Cam Newton, and the Killing of a Mockingbird

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By Kevin Powell

The object of the artist is the creation of the beautiful. What the beautiful is is another question.
—JAMES JOYCE, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

 

I’ve wrestled with alligators. I’ve tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning. And throw thunder in jail.
—MUHAMMAD ALI

 

Bronn: What will you do?

 

Tyrion: I suppose I’ll have to kill the Mountain myself. Won’t that make for a great song?

 

Bronn: I hope to hear them sing it one day.
—GAME OF THRONES, Season 4/Episode 7

SUPERMAN WENT TO THE SUPER BOWL, and he lost, and it was mad ugly. On that gorgeously sunny and mild date in February he could not skyrocket the way we knew he could, not over tall buildings, not over hulking defensive lineman or hungry linebackers with blood in their eyes and nullification greased on their lips. No, the man of steel would not be yanking open his shirt to reveal a giant “S” on his chest, not this day. Superman was overrun by raging Broncos kicking kryptonite into our wounded hero. He had had a marvelous season up to this point—a most valuable player season—and along the way football fans and everyday people from the Carolinas to Cali loved and revered him, or they feared and loathed him. The hate produced was particularly raw whenever his sculpted bronze face cracked into that toothy and dimpled Hollywood smile as he dabbed after his many scoring plays. Our heroes are not supposed to smile like that, or dance like that, some say. Some want our heroes to be predictable, one-dimensional and, yeah, humble. Does not matter that our hero gives every single touchdown ball to a young kid in the stands. Does not matter that our hero routinely brings a meal to a homeless person without any attention or fanfare. Does not matter that our hero has transformed himself from a controversial bad boy number one draft pick into an all-everything behemoth of a man on a mission. Superman ain’t ‘spose to have fun being somebody’s hero—

Hell, Superman is not even supposed to be complex and complicated in any way whatsoever. Please simply put on your tight-fitting costume and fly. This Superman named Newton, as in Cam, leads a team called the Panthers, just like fifty years ago another super man named Newton, as in Huey, was leading his own Panthers—the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense—in the very same Bay Area where Cam suffered defeat in this big game, the 50th anniversary Super Bowl. The revolution will not be televised the poet Gil Scott-Heron once prophesized. But it was, and is: When Huey Newton and Bobby Seale co-founded the Panthers in Oakland as young men in their 20s, they knew, in their Southern-born bellies, that their political and legal genius had to co-exist with image and fashion and style and swagger and soul and heroism, else the girls and boys in the ‘hood would not be checking for them. They were right, and the Civil Rights Movement begat their party for the people: all eyes on them as White America, and Black America, and rainbow coalition America, supported or avoided them, saluted or attacked them, because they did not hesitate to tackle, hard body, uncomfortable things like racism and police brutality. They were young, they were gifted, they were Black, they were proud, they had free breakfast programs for kids, free health screenings for the community, a hugely popular newspaper that taught and represented culture and history through their eyes, and they were armed—with guns, because they knew their right to have them. Shoot, those Panthers were so ahead of the curve that the California law was changed, halting them from openly carrying weapons. But this is what happens when certain kinds of boys self-determine, without apology, what kind of men they are going to be. When Cam Newton, still merely 27-years-old, decided he indeed was going to be a professional quarterback in the National Football League, mixing and matching the brain gymnastics and physical fearlessness of a QB, and the video game darting and daring of a running back, and the WWE theatrics of a barreling, brawny tight end, with image and fashion and style and swagger and hip-hop and heroism mic dropping inside his heart, he, in a single bound, became a one-man revolution shot ‘round the globe before millions of fans weekly, including nearly 112 million on that Super Bowl Sunday last February. Cam Newton is young, he is gifted, he is Black, he is proud, he has a foundation for youth, he hosts a self-esteem boosting hit television show for children on Nickelodeon, and he is armed—with a charisma, a rock star aura, a Yoruba god’s focus, and a supermodel’s spectacular poses that could not be manufactured anywhere or by anyone, except in the home of his momma and daddy. And, yep, Huey and Cam are brothers of the same mind: equally comfortable hanging with the masses from the gutters of America’s ghettoes as well as the rich and privileged with the Hermes wallets and Lana Mark purses. Yep, Huey and Cam equally calculating and stupidly handsome in that way that make both women and men swoon and stare. Yep, one could say that Cam Newton is “pretty,” the way Huey Newton was pretty. And one could say that Cam is a trapped pretty boy, the way Huey Newton wound up being a trapped pretty boy, imprisoned by the facts of his life and the myth-making of his hero-worshippers.

But none of this mattered to the thirsty throng of media awaiting Cameron Jerrell Newton for his post-Super Bowl press conference. Every make of cameras, lights, microphones, digital recorders, iPhones, iPads, and Androids were aimed in Cam’s direction as he took his seat, alone, at the dais, in front of what must’ve seemed to be a titanic and endless ocean of journalists. Cam wore a blue Carolina Panther’s hooded sweatshirt, the hood part was atop his head, and his mood and energy were that of a man who was bare-fisting the brick walls of an agonizing depression. He bowed his head several times; his left hand reached inside the hood to rub or scratch his scalp; sometimes he made eye contact with the media, most times he did not; he spoke in a hushed monotone; he could not hide the disgusted smirk that was graffiti-ed on his face. Cam did not want to be there, did not want to participate in his own crucifixion. Superman had been humiliated, and they had questions for him. He had answers for them, too, and they were short, cryptic, to the point, defensive, non-committal.

“We’ll be back.”

“No.”

“Got outplayed.”

“Got outplayed, bro.”

“They just played better than us.”

“I don’t know what you want me to say.”

Reporter: “Can you put into words the disappointment you feel?”

Cam: “We lost.”

He felt attacked. He felt dissed. He looked like a severely bruised caged bird yearning to fly himself away from the humans with the weird gadgets pointed straight at him. Did not help, either, that the poorly constructed partition between his press conference and that of the winning team, the Denver Broncos, meant he could overhear one opponent after another boast about how they harassed and shut down his game. Him who had thrown for 3837 yards and 35 touchdowns, and rushed for 10 additional TDs, in his MVP season. Him who in his first five years in the National Football League had total stats that rivaled the first half decade of surefire Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, while only missing two games—one because of injury and the other due to a car accident. Him who has almost magically placed an entire team on his Paul Bunyan shoulders and made that squad, and football, relevant and electrifying in the college basketball-obsessed state of North Carolina. Yes, Cam had had a bad game. Yes, that bad game happened to be his worst of the entire season, at the worst possible time. And yes Cam, admittedly, is a sore loser. But who actually enjoys losing? So there was Cam, no smile, no teeth, no dimples, no expression, suddenly a man-child in this promised land, facing a restless and relentless jury that had been waiting for Superman to fall from the sky. And Superman had crashed and burned, terribly.

“I’m done.”

PRESS PAUSE: On this day it was not clear how prophetic Cam Newton’s words and actions would be. Almost like he would become undone by the hype of his MVP campaign and that unsightly Super Bowl loss, leading to this current dismal season, one stilted and awkward press conference after another, a concussion and much punishment to Cam’s body, to the point of him pleading directly to National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell for help, and protection—

PUSH PLAY: And with that Cam Newton got up and ended the press conference after less than three minutes. As his muscular, chiseled frame rose one could see he was still wearing his white football pants soiled with the grass and dirt from the fifteen times he was hit and the six times the Broncos had manhandled and sacked him. Superman ain’t ‘spose to have a bad attitude, and the reactions were swift. Super Bowl-winning commentators such as Joe Theismann and Deion Sanders and every couch potato with a remote control and access to the comments section of a website condemned Cam. “Immature.” “Unprofessional.” “Arrogant.” “Unacceptable.” “Polarizing.” “Egomaniac….”

Cam Newton had perpetrated the cardinal sin. Not only did he lose, but he lost without grace and class, so they said. Manning, the winning quarterback on this day, once walked, angrily, off a Super Bowl field after his then Indianapolis Colts were beaten by Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints, not shaking hands or congratulating anyone, and that gesture has been deleted from memory. New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick has mumbled his way, often disrespectfully and sarcastically, through many press conferences over the years, with a permanently sour demeanor, but that does not register scathing rebukes of his character. But as Cam had said himself a few days before the Super Bowl, “I’m an African American quarterback, that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing they can compare me to.” In other words, he had been dealing with heavy criticism throughout his MVP season and his career—don’t dance, don’t smile so much, don’t be so happy, don’t be so hip-hop, stop acting like you are Superman, because you are not….

Finally, the self-anointed Superman had been humbled and silenced, before a worldwide audience, by Von Miller and the Broncos vaunted defense, in the last game, no less, for the legendary Manning, with the third biggest television audience in United States history. Newton had completed a lowly 18 of 41 passes for 265 yards, with one interception and two fumbles. On one of those fumbles Newton hesitated, looked at the ball as it sputtered on the ground, actually took a step back, then made a half-hearted effort to go for the football, with the game on the line. It was too late, and the Broncos had the ball, and the victory. No matter how unfairly that one fumble would be replayed over and over, across multiple platforms, cementing for some the notion that Cam Newton, the most remarkable and supremely talented athlete in America other than, maybe, Serena Williams or LeBron James or Mike Trout, was not only a sore loser, but a quitter, too.

