October 25, 02012
In the climactic scene in the ‘92 movie, Deep Cover Jeff Goldblum and Laurence Fishburne are embroiled in a shootout. Fishburne is a troubled undercover cop who throughout the film tries—mostly in vain— to balance his civic duty with his innate loyalty to the black community. Goldblum interrupts the gunplay to offer a brief soliloquy on the reality of their situation as it relates to the economic times. “There aren’t black and white people anymore,” says Goldblum. “Just rich people and poor people.”
Cam Newton is rich. That’s one reason a lot of folks really hate him and would like to see him fail. There are other reasons, too. He’s a quarterback in the National Football League—the most coveted leadership position in all of American society. Donald Trump would exchange all of his real estate expertise and the massive fortune that accompanies it for just one day under center. I’m sure of it.
The weight of the job gets to the coolest of cats. After last week’s loss to the Cowboys, Newton reminded his audience that he doesn’t call the plays. One writer said he shouldn’t “throw people under the bus.”
He's right. But like I said even the coolest characters bring frustration to the podium. I remember Peyton Manning trying to keep his composure after that playoff loss to the Steelers in ’05, one in which he’d been sacked in several crucial situations. “I’m trying to be a good teammate,” said Manning. “But we had some protection issues today.”
Different delivery, same point.
Cam Newton is young. He’s also charismatic, and marketable. He has a lot of things going for him, too many perhaps. When he starts playing well again, those who hate him will undoubtedly refresh us with the allegations of how his father took money from Auburn and other schools in order to secure his services. This falls under the umbrella of “athletic entitlement,” which is not to be confused with the vastly more acceptable “white collar entitlement.”
The former is defined by urban (mostly black) kids who spring from generations of poverty and whose opportunity to make lumps sums of cash comes from the generosity of well-heeled athletic boosters. Those athletes who accept such payments are deemed morally corrupt, spoiled individuals who gladly accept illegal payment because they feel entitled to the benefits that accompany celebrity.
The latter entitlement is reserved for those (mostly white) kids who come from homes where the parents have the means to send them to Wharton or Booth, where they will network with folks who hold influential positions at places like Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, or Chase. Upon graduation they’ll get jobs that will allow them to make piles of money from an eager and unsuspecting clientele. These kids will become “executives.” Their entitlement isn’t called entitlement, though. It’s called free enterprise, or hard work.
Cam Newton is a totem for the first group. But here’s the rub. Newton’s group is saddled with higher expectations. Folks don’t really like them or relate to them, but they do expect more from them. They hold them to a higher standard than they do brokers and law makers. This is why a Heisman trophy, a sensational rookie season, and a disregard for conventional wisdom have landed Newton in hot water.
Newton made people believe.
It’s not cool to believe in anything these days. Bitter, sarcastic remarks, coated in snarky tones, are considered the height of clever repartee. This is Goth Nation. We’re a legion of pale, brooding teenagers, black lipstick and all.
But the citizens of Charlotte, with a front row seat to the show, gave in to optimism last fall. They were treated to a young man with a light in his eyes, a vast array of skills and a seemingly impenetrable armor in the face of impossible expectation. They fell hard. The object of their affection just happened to be black.
It wasn’t all Newton’s fault. He had an accomplice.
Back in September, at the Democratic National Convention the good folks of Charlotte convened to embrace a similar idea of blackness. It wasn’t the rhymin’ and stealin’ preacher man brand of blackness perfected by Jesse Jackson and recycled—quite badly—by Herman Cain. It was a scrubbed ethnicity, a biracial “commercial” blackness, the kind that gives credence to the belief that there really are no black people, or white people or rich people or poor people—just citizens of the world John Lennon had in mind.
The people of Charlotte and many of their brethren invested in the citizenry of Hope. But now many are disillusioned because they thought everything was going to happen so soon and so easily. Of course they expected miracles. Four years is a magic number, always has been. Students (some not even athletes!) who don’t know the difference between there, their, and they’re are able to graduate from college in four years. Surely Hope could pay off two wars, balance a budget, and hook everyone up with a job in that time.
And surely Cam Newton could lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl in less time than that. Ryan Kalil, Newton’s center, certainly thought so. He took out a full page ad in a Charlotte paper guaranteeing as much.
Now some perspective is needed.
Warren Moon is a dignified authority on all quarterbacks.
Michael Silver was right to call Warren Moon in on this. Warren Moon is the elder statesman on all matters pertaining to the subtle nexus of race and ‘ball. Moon is football’s version of a civil rights soldier who weathered the storms so that Vick, Newton and Griffin could be one of the guys.
But unlike many former black athletes these days, Moon isn’t obligated to prove his so-called “objectivity” by loudly demonizing Newton and other black athletes. His assessment is offered in the dignified tone of a once great quarterback who just happens to be black.
Moon’s only remark invoking race involved Newton being compared to Vince Young. “It’s the same old crap,” said Moon. “It’s always a comparison of one black to another black.”
Some would disagree, and some have disagreed, saying it’s not about Vince Young and Newton being black. It’s about both being immature. But a few weeks ago much discussion was had, and many jokes were made about Vince Young’s bout with depression. And just a few weeks ago there were murmurings about the supposed fragile state of Newton’s “mental health.”
Since the early twentieth century, marked by the heavyweight reign of Jack Johnson, all prominent black men have been subtly categorized as either “crazy” or “docile.” It seems this leap to Newton’s mental state was made a bit prematurely, at least for my taste.
The most extreme sentiment is coming from those who don’t live in Charlotte, who watch from afar, who are neither fans of the Panthers nor fans of Hope. I believe their constant animus is aimed not so much at Cam Newton as the idea of him.
There’s an obvious truth in play now. It’s a truth that wasn’t so obvious during Warren Moon’s career.
All the while Moon was being snubbed in the ‘78 NFL draft, while his passport was getting stamped in customs at Edmonton Centre City Airport, he was being told that (white) front office executives and (white) coaches and (white) owners feared that black men couldn’t handle the quarterback position, that they lacked the intellectual goods to do so.
That was never true. They feared that black men could play quarterback. Because if they could play quarterback, in addition to receiver, and running back, and offensive tackle, and linebacker, then they maybe they could be coaches, too, and general managers. They could be owners. They would feel entitled to places of…privilege. And if that happened, then the myth of white male superiority and the tired and joyless souls who perpetuate it would be rendered obsolete.
It’s a fitting coincidence that amid our conversation about Cam Newton, Donald Trump offered to donate 5 million dollars if the sitting President of the United States would show proof that his transcripts and assorted personal documents qualify him for his office. He never used the words “black” or “white.” He didn’t have to.
This conversation is about privilege.
And who deserves it.
Follow Alan Grant on twitter @AlanGrant_NFL