The BLOG: Culture

Spotlight on Superman and America

Cam Newton is not your average NFL MVP quarterback. The former Heisman Trophy winner has a smile that’s roped in plenty of endorsements, he’s number two in NFL jersey sales for the 2015–16 season, and he has an impeccable sense of style to top it all off. Newton’s dominance is unquestionable. The conversations he inspires are where things heat up and debate begins.

Sports have the unique ability to tell us about life, and football — due to its aggressive nature and widespread appeal — at times acts as a window into American life. So when it comes to the controversy, for lack of a better word, that was as much a part of Newton’s season as his 50 touchdowns, I’m pushed to ask: What does this tell us about American life?

Cam Newton properly diagnosed the issue, citing that his identity as an African-American quarterback puts people off. This sort of backlash is not new. Race has often, if not always, impacted the way quarterbacks at all levels of the game are critiqued and understood. In particular, black quarterbacks at the NFL level have historically been reduced to “good” and “bad” categories where they are expected to “prove” they are worthy of respect over and over again. The “good” black quarterbacks, such as Russell Wilson, get contrasted with Newton as if they are opposites. While Newton and Wilson may live different lifestyles, they are both talented players who are worthy of respect no matter how they dance, who they date, or the music they listen to.

To be a black quarterback at the NFL level means you have to be performing on the field as well as off the field in order to gain a circumstantial version of “respect.” A quick look at the difference between the treatment of players like Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger, who both had serious legal trouble, serves as a quick window into the kind of double standard that exists.

Cam Newton represents a changing of the guard and style of quarterback play in the NFL. Newton is the combination of the classic 6-4+ pocket passer with deadly precision and the “non-traditional” spread quarterback with a big arm and the threat to run on every play. Newton is a representation of where the league is going in terms of style of play in the NFL. We’ve seen it with teams gravitating to the dual threats of Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson within the last five years, but none of these players have been as dominant as the Panthers signal caller. This is at the root of the fear and backlash.

With Peyton Manning’s career slowing down and Tom Brady foreseeably only having a few seasons left, a new face of the NFL is imminent. For some, the idea of a black quarterback who embodies hip hop culture, takes pictures with Future, and is unapologetic in his choices to do so is a huge turn off.

Understanding the fear associated with Newton and the NFL leads me back to the question: What can we learn about American life from this? The sad truth is that in the United States, a black person can be good at their job by every metric and there will still remain criticism about their performance. We can expect comparisons to continue between “good” and “bad” black people and we will try to prod those “bad” black people to carry themselves more like the “good” ones, so they can be more worthy of respect.We can expect that if a black person chooses to carry themselves in a way that isn’t understood as “standard” then there will be assaults on their character.

The anger that Cam displayed after losing the biggest football game of his life is the perfect example of how he didn’t act in a “standard” way. The backlash he has received since, seems to be what some people have been wanting to say for a long time but never had the reason to because of how well he has played. Not being “good,” elicited a myriad responses that revealed the fear and, largely unjustifiable, disdain of a young man who simply cares deeply about his job. Instead of seeking to understand his anger and response, some people chose to defame his character.

From not jumping onto a fumble late in the loss to cutting his post-game press conference short, Cam wasn’t exactly Superman this past Sunday. The team that finished first in the NFL in points only scored 10, and he has no choice but to accept part of the blame for that. However, I think this might be what propels Newton to playing at an elite level with consistency. Losing to the Denver Broncos on the cusp of a historic season might be the chip that he needs on his shoulder to catapult him into a realm of quarterbacks we expect to be elite season after season. Newton losing isn’t only good for his future, but the NFL might see a better version of the same beast next season. If the league knows what’s good for it, it will put the 26-year-old lightning rod front and center as he looks to improve on his 2016 finish.

Newton’s near-perfect season, for all of the achievements and accolades, has been polarizing. But for as many debates as his play this season has started, it has taught just as many lessons about American life and the roles black people are asked to play. The Atlanta native is the NFL’s version of Superman. The Man of Steel is going to come back with a vengeance looking to add a Super Bowl ring to his mantle and he will undoubtedly keep teaching us about ourselves in the process.

Carl Brooks Jr.

Carl Brooks Jr.

Carl Brooks Jr. is a freelance writer and blogger. He grew up in the Boston area and is passionate about sports, pop culture, and how race, class, and gender impact the two. He is finishing up his Sociology degree at Gordon College. He can be reached at [email protected], on Twitter at @carlbrooksjr, and at carlbrooksjr.net.

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