LOS ANGELES IS WHERE PEOPLE GO TO BE STARS. It is in this rambling Southern California municipality of 3.8 million that the cocktail chasers of film, television, music, media, and sports march and herd, searching for money, fame, or, sheepishly, the unfussy prospect of being seen, or seen as anything but their true selves. L.A., the Hollywood edition of it, is the Mickey Mouse glass house of movers and shakers and hustlers and fakers. It is a place of perfect Mediterranean weather, United Nations-heavy ethnic diversity, majestically picturesque mountains, swaying, lazy palm trees, and fertile, beige beaches along each congested freeway drive, and as many billboard ads for new movies and tv shows as there are for plastic surgery and breast implants. The sexy, magnetic pull of Los Angeles is a thrill seekers wet dream: the shiny, overpriced automobiles; the uber-trendy, upscale restaurants; the velvet V.I.P. opportunities to grind elbows with the wealthy and the wannabes.

Cam Newton retreated to L.A. after that Super Bowl disaster to engineer his second career while still in the prime of his first: his new Nickelodeon program “All In with Cam Newton.” Much of the first season’s twenty episodes are set amidst the sun-kissed days of Los Angeles. The youth are an assortment of ages and cultures. This seems to be intentional, perhaps to counter beliefs that Cam has mostly Black appeal, that he is only able to relate to African Americans. The show is good, vastly appealing, kinda like “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” meets Peter Pan, where Cam morphs into a witty and mild-mannered sidekick helping youth to achieve their dreams in life, or to get them closer to their dreams. Here you see a side of Cam rarely depicted in the media: he still has his washtub chockfull of charm and gusto, but he is also funny, very funny. And he is at ease with these children, who include an aspiring weatherman, a budding politician, a singer with the voice of a Broadway diva, and a girl basketball player. We learn that Cam is deathly afraid of snakes in two episodes, that he is actually shocked and nervous that he has gotten an audience with First Lady Michelle Obama for the politician named Rosie; and that he, ever the big kid, loves to spit booger jokes. But more telling, to me, is the fact that Cam is liberated in this space with the kids. It is here that he smiles brightly as one boy dabs, here that he makes thinly veiled references to his disastrous post-Super Bowl press conference, here that his compassion cup runneth over as these children talk about the pressures of life, and here that he does not blink when it is obvious one of the kids has two mothers, two queer parents. In a word, Cam is free. I can imagine little Cameron visualizing being a professional football player and wishing his 10-year-old self would have had a tv big brother like him. And I imagine taping this show has been healing for Cam, because in kids, yes you do get unfiltered and raw conversations; but missing is the brutal judgement and condemnation Cam has been shouldering from media and haters his entire adult life, since he was a highly touted teenage college recruit. Therefore, Los Angeles serves a dual purpose for Cam Newton: it is a place where he can test the waters of his superstardom in a different way, with the children’s show, to gauge what else may be possible as a host, a personality, maybe even a multimedia juggernaut like past pigskin luminaries Howie Long and Michael Strahan. And Los Angeles is likewise a protective bubble so loaded with other household-name celebs that it allows Cam to be looser, and himself.

I thought of these things as I walked around the annual Gatorade Player of the Year Awards inside the LA Hotel Downtown, right near the Staples Center where Kobe Bryant retired from basketball a couple of months before. This yearly celebration for the top female and male high school athlete in America, kick-started back in 1985, is granted based on athletic ability, academic achievement, and high character. There is chatter if Cam Newton, scheduled to co-bestow the male Gatorade Athlete of the Year, will actually show up. His agent had previously told me Cam was definitely not going to the ESPYs the next night, in spite of being nominated for Best Male Athlete and Best NFL Player. Thus I wondered, too. Still no Cam as soccer’s Landon Donovan, football’s Todd Gurley, and basketball’s Karl-Anthony Towns mounted the stage to announce the boy winner. Just as the trio was reading the teleprompter, Cam Newton strolled out, looking self-conscious, very late, blaming his tardiness on the immovable parking lot they call Los Angeles traffic. An audible gasp went through the Gatorade banquet at Cam’s sudden appearance, he grinned shyly, and stood with his hands folded obediently in front of him. He was wearing a Black suit jacket, a white rose in his lapel, a white shirt, a multi-colored bowtie, and grey slacks, with black shoes and his trademark wrist accessories of a watch and colorful Lokai beaded bracelets. As always Cam is clean shaven, save his meticulously clipped goatee. He dives in and announces St. Louis native Jayson Tatum, bound for college basketball at Duke University, as the boy’s national winner. During the photo opps with the girl and boy awardees, Cam, the court jester, pretends to give five foot eight Landon Donovan a boost so he could be as tall as the other athletes on stage. We are then ushered, with great difficulty, from the banquet to another room where a rapid-fire round robin of media interviews will happen for the ten Gatorade finalists, and the pro athletes, too. If Cam moves the crowd moves. But if Cam stops, then the crowd stops. Clearly, most of the media and others in attendance want to speak with and listen to Cam. No matter, several times I hear Cam mouth to his agent and the Gatorade reps “Are we done yet?” as he does not want to do this. Cam constantly checks the two cellphones in his goliath, leather-brown palms. “Come on man! We only half done?” The one moment Cam seems himself, and at ease, is when he sits in the middle of the room with the Gatorade high school athletes and jaws with them about sports, about their massive responsibilities. He is animated, he is excited, and the young athletes are in awe that they are convening in a tight circle with the Cam Newton. Then he is back up, back into the shift of interviews, back to his handlers and Gatorade reps announcing in five minute intervals or so ROTATE! ROTATE! to us journalists, to say your time is up with Cam or the other athletes. It is something of an assembly-line effect that I have not experienced in many years. I’ve asked for as much time as I can get, but Cam’s agent has made it clear to me, before I speak with his client, that that ain’t happening, and that he is not happy about something that recently appeared about Cam on ESPN.com. I have no idea what the agent is referring to, precisely. I am told I get ten minutes—

When I finally sit down with Cam for the first time, in this heated haze of activity, I have the feeling he is looking through me, not at me, that he sees me as another cardboard media cut-out. To help him align his eyes and his attention I speed-dial my intro to Cam: that I have written about American idols like Tupac Shakur and Dave Chappelle through the years, that I am a diehard hip-hop head like him, that I want to tell his story differently, tell it as the whole human being he is. Something in Cam wakes up, his body language softens; he really sees me, and is listening, and talking….

“Me growing up, if somebody asked me a question of how would eighteen or seventeen-year-old Cam, you know, going back and looking ten years or however many years later, would I imagine being in this point, I would have said Yes! But with it, that was just me dreamin’….

“Nobody else could tell me that I was not gonna make it to the NFL. And, you know, often times I hear so many people say have a Plan B a Plan C. Well, I didn’t. I turned my ear to that because I just wanted to have a Plan A and finding ways to master Plan A….”

I wanted to go far deeper, but it was ridiculously loud in this makeshift media room, and I duly noted that every single time I asked Cam a question, or he answered one, his handlers, already on edge, leaned in, just as they had done with every other media pit stop before me. I had never seen an athlete or entertainer so closely monitored. What were they afraid of? Was it because they knew they could not entirely control Cam, who he was, what he might say? Or was it because Cam is many things, and it is difficult to gauge which Cam you are going to get on any given day? Like the city of Los Angeles where we were, Cam Newton is a tale of two frequencies: he is, no doubt, South Los Angeles and East Los Angeles, where Black and Brown working-class people, like the family from which he comes, wrestle with finances, mediocre public schools, gang and street violence, gentrification, and a dreadful police-community saga that includes the Watts rebellion of 1965 and motorist Rodney King being savagely struck with cop batons, on videotape, over eighty times in 1991. It was the acquittal of those police officers who beat King, in April 1992, that led to the infamous L.A. riots. But then there is the Los Angeles where Cam Newton is incubating his big boy power moves, where you never know who or what someone is, whether they are real or make-believe, where one moment they can be friendly and accessible and the very next glum and remote, a non-person with an attitude. Maybe Cam Newton, like this city of angels, permanent tans, and cigar-colored smog, is both, because that is the nature of things in this swath of territory bracketed by that mountainous HOLLYWOOD sign and its addictive myth-making machine.

