ESPN analyst Bomani Jones has said, “He is the embodiment of everything black men are told you cannot be and achieve success.” He is uninterested in being “respectable.” He is not trying to prove he belongs. He only wants to make a statement that proves a black quarterback can succeed in the NFL with bravado
and fearless individuality.
Sports culture is often seen as a microcosm of what is going on within broader culture. Jason Collins and Michael Sam deciding to come out as the first active, openly gay athletes displayed the upward trend in support and acceptance of same-sex relationships. The issue of concussions in the NFL has led to a rapid increase in concern regarding head injuries and brain damage. Even the the Donald Sterling incident, which saw the former Los Angeles Clippers owner make a number of racist comments on a secret recording, showed us that we were all sick of old, racist white guys. So what does the indignation toward Cam Newton and his attitude say? In my opinion, the fact that a black athlete who is not afraid to be himself can cause a national outcry, despite all the progress that the African-American community has made in sports, and elsewhere, is an indication that there is still much work to be done. Conversely, the steadily growing plethora of dabbing, Newton jersey-wearing fans that Cam has accumulated signals that the next generation of football fans is one that will appreciate a player like Newton. Either way, it’s hard to doubt that by the end of his career, Cam Newton will have had a major impact–both on football and our culture.
PHOTO COURTESY OF CBSSPORTS.COM Cam Newton celebrates a touchdown by hitting the dab.