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Cam Newton and the Racism of NFL Fans

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If you’re a black athlete, White Americans will cheer for you; they will attend your games; they will even buy your jersey—just make sure you display endless amounts of humility, meekness, and gratitude. Most white folks want entertainment, but they don’t want the help acting too uppity. That’s why Cam Newton is the kind of black athlete white folks tend to hate.

Like Jack Johnson and early Mike Vick, Newton refuses to acquiesce to the expectations of white folks. He has young, white middle class kids doing the Dab, and he organically uses metaphors centered in the black experience when talking to the media. (When was the last time you heard a quarterback talk about collard greens?) Cam also plays a position that, in a sport full of black athletes, remains overwhelmingly white.

According to Pro Football Weekly, while black athletes represent two-thirds of the players in the NFL, only 20 percent are quarterbacks, and of those, only 12 percent started games. Further, a study by economist Brian Volz published in the Journal of Sports Economics shows that if a there is a sub-par performance, “black starting quarterbacks are 1.98 to 2.46 times more likely to be benched the next week” than white quarterbacks with a similar skill set. “This implies that black quarterbacks may face some level of discrimination in the NFL,” stated Volz.

Enter Cam Newton.

Newton was a divisive figure before he even entered the NFL. From allegations that money influenced his decision to attend Auburn to those contending that he should give back the Heisman trophy, Cam, for years, has been a lightening rod for controversy. 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 led the Panthers to the Super Bowl this season, he 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 that:

Cam Newton is one of the most unprofessional, unsportsmanlike individual 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!

I think part of the reason why Newton draws the ire of so many is that he embraces black culture in a way that is subversively unapologetic. 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 a black, working class milieu.

Newton’s blackness is unavoidable. He wears gators and uniquely patterned suits; he doesn’t engage in the code switching often used by other black professionals. If the press ask him a question, he answers them in a black southern vernacular that doesn’t try to hide Africanisms. As Bomani Jones 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. Cam’s authenticity is confrontational in how it forces white supremacy to come to terms with his athletic brilliance…and brilliant he is.

Before now, black quarterbacks were thought of as run first, pass second threats. The notion of a genuine dual threat—a quarterback that is just as dangerous as a passer as he is a runner—was often discussed but rarely believed. There were questions about a black quarterback’s ability to stay in the pocket, drop back, and throw a pass. Further, there were racist assumptions about a black quarterback’s intellectual ability to play the position. Cam represents the future of the NFL because he shatters all those stereotypes. He is an incredibly accurate passer that can beat you with his legs because of his ability to read the defense. Cam Newton will be remembered as a revolutionary figure in the history of the NFL. Both because of his cultural impact and because of how he is changing the quarterback position.

I’ll be cheering for the Carolina Panthers during the Super Bowl. Not because I have a regional reason to do so, but because I want to witness black brilliance on display. Dab on them folk, Cam.

Lawrence Ware is a professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State University’s Ethics Center. He can be reached at:  Law.writes@gmail.com.

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