CAM NEWTON HAS FINISHED HIS WORST FOOTBALL SEASON EVER. It flared up noisily like cheap firecrackers in training camp when a GQ magazine cover story appeared and Cam proclaimed, naively, that racism did not matter any longer, that America was “beyond that.” Not sure if this was Newton’s reaction to the avalanche of negative attention he has received as “an African American quarterback,” or because the Carolina Panthers hired, a couple of years ago, a Republican strategist and public relations advisor named Frank Luntz to work with him and the team. Yes, the same Frank Luntz who has molded the messages of right-wing crusaders like Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, and who once said of Newton, “With the right language he can help cement his place in the NFL as one of the great franchise quarterbacks, like Brady, Rodgers, Favre.” However, Cam Newton’s racial moonwalking in GQ backfired and social media, principally “Black” twitter, went in on the Panthers’ leading man, with many labeling him “sell-out,” “coon,” and “Uncle Tom.” People were surely not buying Cam’s logic that “one-eighth of an inch” should not be the reason why there is racism in America, given that “under that we’re all the same color.” Not when Black folks experienced two extremely traumatic police murders this past Summer, in Louisiana and Minnesota, both on videotape, both heartless and excessive, and both Black men in trapped, vulnerable positions. And not when Cam’s quarterback buddy Colin Kaepernick elected, during training camp, to make the courageous and controversial move not to stand for the national anthem as these police murders of Blacks continue to occur in one random American locale after another. But Cam seemed to be confused, or unable and unwilling to find a clear and consistent way to talk about race and racism, even resorting to wearing a Dr. King tee shirt before one early season game in the aftermath of yet another police shooting, this one right in Charlotte where the Panthers play, and on the heels of that GQ blunder. People were not buying it, the MLK tee shirt, nor Cam’s use of the word “oppression,” nor his Republican-like analysis around Black America and personal responsibility, either.

On the field Cam Newton plainly has not been the same player. His offensive line has been decimated by injuries, the receiving corps and the running game have swung between missing-in-action and there just barely enough, and the defense is a shell of its former self, beginning with upper management’s foolish resolution to let All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman sign with the Washington team. With Cam Newton and his very unique journey to NFL superstardom we have a football player who once won the Heisman Trophy, a national championship at Auburn University, and was the league’s number one overall draft pick in a span of six months; and whose journey, in only the past ten months, has gone from most valuable player, Super Bowl qb, and the new face of the National Football League, to embarrassingly mediocre stats and embarrassingly mediocre play. The fall from the mountaintop has been swift and it has been harsh. Is Cam Newton a target in various ways? Oh yes, just look at film of games in the 2016 season where he has been hit high, hit low, and opposing players have squarely aimed for his head. Why, again, did Cam appeal to Commissioner Goodell for protection? Case in point is the recent Monday night affair where Newton got matched against former teammate and sparring partner Norman. On a scramble Cam was torpedoed, helmet-to-helmet, by Washington linebacker Trent Murphy, while sliding to avoid being popped. Disgusted, the quarterback bounced to his feet and chucked the ball in Murphy’s direction. Cam Newton was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, while Murphy received no penalty. This has been the pattern throughout the season, and if one examines past years, this has perpetually been the pattern. Maybe Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera is correct in saying the assumption is that because Cam is such a big man, specifically for a quarterback, that he can absorb the body blows, the way players used to beat up on the freakishly gargantuan Shaquille O’Neal during his basketball career. Or maybe it is because Cam Newton is forever hotly debated and widely disliked, because he is seen as arrogant, aloof, “an uppity nigger” to some in White America, and detached from the reality of what it is to be a Black man, or “a real nigga,” in Black America. Think W.E.B. DuBois’ classic breakdown of this country’s racial double consciousness and you got Cam Newton, essentially: Black folks want Cam Newton to be Blacker, stronger, and White folks do not want Cam Newton to be too Black too strong. And then there is the sentiment that Cam Newton is overly pampered by the Panther hierarchy, that he is permitted to do whatever he feels, whenever he feels, because of his cozy father-son relationship with owner Jerry Richardson. Or can he? In arguably the weirdest coda of this doomed season Cam was benched at the coin flip of a Sunday night game against the Seattle Seahawks, for violating a team rule. His violation? Not wearing a necktie during a team flight. His replacement, Derek Anderson, promptly threw an interception and it was run back for a touchdown on the very first play; and although Newton came in for the Panthers’ next series, Carolina was thoroughly defeated in this nationally televised contest. So bad has Newton been this season, so inconsistent, that his stats are worse than what they were in his first or second years in the NFL, when young quarterbacks traditionally go through the tortuous growing pains of learning the difference between the college game and the pro game. And so bad has Cam Newton been at times that broadcasters and writers are questioning everything about him, including his foot work and throwing mechanics, his purported sore right shoulder, and whether or not he relies too much on his “natural talents.”

All of this is problematic, no doubt, because playing football is Cam Newton’s golden parachute to fame and fortune, and the hope is he will have a long and successful career. He is a man who also stands on the shoulders of Black athletes who came before him, like Curt Flood, baseball maverick and father of sports free agency; like Oscar Robertson, basketball god and basketball role model; like Doug Williams, the first Black Super Bowl-winning quarterback back in 1988, none of whom could have conjured what Cam Newton has: a $103.8 million dollar contract with $60 million in guaranteed money; endorsement deals with major brands like Gatorade, Under Armour, Microsoft Corporation, General Motors, and Dannon Yogurt. This plus Cam’s Nickelodeon gig means this product of Georgia makes additional millions outside the lines, that someone recognizes and respects his marketable combination of Muhammad Ali and Huey Newton prettiness, evident leadership qualities, family-friendly values, and an ability to be a zealous cheerleader for others, be it those kids on his Nick show, or his teammates on the field, or anything that excites and motivates him. All of this making Cam Newton a pitchman who might very well transcend the millions Peyton Manning still corrals in his now done sports career. If he can maintain, and survive, on and off the field—

BLACK ATHLETES HAVE NEVER HAD IT EASY IN AMERICA, even with otherworldly star power or sudden and exorbitant wealth. They have a history of being seen as different, problematic, someone or some thing to be contained, told what to do, and how to do it. This is why Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight champion of the world in the early 1900s, was considered notorious, evil, cancerous. He dared to give America the middle finger and an unforgivable Blackness, in the Jim Crow era where Blacks were being roped up and hung from trees, no less. Johnson was a kind of Black man, a kind of Black athlete, who had never been seen before, who was not only wildly triumphant as a boxer, but who also openly and brazenly dated and sexed White women. It made White America afraid, uncomfortable, angry, and eventually Johnson was taken down, for his sexual escapades, by the Mann Act in 1912. In between the over twenty-year span of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, there was not another Black heavyweight champion, and Blacks were fundamentally banned from the major sports of baseball and football and basketball as well. Once he became boxing’s new world champ in 1937 Louis—AKA the Brown Bomber—represented the kind of Black male athlete White America could love: he was quiet, shy, buttoned-up, servile, obedient, controllable, and the only place he truly did his speaking was in a boxing ring. And Joe Louis went out of his way to show his patriotism by doing whatever he could for World War II efforts. In spite of his well-behaved persona Louis aged dramatically, had substantial debt, and he was reduced to being, for a spell, a senior citizen casino greeter in Las Vegas. Just like how Jesse Owens won those four gold medals for America in the infamous 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany, and the best his country could offer him to earn a living after, as a human being, as a man, was, among other indignities, foot-racing against horses.

That is why, when I look at a Cam Newton, who could quite possibly go down in the annals of athletics with the same level of fame and impact as Jack Johnson, as Joe Louis, as Jesse Owens, I also feel he has a bit of a kinship to Muhammad Ali. Like Ali Cam has always been outgoing, since he was a boy. Like Ali Cam was a class clown, a man blessed with an Olympian physique and the competitor toolbox of a Jim Thorpe, a Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a Magic Johnson. So great is Cam’s sway that his Number 1 jersey is one of the biggest sellers in the National Football League, he had a legion of fans doing the dab, even kids at the National Spelling bee last year. This is what American football has become, our new national pastime, long ago surpassing baseball. It is because football parallels so many things that are unique to the American social fabric: speed, power, the warrior mentality, hyper-masculinity, and, yes, violence. Football, our football, is the post-modern gladiator sport for those who enjoy the crunching of bones, the pounding of flesh, and the busting of heads. It is a ferocious and abusive sport, it hurts to play football, and it hurts, in a way some could never fathom, to religiously watch and digest football, too. The sport has grown from a barnstorming league into a global billion-dollar conglomerate many of us have come of age with. When I was a child of the 1970s my idols had names like Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett of the Dallas Cowboys, and Fran Tarkenton and Chuck Foreman of the Minnesota Vikings. We youth played our version of football in my hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey, sometimes in the park, sometimes in a nearby cemetery with plenty of grass, and sometimes on the streets with the piss-smeared concrete and dented parked cars. We did not care if we broke noses, dislocated shoulders, or demolished our knees. It was our pathway into our manhood, this game called football, because if you could withstand this, on an actual team or the pick-up games around the way, then you were truly on the road to being a man. I did not know, when I was a youth, about concussions, about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or the everlasting injuries that would assault and arrest the post-career lives of these he-men. I saw this as I flew on a flight to California maybe a month before I met Cam Newton. To my surprise the plane was filled with former Cowboys who had played for the team in the 1970s, the 1980s, and 1990s. They ranged in age from 40something to their early 70s. They were men of all sizes, and some were White and some were Black. But what they had in common was how uncomfortable they seemed, their battered selves, these tormented years later, sitting in the legroom-challenged coach class. I spoke with two of the players, one from the 1980s, one from the 1990s, and both complained of several persistent body aches. And how they were making their living, predominantly, doing autograph signings and picking up speaking engagements wherever they could. Cam Newton would say to me at that Gatorade event “I got to maximize it on the field as much as I can as well as off the field.” Because the truth is we do not know if Cam will make it as a football player to 40, as Peyton did, as Brett Favre did, as Tom Brady is doing. This is because the average player is lucky to survive in the National Football League, injury-free, maybe 3-5 years, and a small percentage make it past age 30. I think there is no question that Cam wants to go down as one of the greatest players ever. But I also think it is clear that his off-the-field activities mean he is likewise aware he needs to have a life beyond football, especially when it was Magic Johnson who once told me that something in the range of 80 percent of professional football and basketball players wind up dead broke after their careers are over.

