Approximately 5 months ago, Cam Newton, quarterback for the Carolina Panthers and NFL MVP, gave his thoughts on what he represented to a divided sports nation. To paraphrase, he suggested that there is a fear which goes hand in hand with what he represents. A Black quarterback, an exceptional one, a brash and outspoken one.
It didn’t help that he identified Muhammad Ali as his hero, or that he celebrated after every touchdown, with teammates and fans, or that he played the position of strength and stoicism associated with all-time greats like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and John Elway. All three known to be fiery and emotional, but that did not fit the collective narrative around the critique of all that is wrong with Cam Newton.
No, Cam Newton uttered, out loud and in public, with the media recording, what many of us already knew. That our sports-obsessed society was not prepared to embrace his full humanity. One can be Black and athletically excellent. But one cannot be Black, athletically excellent, and socially aware. It simply is not tolerated. Cam Newton, seeing the reactions of random strangers on his timeline, would find out that mixing race and politics with sports draws the ire of many. Total strangers began to call him that most unfortunate N word, Black sports fans came to his defense, teammates and other athletes divided along lines, trying in many instances to justify why there was such vitriol around the brash and lively Newton.
And none of it really got to the core of the matter.
We, as a society, associate privilege and wealth with membership in the professional sports fraternity. The issues which impact everyday man, it is understood, do not infiltrate the sky high bubble that our athletes float in. Things like poverty, and injustice, and sexism, and racism, are not ills they are really exposed to.
When an athlete whom we believe we have showered with wealth and adulation descends from these heights and discusses these matters, whether inelegantly or eloquently, the reaction is often the same. Athlete identifies racism. Athlete is told there is no racism with often racist language, and typically blamed for “playing the race card”, as if racism is some mythical construct designed to further an agenda, as opposed to a real, living, crushing human ill.
Cam Newton discovered this after voicing his opinion of what he represents. And this same reaction flavored responses to him following the Superbowl, and in every appearance he made afterward. He was being made to pay the price for voicing awareness. For making our society uncomfortable with it’s relative inactivity around matters of race, bigotry and prejudice.
Fast forward five months, and Colin Kaepernick has refused to stand for the National Anthem. He suggests that his stance is in response to racial injustice. Much is made of what other athletes would do in solidarity. Brandon Marshall, a Broncos linebacker, followed suit. He would lose several endorsements as a result. He learned Cam’s lesson.
Newton was asked about his take on Kaepernick’s stance. He stated “America has moved past racism.” He never explained how. He was never asked about this relative sea change in his opinion in less than half a year. There was no need to.
It was clear then, and will remain so, that athletes, who have a great deal of their financial security to lose, understand that there is a cost associated with standing for a cause. Should they forget that their role is to allow us hours of escapism, they will be punished. Newton appears to have been coached through the process, after initially pointing out, to him, what was obvious.
He is not alone, in this education and awakening. Black Americans of all walks of life realize that identifying injustice, battling it in all forms, pointing to the ill and seeking a cure for it, can come with a heavy social, personal, and professional cost.
Younger athletes have been made aware of the years of his career that were lost by Ali. How John Carlos suffered upon returning to the U.S. from the Olympics. They can look now and see that Cam reversed course for self preservation, and that Kaepernick is risking his career, as he has suffered the emotional terrorism that comes from speaking out against race prejudice in a land that calls itself “postracial.”
We claim to not want any politics with our sports, but we only enforce this with our minority and vulnerable athletes. We don’t comment and berate teams, owners, athletes, and executives when they make large donations to Police organizations and forces, a most decidedly political move. We are quiet about these activities. They, to our hearts and minds, are acceptable.
No, it is only when one of our always Black and sometimes excellent athletes voices what is already in the air, that they are struck with words and threatened with isolation, having their living ripped from them, and sometimes worse. How dare they raise this mirror to us when we have made them heroes. They are meant to serve our needs, and be quiet about their humanity, until they are needed again.
It has to, some days, be a truly frightening kind of awareness to have. To know that your society is willing to launch you so, but shoot you down just as easily, when you speak on behalf of your fellow man.
I experience this fear as a professional, citizen, and father. Many do. We realize that regardless of what indignities are rendered upon our flesh and minds, we are expected to speak, and act, and live, in ways that make the greater society comfortable about our experiences.
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