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, email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter, @kevin_powell