And of all the Black quarterbacks who’ve come through the revolving door of the National Football League, there has not been one like Cam Newton: he is a stud athlete plus a fashion icon plus a dream for Madison Ave marketing specialists. Perhaps that is why his handlers leaned in on every single interview at the Gatorade awards, especially after the debacle and humiliation of the Super Bowl press conference. It was said in the immediate aftermath that Cam’s reputation and stock could be affected by his lack of sportsmanship, that he would lose deals, that brands would shy away from his far too risky and unpredictable persona, and clearly someone somewhere had gotten to him to say he should not screw up this golden parachute sitting right before him. But what price does one have to pay to play one’s sport and to be a man, a holistic man, too? Ali sacrificed everything, by refusing induction into the army to go to the Vietnam War. He was stripped of his heavyweight title, lost his best years as a prize fighter, and struggled to earn an income of any amount, doing speaking gigs wherever he could, and even winding up on Broadway as an unexceptional actor. And Ali boxed well past when he should have, was badly managed financially, and spent his silent years as he suffered from Parkinson’s making public appearances—in some cases ones he did not want to make—and signing autographs with his shaky hand so that his family, as he put it, could eat.

As for the highly successful Black quarterback, there are few real precedents for Cam Newton on the field, unless you retreat back close to a century, to the very first Black quarterback ever, Fritz Pollard, and the position was not even called that in the early 1920s when pro football truly caught on. Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard, named after the distinguished abolitionist and orator who was born a slave, played in the NFL when it was still called the American Professional Football Association. Pollard was a running back who would ultimately get under center to get the ball, the prototype for the modern quarterback position. As a star athlete at Brown University, Pollard had become, in 1916, the first African American ever to play in the Rose Bowl. He later competed for the Akron Pros, the team he would lead to the NFL (APFA) championship in 1920. In 1921, Pollard became the co-head coach of the Akron Pros, while still maintaining his roster position as running back. The following year, he again proved a dominant player while doubling as the first African American coach in the league. The APFA was renamed the National Football League in 1922, and Pollard served as one of its primary gate attractions over the next few years, much the way Cam Newton is today, because Fritz could both throw and run the ball. However, Pollard, along with the nine other Black players in the NFL in that era, were removed from the league at the end of the 1926 season, never to return again. By 1933, Blacks were all but unofficially banned from the National Football League entirely, not to show up until 1946. And before, since, the shadowy whispers of Black quarterbacks come and gone would hut-hut-hike their plea to be….

Fritz Pollard…. George Taliafero…. Willie Thrower…. Charlie “Choo Choo” Brackins…. Eldridge Dickey…. Marlin Briscoe…. Onree Jackson…. James Harris…. Joe Gilliam…. Vince Evans…. Doug Williams.… Warren Moon… Andre Ware…. Randall Cunningham…. Jeff Blake…. Kordell Stewart…. Donovan McNabb…. Steve McNair…. Michael Vick…. Daunte Culpeper…. Vince Young.… Russell Wilson…. Colin Kaepernick…. Robert Griffith III.… Tyrod Taylor.… Cam Newton…. Jameis Winston…. Dak Prescott….

Many Black quarterbacks, instead of an opportunity to field the position, were turned into or became, out of necessity or desperation, running backs, cornerbacks, or wide receivers, as former Oakland Raider QB Terrell Pryor did for the Cleveland Browns in 2016. Quite a few had to escape to the Canadian Football League, a de facto Negro Leagues for Black quarterbacks, to prove they had the maturity and intelligence and skill sets to pilot a team. There are countless stories of mentalities and conducts being interrogated; of anger repressed or exploded; of a Black quarterback like Joe Gilliam of the Pittsburgh Steelers, in one of the golden eras of the 1970s, becoming so disillusioned with losing the job he’d won from Terry Bradshaw, that he was out of the NFL by age 25, followed by a troubled and damaged life wrecked by drugs and alcohol and homelessness. There are also stories of Black quarterbacks drafted or signed but when you look at their career stats they never played a single game at quarterback, or barely got in. Quarterback is the glamour position of professional football, the kingpin, the general, the sheriff; and given the history of racism in America it is little wonder that certain kinds of owners and sports media did not think Black men were intelligent enough, or qualified enough, to be quarterbacks, never giving most of them a fair shake. And the only colleges providing Black quarterbacks a legitimate shot were schools running the option offense (because of the historic judgement that each and every Black man is a naturally gifted athlete, and, thus, naturally fast)—or historically Black colleges and universities, like Tennessee State where Gilliam was the star and his dad was the defensive coordinator. Indeed, Steve McNair remains one of only three HBCU quarterbacks taken in the first round—alongside Eldridge Dickey and Doug Williams.

Outside of attending a Black college, which Cam did not, the only other thing that could have prepared him for any of this was his own family history and traditions and methods of survival. His mother, Jackie Newton, and her roots are in St. Mark’s Parish, South Carolina, before they migrated to Statesboro, Georgia by the early 1900s. His father, Cecil Newton, Sr., has kin steeped in the rust-brown dirt of Georgia going back to 1816. Like so many Black people made in America during and after slavery, it is a history of victories and losses, of sorrow and joy, of great highs and traumatic lows, of making something from nothing, of often having nothing but each other. There was Talbot Carter, great-great-great-grandfather of Cam Newton, a Black man who signed an oath book with an X (he could not read or write) in 1867, swearing that he had not rebelled during the Civil War against the state of Georgia, so that he could vote. About a dozen years later, Talbot Carter, in 1880, was tilling 69 acres of land, which he rented on a fixed income. There were a range of occupations for Cam’s clan that included domestic workers, a porter in a shoe store, and farmers, some of whom owned the land and some of whom did not. There were some relatives who referred to themselves as “mulatto,” or, rather, mixed race, instead of colored or Negro or Black, because anything except full Blackness gave them some social wiggle room in terms of employment or the ability to navigate through a racist and hostile environment. There was one family member who wound up, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, in a mental institution, something Black people did not discuss then, and rarely discuss in these times either. There was Talmadge Wilder, Jackie’s father and Cam’s grandfather, who had been a brick layer, a soldier during World War II, and who was arrested for “simple larceny” in the late 1940s, spending two years in jail. In those days that could have meant a petty crime, maybe, or it could have meant that Cam’s granddaddy had pissed off the wrong White police officer or White judge and been given that sentence; kinda how so many Black males, myself included, have been charged with “resisting arrest” when we had done no such thing. Even more fascinating is that Talmadge Wilder was once listed as “mulatto”; but in the aftermath of World War II he chose to identify as Black. It was the time period of the great migration and the first warning shots of the Civil Rights Movement. Bishop Talmadge Wilder would go on to found Holy Zion Holiness Church in Savannah, Georgia. It was there in the swamp-like humidity of that river city that Cecil and Jackie met as college students at the historically Black Savannah State University. A football player at school, Cecil had pro tryouts with the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys in the early 1980s but nothing stuck and his career ended. A regal and proud Black man, he and his wife had three boys, Cecil Jr., Cam, and Caylin. Cecil Jr. was mostly on practice squads in his short NFL career as a three-hundred-pound offensive lineman, and Caylin is in his senior year as a high school quarterback. Cam, the middle child, was born on May 11, 1989, under the sign of Taurus, one that claims leadership, daring, but also mule-like stubbornness and turbulent emotions. Taurus folk like Cam crave stability, family, but also get bored very easily. Cam was that kind of child, from pee wee football through high school. He was blessed, he would tell me, to have his father in the home, especially when so many around him did not: “My dad is one of those dads that at least—I can’t even put a number on ‘em: They call him pops. I call him pops, my best friends called him pops.”

