While the mainstream media spends much of their time pondering Carolina Panthers quarterback Cameron Newton’s shortcomings as athlete and man, something much more important is at stake. Something that is less visible and less acknowledged.
The debate about Cam Newton is as much about race and masculinity as it is about the particulars of this young, oh so gifted, and vocal black athlete. It is a debate about who and what kind of person gets to represent the very embodiment of American manhood in our civic religion of pro-football.
Newton’s unwillingness to censure his feeling and self-expression, whether of joy (the dab) or sorrow (his rapid exit after the postgame grilling session), have won him ridicule, hand-wringing and contempt on the part of many white male commentators, and a few African-American ex-players as well. Deion Sanders went so far as to instruct Newton in the proper arts of post-game conciliation, pointing to iconic white quarterbacks that should be emulated. “Something that happened last night was very profound,” he said of Newton. “You are the most valuable person…. you are the face of our brand right now. You can’t do that.… a Manning a Brady, all these guys that has been the prototypical type of quarterback in our game. They’re not gonna do that.”
Former Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski went further still, chastising Newton on Twitter, “You will never last in the NFL with that attitude. The world doesn’t revolve around you, boy!” Romanowski’s obvious racism and attempt to demean and strip Newton of his dignity led to an outcry that forced the commentator to delete his tweet and formally apologize to Newton. And yet, the sheer fury and schadenfreude that Romanowski broadcast echoes throughout mainstream coverage of Newton, albeit with less explicit intent. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder how Romanowski’s comments tie in to to the incessant discussions of Newton’s “immaturity.”
So what is the origin of such anger and vitriol? Some of the particulars seem obvious. What else could the diminishment of “boy” mean besides the boldest possible expression of racism? Contained within the word, like its more notorious six-letter counterpart, is the whole history of slavery, racial segregation, and black subordination. Whites in the Jim Crow South consistently denied African Americans the status of adulthood. The ritual of calling all black people by their first name, with even the very elderly confined to the permanent infantilized moniker of “boy,” or its female counterpart, “gal,”—with its ugly sexual subtext—enshrined white over black as everyday practice.