Sports

Cam Newton unfairly criticized for celebrating success

Cam Newton smiles into the crowd as he takes the field for another dominant performance against the Titans. (credit: Courtesy of Parker Anderson via Flickr) Cam Newton smiles into the crowd as he takes the field for another dominant performance against the Titans. (credit: Courtesy of Parker Anderson via Flickr)

Sports have always been surrounded by all sorts of superstition. Every baseball player has an at-bat ritual. Basketball players have free throw routines so specific that Houston Rockets guard James Harden once went to give high fives to the air while taking free throws in an empty lane. Those superstitions are sacrifices to a much more powerful force, the sports gods: the unknowable, omnipotent beings controlling all sports outcomes.

The football gods in particular have found themselves invoked numerous times this month by football journalism’s old guard and a few letters to the editor in The Charlotte Observer. What is it that these sacred overlords have been sent to punish? A cursory glimpse at the hand wringing throughout the football journalism world would indicate that one man is to blame for everything wrong with football today. That man is none other than Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

What is Newton’s crime? In his own words, he’s “an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing they can compare me to.” Evidence suggests he’s absolutely right about that assessment. Newton catches the most flack for hitting the dab and otherwise dancing after he scores touchdowns.

The fact that this upsets people is baffling. Cam Newton celebrates when he scores a touchdown. He plays the game with the joy and excitement of a little kid. Childish qualities generally have a negative connotation, but there’s one thing everyone loves about children and that’s how happy they get when good things happen. A viewer has no stake in the outcome of a football game unless they’re gambling. It’s for entertainment. Don’t we want to watch people be excited when they accomplish things? There’s no excitement in everyone just putting their head down and playing — the game would have no character. There would be no emotional reaction to winning or losing because there would be no cost or payoff to outcomes, and that would be incredibly boring.

This only leaves one explanation for the vitriol. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers mimics a title belt after he scores a touchdown. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady screams until he’s blue in the face when the Patriots don’t score touchdowns. They never get any significant sort of pushback. However any time a black player starts dancing, sports journalists are suddenly yelling about what bad role models they are.

The most disturbing and virulent example from recent years is when Washington Wizards point guard John Wall came out doing the dougie before a game. Colin Cowherd ripped Wall’s dancing apart, compared it to a bank robbery, and said he did not have the IQ to play the position. He then dug his heels in the ground as Wall rose to superstardom saying “I’m a big believer when it comes to quarterbacks and point guards, who’s your dad?” It’s even worse when you factor in that Wall’s father died of cancer when Wall was eight years old, but the racial implications behind that are absolutely screaming.

The calls to the football gods to punish Cam Newton for his dancing and his failure as a role model are no different. Newton was even called out in a letter to the editor in The Charlotte Observer for failing to marry his girlfriend who gave birth to his son, further invoking the stereotype used to question Wall’s intelligence five years ago. Black players have their behavior policed in discursively violent ways, all hiding behind the idea of a platonic athlete that is seen and not heard. That’s a stunningly dehumanizing way to treat someone and it has a long history of being used to mask racism as well.

I don’t know anything about Cam Newton personally, so I can’t say he’s a wonderful perfect human. Sure, tearing down opposing fans’ banners after games is mean, but it’s no worse than, say, when Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper shouted that he would fight any black person in a concert, using more violent language. He's now often praised for his work ethic. Newton has not done anything significantly wrong, and the anger directed his way is a scary barometer of sports journalism’s priorities.

When the Panthers and Broncos show down on Sunday in Super Bowl 50, two of the best quarterbacks in football’s recent history will go to work, and if Cam Newton runs in a game-winning touchdown, the football gods will hit the dab right there with him. I will be watching him with a smile.