With that foundation, and an Atlanta full of possibilities for Black people—mayors and other elected officials, thriving entrepreneurs in every field imaginable, the explosion of entertainment empires ranging from L.A. Reid and Babyface to Jermaine Dupri, The Dungeon Family, and Tyler Perry, to every kind of Black person in every kind of occupation, little wonder that someone like Cam Newton growing up in that environment would think highly of himself, would think anything was possible. Add to that the revolution of hip-hop as the dominant music and youth culture of the past four decades, where a young Cam, as he made his way between school and practice, between home and church, and in the confines of his room, more than likely had a steady diet of Atlanta-area rap figures such as Goodie Mob, Outkast, Kriss Kross, Organized Noize, Ludacris, Lil Jon, Bone Krusher, T.I., DJ Drama, Killer Mike, Gucci Mane, Migos (as in “Look at My Dab”), Skippa Da Flippa, Peewee Longway, and Rich The Kid. This art form has impacted what is now multiple hip-hop generations, of all races and colors and backgrounds. Cam was and is no different. It is a music, it is a culture, it is our blues, our jazz, our rock and roll, our language, our value system, our way of seeing the world. It is from that culture, that was created by poor African Americans, poor Latinos, and poor West Indians, the same poor folks who Dr. King, that other Atlanta dreamer, warned us not to abandon at the end of his life, that we get the hairstyles, the tattoos, the creative ways Black athletes don their uniforms and accessories; where we get the bald heads and the dreadlocks, and, yes, where we got Cam Newton doing the dab, of him wearing colorful, eye-grabbing clothes, and shutting down press conferences when he no longer wants to be bothered. It is a culture of resistance, was created as such, it is a culture of doing for self, of winning on our own terms, and its roots can be found in the field hollers and spirituals of slaves and farmers like Cam’s ancestors in South Carolina and Georgia, in the bebop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, in the daring base stealing of Jackie Robinson, in the take-no-prisoners running style of legendary Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown, in the poetry of Muhammad Ali and his hype man Drew Bundini Brown, in the call and response of the Black churches many of us grew up in, including that of Cam’s parents; it is in the rhetoric and speech patterns of Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, and the Black Panther Party; it is found in the way Michigan’s Fab Five amplified the trend of extra baggy basketball shorts, in the way Deion Sanders danced and two-stepped whenever he made a great play, in the way the late great Stuart Scott, him of ESPN lore, did his reports as if he were a dope emcee with just one chance to rap the funkiest rhymes in the history of the genre. This is hip-hop, our church, our gospel. And the Black church, yes, is itself the other space of liberation for Black folks who are not able to express themselves freely. It is there we can cut loose. Spiritual therapy, I call it, where, if your church has no restrictions whatsoever, is not embarrassed to be Blacker than Black, where you will see choirs swaying, parishioners dancing and crying and running laps around the aisles as the holy ghost gets all up in them. When you hear Cam Newton say he is going to be who he is, he is talking about where he came from, where in that Black church excellence was expected of you, and greatness, too, in everything you do. You smile, you dance, you celebrate, you be your unabashedly African self. In the Black church, as in hip-hop, you do not care who is watching you, who is listening. Whatever you are you are, and we keep it a hundred, as we say. And in a world where the National Football League has been densely populated by Black male bodies who either grew up in urban America or rural America, who have some relationship, more than likely to both hip-hop and the Black church, to Black spiritual practices of some sort, it is inevitable, really, that our culture and our values would clash with that of White America. But many of us do not care because we know we’ve got one opportunity, often, to be who we are. As Cam had said to me, there is no Plan B or C—

So like those Gatorade national finalists, Cam would break several records at Westlake High School, and would be heavily recruited by schools like Oklahoma and Virginia Tech and the University of Florida. He wound up at the University of Florida, as an understudy to Tim Tebow. In the midst of that he did something very dumb, something I have done, that many young people have done. He stole something, a laptop computer. Between that incident and allegations of academic dishonesty Cam was forced to leave Florida and landed at tiny Blinn College in Texas. He put up huge numbers, he won a national junior college championship, and he decided on Auburn University in Alabama as his primetime move. This is where it once again got dicey. Rumors circulated that his dad was auctioning his son’s college services to the highest bidder. What is fact or fiction is still muddled, but this carried on throughout Cam’s lone season at Auburn, as he crushed quarterback passing and rushing records, became a lightning rod and a cult hero, won the Heisman Trophy Award as college football’s best player, and topped it off by leading Auburn to the national championship with a win over Oregon in Glendale, Arizona. All along Cam’s eligibility held in the balance, and eventually Cecil, Sr., was banned from the Heisman ceremony and the national championship game, too. Cecil would later say he had to fall on the sword to protect his son, and in other interviews dad would comment about how unfair amateur athletics was, how much money was made from these unpaid college kids. Revealing, kind of, when you think about it. And perhaps some truth to the rumors that Cam’s father was peddling his son’s services, known or unknown by Cam. After all dad himself had played football, knew the demands and rigors of the sport first hand, knew that the window of celebrity is small and can close at any time. And also as a proud Black man Cam’s father was keenly aware of how big time college sports, specifically basketball and football, make millions of dollars off these athletes, many of whom never get their college degrees, and all but a few actually make it to the pros.

Cam did, even as the pundits said he was not pro football quarterback material, and definitely not the number one overall draft pick, and not even someone worthy of the first round, either. We’ve heard this song before. But Jerry Richardson, owner of the Carolina Panthers, saw and felt something about Cam Newton. Like Cam, Richardson is also a product of the South—Spring Hope, North Carolina—played his collegiate football at Wofford College in South Carolina, and was a member of the Baltimore Colts illustrious championship team of 1959, led by the crew cut-wearing storybook of a dude christened Johnny Unitas. Richardson would go into business, making a fortune in the food franchising and food service industry, and in 1995 he purchased the Carolina Panthers, now worth $1.5 billion, for $206 million. Mr. Richardson, as Cam calls him, asked his star quarterback to not be so outwardly hip-hop—no earrings, no visible tattoos, no wild hairstyles, no hair on his face, save that trademark goatee. Cam said he could do it and, the naysayers notwithstanding, in his first season Newton broke all-time NFL rookie records for passing and rushing yards. He became the first NFL quarterback to throw for 400 yards in his opening game, shattering Peyton Manning’s first-game record by 120 yards. He also broke Otto Graham’s 61-year-old record for passing yards by any quarterback in an NFL debut. Newton would go on to become the first rookie quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a season, as well as the first rookie quarterback to rush for 700 yards. He also ran for 14 touchdowns, more in a single season than any quarterback in NFL history, breaking Steve Grogan’s 35-year-old record.

At six foot five inches and weighing 245 pounds, Cam is built like his favorite target, tight end, Greg Olsen. But that size does not matter. He has the running ability of Gale Sayers, the arm strength of Dan Marino, the on-field mental toughness and know-how of Joe Montana, the strategic vision of John Elway, and the swashbuckler sense of joy and adventure of Brett Favre. That he is Black doing this, in a country and in a football league that has never quite seen the likes of a Cam Newton, means that the pile on is mad real, folks searching hard for some hole or quirk in his game or personality, some way to knock that chip off Cam’s shoulder. Not coincidentally, Cam’s rise to national fame began in that 2007 first year at the University of Florida, just as another trailblazer, Barack Obama, had announced his first bid for president of the United States. Like Obama, Newton has been on a national stage ever since. Loved, hated, scrutinized, misunderstood, dissed, disrespected, his leadership and intelligence and aura questioned all over the place. The envy of the world, Ellis Cose once titled a book, referencing how Black men are looked upon and treated, in our America. A kind of gaze that makes one wonder if people see us, or simply see what they want to pin on us. But where previous Black quarterbacks faltered or failed or simply were not up to the job, or had brief moments of brilliance, Cam, season after season—and despite his substandard sixth season—is, as he put it, something we’ve never seen before. This is not to take anything from the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, but Cam is simply different, and that is okay. This is not to say Colin Kaepernick, who has a White mother and a Black father and was raised by two White surrogate parents, is somehow Blacker than Cam Newton because Colin openly protests America’s racism and Cam does not. There is no uniform Blackness, no one way of being a Black man or a Black athlete. The old game of good Negro versus bad Negro, of Floyd Patterson versus Muhammad Ali, of Michael Jordan versus Charles Barkley during their playing days, is as old as the slave master pitting Black slaves in the big house against Black slaves working in those cotton fields. There always has to be a counterpoint, someone to go against the Black person who makes Whites so very uncomfortable, to prove it is that Black person, not them, or their racism, that is the problem. This is why it is such a difficult thing for Cam Newton to be seen as the face of the National Football League, even if Peyton Manning, long that face, said as much last year. Much of the fan base who can afford those tickets are White. Many of them are White males. Many bring with them the worst possible stereotypes about Black people, about Black men, and are only comfortable with Black men shooting and dunking basketballs, or throwing and catching and running footballs, or tackling each other, hard, a la the battle royale scene in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. A Black man who is able to look you square in the eyes, say what he feels without apology, and smile in a very different kind of way than how Magic Johnson smiled, will make you uncomfortable. I love and admire Magic, as the revolutionary basketball player he was, as the revolutionary businessman that he is, but his smile was more of the Rodney King can-we-all-get-along smile, whereas behind and inside Cam’s smile is a smile his grandfather Bishop Talmadge Wilder more than likely also wore, throughout his life, one that says I am not afraid nor intimidated of you, you do not own me, and you never will—

IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT AS THE AMERICAN SOUTH GOES SO GOES AMERICAN POLITICS, American history and, I would add, American sports. As a child I was terrified of the American South. I was terrified by the stories of water hoses and barking dogs and Dr. King getting gunned down on the balcony of that Memphis motel. I was terrified of the stories of people, Black people, dying under mysterious circumstances, of the stories of the ghosts of ancestors and this relative or that relative walking, yes, walking, hundreds upon hundreds of miles, to get away from danger, although it was never quite explained why. I was terrified of the long, lonesome dirt roads, and I was terrified of those silent trees that seemed to keep secrets only God and the birds could comprehend. But I also know there is a beauty and magic and poetry to the South, too. It is the home of the Bible Belt, of biscuits and gravy and macaroni and cheese and fried chicken, of fireworks and barbeques, and it is the home of football, American football, the kind of prideful smash-mouth football that unites people, towns, counties, states, regions, this team or that team, this school or that school, because in football, as Cam Newton learned when he starred at Westlake High and Auburn, is where you can make a name for yourself. The American South, quite literally, and culturally, is a farm system, a breeding ground, for American sports, be it baseball, or basketball, or football, in a way no other locality of the nation is.

As I ease my rental car from the Charlotte airport, and drive on 85 South to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where the Panthers have their training camp, I reflect on this. Like Cam, my entire family tree is also rooted in the American South—proud Geechees from the Low Country of South Carolina—a quick drive across the Savannah River to where Newton’s granddaddy founded that church in Georgia. The American South is weighted by history, love, hate, rigid belief systems, and in-your-face contradictions. There is Southern hospitality and then there is an impenetrable embrace of the Confederate Flag, of words like “plantation.” There you find the hideous residue of slavery and segregation and there you find the source and birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. There is a worship of Jesus, that prophet of peace and togetherness, and then there is brick-wall resistance to full racial integration, still, to marriage equality, to immigrants, to “foreigners.” And there is an almost mythical and steady stream of astonishing Black athletes, athletes who transformed their sports, athletes breastfed Down South, but who did not make their names as professional sports icons, by and large, in the American South, like Willie Mays, like Hank Aaron, like Muhammad Ali, like Michael Jordan, like Steph Curry. No, they each may have been shaped by the American South in some way, but outside of Cam Newton, no Black pro athlete of his stature has ever been an ultra-dominant force in this part of the nation, as he was during his MVP season, and as he has been for much of his career. There is the one example of Michael Vick, he of Virginia and for a brief time the heralded quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, but we know how badly and how tragically that ended, for both Vick and his dogs. The only other example we can point to is Hank Aaron, back in 1973 and 1974, near the end of his Hall-of-Fame career, as he approached Babe Ruth’s homerun record. Aaron, from Alabama, was playing for the Atlanta Braves after the bulk of his resume had been spent with the Milwaukee Braves, before the team moved to ATL. Hank Aaron learned quickly and first-hand how sacred Ruth’s mark was to White America, to the American South, as he fielded every kind of death threat and hate mail imaginable. And this in the face of Aaron being the polar opposite of Cam Newton, if you will: quiet, soft-spoken, a throwback to the era before Black athletes were inspired by the likes of Ali and Jim Brown and Curt Flood to speak up for themselves, fearlessly, unashamedly. So in this sense, too, Cam Newton is a pioneer, a native son of the South treading water in this new territory.

This is where Cam Newton practices and plays and eats and sleeps and dreams football. South Carolina is as big a fan base for the Carolina Panthers as North Carolina, where the team plays its regular season games. As I walk slowly toward the practice field there is a sea of White faces and bodies and I wonder who amongst these many fans screaming Cam’s name are hardcore racists themselves, who believe the South was right during the Civil War, who own a Confederate Flag or two or three, and who only applaud for Black men if they are playing one sport or another. I bring my mind back to Spartanburg, where the team holds its pre-season training camp on the grounds of Wofford College. It is a spongy green campus, lined with redwood and sequoia trees; it has a statue of Mr. Richardson on the patio of the Harley Room in the Richardson Physical Activities Building; and it is a school that has just under 2000 full-time students. It is a cloudy and overcast morning, smells like rain, as Southern folks are prone to say, but that is not going to stop the session from happening. As I walk from the parking lot to the practice field, I do a quick Google check and see that in the city of Spartanburg, 21% of the residents are Black and 74% are White. This is evident, perhaps, by the majority of White fans, of all ages, who’ve shown up here as early as 7am, 8am, to get a look at their heroes, mostly Black men. It is not an unfamiliar sight to me as I have been to many football and basketball games through the years. But sports, it is assumed, is the great equalizer, and, I was told from my youth forward, a place where people of different backgrounds are in fact on even-level playing fields, but I simply no longer believe that, and have not for years—and it doesn’t matter how much I love sports and see it as an outlet for my blues. As is the case wherever I have traveled in the South, the people are polite, respectful, say “sir” and “ma’am” to initiate or punctuate most sentences— everyone from security guards to interns to local police officers are friendly and helpful to me. Many of the fans are wearing Carolina Panther player jerseys, with Cam’s number 1 being the most visible. As the players stream in, either by foot, on in golf carts, the fans scream for their favorites, like Greg Olsen or Luke Kuechly or Kelvin Benjamin. Then Cam Newton shows up sprinting on to the field, head down, white bandanna tied around his forehead, red practice jersey and white practice pants, as the too many to count children pushing along the practice field let out an infectious CAM! CAM! CAM! Tons of children out here, and nearly half the crowd are women, further illustrating that women and girls are the fastest growing demographic of football fans in America. Like his tv show these children are Newton’s real fans. They love Cam, really do see him as larger than life, as a Superman. I watch Cam horse around with teammates, stretch, go through sprints, and then a series of plays with backup quarterbacks Derek Anderson and Joe Webb. Every chance Cam gets he slyly eases his way to the section where screaming kids are, posing for a quick picture here or there, then moving back onto the field. There is a media throng, too, local and national media both, including CBS’ “60 Minutes,” which has been tracking Cam much of the year. Cam, the boy who grew up in the church has a foul mouth, and has rebelled very slightly against the rules about his clean-cut image: he has died his goatee blond and lets the f-bomb fly several times in practice. Like the fans I wait for Cam to exit the field once practice is over. He decides to do extra foot and speed work with the back-up quarterbacks, then slowly makes his way toward the fans clamoring for photos, or for him to sign their shirts, hats, footballs, or even somewhere on their bodies.

CAM! CAM! The children’s voices shriek again.

Cam Newton does his best to see, touch, high five, or sign something for every single person standing behind the fan area. When he leans in, they lean in, when he moves on a dejected sigh is voiced from that particular section. When Cam gets to a group of military personnel in uniform, each holding a football, he takes his time to thank them for their service, and carefully signs each of their footballs, then offers them a word of encouragement. You can see the joy in the eyes of the fans, of the military folks, of everyone who either clears a path for Cam, or who eagerly follow behind him as he makes his way back to the dorm building where the entire team is staying. Like his television show, this is Cam’s comfort zone, his sweet spot, where he is free, completely free, and he soaks in the adulation. The glow for Cam is so colossal that it is almost as if the other players do not exist. Cam is truly in his own universe, Elvis to their Jordainnaires, Michael Jackson to his brothers, Prince to his Revolution. You know they are there, you know the music would not happen without them, but everyone is always looking for the hero, hoping something about that hero will miraculously rub off on them—

ON THIS SWELTERING AUGUST NIGHT IN BALTIMORE THERE IS THE MOOD and feel of a regular season game, probably because it is Cam Newton and the Panthers the home-team Ravens are playing. In a booming M&T Bank Stadium there is purple everywhere. And there is Cam Newton on the near sideline, jumping up and down, pumping up his teammates as he always does. Cam is only going to play one series tonight, and he is already in midseason form, or so it seems. He completes crisp passes, and the only errant throw was a missed touchdown toss to Ted Ginn Jr. Rest of the half I follow Cam as much as I can on the sidelines, but he is a spirited soul. The man simply cannot sit still for more than a couple of minutes at time. When a teammate intercepted a Ravens pass and ran it back for a touchdown, there was Cam running down the sideline, bursting with glee. Except he did not realize he was on the turf. The refs huddled, and a penalty indicated that Cam was flagged for being an illegal substitution on the field of play. That touchdown was erased. Indeed, as I watch and hear the Panthers and Ravens crunch and clobber each other, in pads, as they sweat and yell, I wonder how many of these players, in the years yet to be seen, will suffer from CTE, will have arthritis, will barely be able to get out of bed each and every single day. And I wonder if these players know, or even realize, or even care, that the NFL fan base is 83 percent White and 64 percent male. These are people who pay staggering amounts of money to watch Black men have their bodies pummeled on the field. So as long as these Black male athletes run and hit and tackle, keep their helmets on and their mouths shut, then they are acceptable to the White mainstream public. However, when Black athletes choose to point their defiance not towards each other but to systematic inequalities, that’s when the backlash begins. Or if they dare to, like Cam Newton, have a chip on their shoulder, then they are crucified, even before they get into the league….

Very disingenuous—has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. Always knows where the cameras are and plays to them. Has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble and makes him believe he is above the law—does not command respect from teammates and always will struggle to win a locker room. Only a one-year producer. Lacks accountability, focus and trustworthiness—is not punctual, seeks shortcuts and sets a bad example. Immature and has had issues with authority. Not dependable.
Pro Football Weekly‘s Nolan Nawrocki, a White gentleman who played linebacker at Illinois (Spring 2011, the year Cam was drafted)

These are some of the kinder things that have been said about Cam Newton through the years. I recall the first Black professional football player, Charles Follis, who was nicknamed “The Black Cyclone.” A six foot two-hundred-pound halfback, I think of how he must have felt, from 1902 to 1906, when he played for the Shelby Blues of the Ohio League. To have fans threaten your life before, during, and after the games. To have players, White players, do everything they could to purposely hurt or injure you. To know that you were carrying not just the burden of your own destiny, but that of an entire race of people. One of his White teammates on that Shelby team in 1902 and 1903 was a young man named Branch Rickey. Rickey was a student at nearby Ohio Wesleyan University. Years later, in the 1940s, and as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, it was Branch Rickey who signed Jackie Robinson to be the first Black baseball player in the modern era. You have to wonder what he saw of Follis that impacted Rickey’s life. Follis only lived to age 31, dying of pneumonia in 1910, but it is in the ancient footprint of men like him, Black men like him, that Cam Newton walks, whether he knows it or not.

For the second half of the game I decided to sit in the media press box upstairs. I look around several times and notice that the vast majority of sports media are White men, a few diverse women, and less than five are Black males, counting me. I think about that stat of the National Football League being over 70 percent Black males, yet most of the folks working for sports newspapers, radio shows, television programs, websites, and podcasts have little to nothing in common with these Black men, and many, based on the media I have absorbed since I was a child, do not really even know or understand the America they, we, come from, and that is clear by the coverage. You wanna ask, Have you ever spent significant time in any Black community, be it working-class or middle-class? Ever set foot at a majority Black high school or historically Black college or university? Do you have a working knowledge of both American history, inclusive of all people, and also Black history, particularly given you have such strong opinions about these Black athletes? Ever thought about slavery, segregation, the crack epidemic, the prison-industrial complex, or how integration may have both helped and hurt Black America? Any knowledge, beyond the surface, about Black music, Black art, Black culture, Black spiritual practices, like the Black church or Black folks who might be Muslim? Any consideration to how Black English, to us, and hip-hop, to us, is our culture, our way of being, whether you like or understand it or not? You ever been pulled over by the police, harassed by the police, beaten by the police, racially profiled by the police? And do you have any idea what it is like to grow up in a world, an inner city world where the bulk of these Black male athletes come from, where you are essentially given three life options, as Black males, be an athlete, be an entertainer, or be a street hustler? This is the crux of the problem, historically, from Jack Johnson, to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to Cam Newton, these White male sports gatekeepers do their duty, so they feel, both consciously and subconsciously, of placing on the heads of Black male athletes, what is moral or immoral, what is mature or immature, what is a good attitude and what is a bad attitude, what is acceptable behavior and what is not acceptable behavior, and what constitutes model citizenship and what does not? In other words, it is their value system, their culture, these Black men are expected to adhere to, from generation to generation, if they want to have any real and sustained success in American professional sports. The great irony, of course, is that these Black male athletes, many of them, anyhow, are simply emulating definitions of manhood gotten from White males with power and privilege, like the owners of their football teams, like America’s political and business leaders: the money, the material goods, the entourages, the women as sex objects or caretakers or punching bags—or all three, the accumulation of as much authority and influence as possible. But they are not the owners, they are the players, so the owners get to tell the players what they cannot do, directly, or via the league office. Call it whatever you want, but it is clear to me, from NFL Draft Day to how a Colin Kaepernick has been ridiculed, maligned, isolated for speaking out against police brutality that it feels a lot like slavery, at times. But they are high paid athletes, you say? But, if we are mad honest, we know that what these athletes are paid is peanuts compared to what the league and the owners and Commissioner Goodell make, and that no amount of compensation will make up for the permanent life injuries, including those to the brain, none too few of these modern-day gladiators accumulate like war wounds during their playing years. I think of this as I watch Cam Newton on the sidelines of this pre-season game with the Ravens, and it makes great sense why his handlers are signing every deal imaginable, why they are going out of their way to clean up the perception of Cam that was intensified because of his rotten Super Bowl 50 press conference. You just do not know how long the door of opportunity will be for Cam Newton, for any Black athlete. In the words of the immortal rapper Ice Cube, they’ll find a new nigga next year—

Perhaps that also explains, after the Ravens game, why Cam Newton stepped into the media room for the press conference, gripped the podium adorned with the NFL logo—tight—closed his eyes, then breathed for just a few seconds, before taking questions from the media. It is the kind of breath his ancestors might have taken when they were on those slave ships bound for states like South Carolina and Georgia. Or the kind of breaths they drew when they were working those fields or in the big houses of those plantations. Or the kinds of breaths inhaled when they bought, built, created, land and schools and churches to call their own, under the daily threat of White domestic terrorism in the form of lynch mobs, or legal doctrines, or the denial of their right to vote, even as they paid taxes like everyone else. It, too, was like the breath of every single Black man who has been told, in his lifetime, that he has a chip on his shoulder, that he is uppity. It is that breath we drew when we could not say what we really felt for fear of being spat upon, or punched, or stabbed, or shot, or hung from a tree, simply for having the nerve to talk to a White man like he was your equal. Cam, in his blood and his bones, knows this all too well, not simply because he is a native son of the American south, but because he was born in America. We’ve come a long way from Fritz Pollard and other Black men being run out of the National Football League for good. We’ve come a long way from Jackie Robinson having to suppress his anger, his rage, his true feelings, and being told not to fight back, to the point that it probably hurt him more than anyone else. But we’ve still got a long way to go before a Cam Newton is treated with the respect of a Peyton Manning or a Tom Brady. Manning can be accused of sexual misconduct during his undergraduate years at the University of Tennessee, have those sexual allegations trail him for years, but it does not stick to him. Tom Brady can have a first child of his without being married, just like Cam, but no one question’s Brady’s morality, no one declares that he is having babies out of wedlock. There remains, in our America, a confounding double standard when it comes to White men and Black men, and in few places is that played out so clearly than in our beloved sports world. Again, we love to say all is equal on a playing field or a court, but we know, if we are truly honest with ourselves, that it is not. Long since Fritz Pollard in the 1920s and the Rooney Rule of the 2000s the National Football League still barely has any Black men as coaches or executives, and not one African American owns a majority stake in any of the teams. Over seventy percent of the players, yes, but in the prized position of quarterback Black males by and large are not trusted to run much of anything. Dak Prescott, the Dallas Cowboys’ highly regarded Black rookie qb, had a couple of bad games in spite of propelling the ‘Boys to one of their best runs in team history, and there has been ever louder chatter to have him replaced with the former starter, Tony Romo, in spite of Prescott being a superior player, obviously. Yes, Black men are leaders, too, can lead, and Cam Newton destroys that mold because he is an unabashed general, and he knows he can be whatever he wants to be because his God and his momma and his daddy and his church and his Black community in the ATL told him so. Why would he be any different once he got to the University of Florida, or Blinn College, or Auburn University, or the Carolina Panthers? You cannot suddenly erase who’ve you been your entire life, a Black boy who was taught early on that his Black life mattered, too, and was the equal of yours. This is where it hurts, this is where it eats at you, this is why, I believe, an immensely gifted quarterback like Joe Gilliam sunk into that depression and self-medicated for so many years on things that would trash his body. Because this is what racism does to Black people, to Black athletes: you work twice as hard, three times as hard, ten times as hard, and still you are told you are not good enough, that you have been rejected. Has there been progress in sports? Without question. Thanks to that Black baseball rebel long ago, Curt Flood, there is free agency and some ability to determine the course of your athletic career. Cam Newton is making a salary that a Curt Flood could have only dreamed of. These players, without question, are pampered and privileged, and have become heroes, to people of all races and cultures, as peoples’ first heroes, their only heroes, in a way that could not have been conceived when Fritz Pollard and other Black players were run out of the NFL. But I also believe the doors opening, the opportunities, the successes, have come at a price for many Black athletes. Think of what Jackie Robinson endured, per Ken Burns’ recent and brilliant two-part documentary film. Jackie could never fully be who he was. Yes, he succumbed to diabetes, but I also feel that Jackie Robinson also died, at just age 53, and looking twenty years older, because he had swallowed so much racism in his life. Cam Newton is doing his best to avoid that fate. Perhaps that is why he shows so much joy and enthusiasm on the field, because he is not trying to die a slow and miserable death due to the game he loves. Perhaps that is why he lets his guard down around children, because Cam remembers what he was like as a child, what it was like for all of us as children before we began to realize that race matters, and that some lives do not matter. So there he stands, at that podium, and I think of the Cam we saw at that Super Bowl dais, just sitting there, limp and defeated. This Cam, on this boiling August night, was anew with his fashionista alter ego, but it really hit me that between January and this August night something had shifted in Cam Newton. He was wary, tentative, as a matter of fact, because he just did not know what would happen to him next, because he was, is, at the mercy of people who could make or break his image. It wears you down, the constant barrage of scrutiny, the smugness of some of these reporters, and, yes, in some cases the outward disdain and racism. If you say what you really feel then you are the problem, not them. I am sure Cam would love to tell folks, straight up, to kiss his butt. I am sure Cam is angry every single time someone White refers to him as “immature” in their sports commentary, as a second-tier quarterback with that MVP trophy sitting in his home. I am sure he is angry when someone, anyone, online, refers to his partner Kia Proctor, the mother of his son and their new baby, as a whore, and habitually posts pictures of her from her days as an exotic dancer, with no discretion whatsoever, and the lewdest and most sexist observations. Maybe that is why, in this press conference after the Ravens game whenever Cam hears a question he does not like, or does not want to answer, he says, simply, stoically, “Next question.” He is not going to take the bait, not any longer, he seems to be saying. But when does this become the extreme, when does this become a kind of prison, a kind of death, in and of itself? Not every athlete, regardless of race, has the gift of gab and the courage of a Muhammad Ali. Not every athlete is or will ever be as fearless as Ali was, able to push back and challenge the media, and dictate to the media, with a wicked left-right verbal combination, who he is, and who he wants to be. Cam actually does possess an incredible speaking voice, an understanding of the media and how it operates, but you feel that he is torn between being completely real and blunt and playing it safe so as not to screw up his potential standing as the new face of the National Football League, and so that he will have money, wealth, for the rest of his life, unlike many former and current players. And the reality is there has not been a Black football player with the same star power qualities in at least the past twenty-five years. Not Jerry Rice. Not Randy Moss. Not Steve McNair. Not Adrian Peterson. Not Russell Wilson. Cam’s son may be named Chosen but it is actually Newton himself who is the chosen one for these baby steps of the twenty-first century. Because Cam carries with him an uncontainable Blackness that up until him is the reason why many Black athletes, and especially Black quarterbacks, were never given an opportunity to shine. It is enough to make you wanna holler, and to make your momma, who done seen some things in her own lifetime, as mine has, as Cam’s has, want to jump in front of that moving truck she can see coming right at her son—

I want you to understand that hot and cold water comes out of different fountains. You are either hot or cold. You have a big platform. Which fountain are you? Don’t let the devil win over your words or speech that represent the dark world. But Represent the awesome God you serve thru your words. Don’t confuse the devil and the enemy of what side you are on: so speak boldly to the nations that you represent Christ for the great things he has done. Thru your language and actions, speak words to uplift and not tear down. Don’t promote the Devils workshop. Death and life is in the power of the tongue. The devil don’t like positive words. That’s why he keeps attacking because he aint happy. You win with your character and powerful words that you speak. Cam, you are highly favored. God is on your side, why should you fear what man should do or say. Remember God! I love you more than you imagine and so proud of you.
—Jackie Newton, Cam’s mother, in a tweet to him right before Super Bowl 50

ONCE AGAIN I AM TOLD I ONLY HAVE ABOUT 10 MINUTES TO WALK AND talk with Cam Newton from this Baltimore press conference to the team bus. Essentially I have been working on this Cam Newton piece since the Super Bowl last February, and have spent the better part of six months reading, watching, listening, observing, and traveling to different parts of the country to get from Cam and his handlers the 11 minutes and 40 seconds in Baltimore and the 12 minutes and 10 seconds I got in Los Angeles. And, I need to add, this piece was originally with another publication, went through mad changes, and now it is here. My changes, this article’s changes, Cam’s changes….

As he and I stroll in the underbelly of the Ravens stadium one of the Panther communications folks trails us closely, and, yup, I feel like the entire conversation is being monitored. What, for God’s sake, are they afraid of? I ask Cam a corny softball question on purpose—

Me: Where did you get your sense of style with your clothes?

Cam: “I’m a preacher’s son. And having an old grandma it was always a point of emphasis to put your best fine linen on going to church. And it just stuck with me.”

Next I try to get Cam to open up about that report calling him a second-tier quarterback. “No sir. It’s just personal opinion for so many people. I know who I am. That’s it.”

We are interrupted a few times by stadium maintenance workers wishing Cam good luck, and by his stop at a table holding bags of Popeye’s fried chicken for the Panther players to grab as they head for the team bus. I am actually a bit stunned that world-class athletes are being fed greasy fast food. After Cam gets his bag of chicken I am told I cannot go any further with him, after initially being offered the walk to the bus. I am flustered, I sigh inwardly, I suck it up. I go straight to the question in my head about Black athletes like Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade taking a public stand at this year’s ESPY’s, the one Cam skipped, with them challenging their fellow athletes to get more involved in their communities. Cam smiles mischievously, adjusts his bag of Popeye’s in his left hand, and ponders what to say for a second or two.

“Uh, that’s a publicity stunt. I’m not saying that those athletes are not doing something. For me to just try to go over and beyond to make it known that I’m doing something in my community, that’s not who I am. I am authentic. I have a foundation that has done much for the community. These facts need not be publicized in all instances, but if you search you will find.”

I think about how Cam Newton quietly went to Charleston, South Carolina after that racist church massacre, to show his support to the victims’ families. I think of what Cam does for people at Thanksgiving, of his surprising both children and adults during the Christmas season with visits, with presents, with meals. He is in fact a philanthropist, a giver. However, this is part of the Cam Newton people often do not see, and often do not acknowledge. And this is why, I believe, many have publicly and strongly urged him to speak louder, to use his big platform, including, at the tip of this season, Seattle Seahawk defensive end Michael Bennett.

I thank Cam for what he did for those folks in Charleston, tell him that the pastor of that church, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, was from my family’s hometown in Ridgeland, South Carolina, and then Cam repeats, once more, what is now his standard mantra about community and giving back. We shake hands, I wish him a great season, and just like that Cam Newton and his humungous burgundy Pharrell Williams hat are being rushed away, even as more Raven employees ooo and awe in his direction, and he smiles back in theirs. And then he is gone to get on the bus.

I sigh again and wonder what is to become of Cam Newton. Fast forward a few months later we know the disaster of a season he and his team have had. We know the physical beating he has taken from opponents. We know that he seems confused and uncomfortable at times when he has to deal with the media or otherwise express himself in public. Perhaps there will be more MVP awards, more endorsements for Cam. Perhaps there will be a Super Bowl victory one day. Perhaps there will be more love, and more hate, too. I wonder about that concussion that forced him to sit out a game this past season, I wonder about concussions we do not know about, and I wonder what will become of Cam Newton’s brain and body as he ages, particularly since he has wavered between not seeing any real dangers to playing football and urging his teammate Luke Kuechly to go easy with his own return from a concussion. I wonder if Cam Newton will forever say “next question” when something comes up that he does not want to talk about, or if he will evolve, as Ali did, as Colin Kaepernick has, by actually becoming fully knowledgeable about the world in which he lives. I wonder if Cam Newton, playing there in the state of North Carolina, will ever publicly take a stand around voting rights, voter I.D. laws, marriage equality, equal access to bathrooms for transgender people, and if he will ever openly embrace Black Lives Matter in some form as other Black athletes have done. Right now I know that I am not qualified to throw a football in the NFL just as Cam Newton is not qualified to speak about race and racism in America on any profound and layered level, or any social issue, for that matter. He has a right to his views, but unlike, say, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, it is very obvious that Cam does not read, does not study, has never been exposed, in a real and consistent way, to conversations that would challenge him to think, and to think critically. What Cam is is another mega-celebrity with a platform ill-prepared, sadly, for the magnitude of that platform. Exhibit A is the Super Bowl post-game press conference and Exhibit B is the disastrous quotes in that GQ cover story. Exhibit C is pretty much most of the things he has said and done, very awkwardly, this past season. In a way Cam Newton is, and has become, a prisoner of his own meteoric success, his own gigantic fame. And how free, truly, is Cam Newton, and how free can he ever really be, no matter the amount of notoriety and money and access to the super-wealthy, if he can never consistently speak his mind for fear of alienating White America, especially that part of White America with power and privilege and the ability to make or break him whenever it chooses, or so he and his handlers believe?

But because of the dynamic personality and talent and swagger Cameron Jerrell Newton possesses, the thought is that he can be more, so much more, than a celebrated athlete. Paul Robeson more. Jackie Robinson more. Jim Brown more. Muhammad Ali more. Yet, alas, Cam is not a revolutionary, nor is he an Uncle Tom, either. It is hard to say who or what he is because I do not think he knows, really, himself, not as of now, regardless of the fame and money and global branding maneuvers. What he is is Black, man, and a Black man. And, plus, either description—revolutionary or Uncle Tom—is dangerous, is just too easy, and speaks to an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual laziness so embedded in our American social fabric. For we Americans are always searching high and low for heroes and villains, and sometimes the hero and the villain are the same person. What I saw, as Cam Newton was ushered away from me beneath that Baltimore stadium—and what I witnessed in Los Angeles and South Carolina, too—was a young Black man in America trying to find his way amidst the sound and the fury, and also trying to figure out how to fly, like Superman—

Kevin Powell, writer, activist, public speaker, is the author of 12 books, including his critically acclaimed autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood. You can email him, kevin@kevinpowell.net, or follow him on Twitter, @kevin_powell