By: Terrence A. Merkerson
As much as it disgusts me, I am behooved to offer commentary on these kinds of topics and the subject or catalyst that the conversation revolves around is often secondary to a bigger issue. That standard remains true, but this time I am forced to say nice things about an Auburn guy (which is more difficult than I originally imagined), but there is a principle here that is much greater than school, rivalry or tradition. Thusly, to put my mind, heart and soul at ease, I will begin and end this post with the two most beautifully coupled words in the English language… Roll Tide.
With that being said…
In American sports culture, the black athlete is the workhorse. In basketball and football, black men dominate the demographics. The NBA is 74.4% Black and the NFL is 70% Black, yet ownership and management show the direct inverse of these numbers. Although the NBA is nowhere close to being a beacon of fairness and equity, it has always been a couple of steps ahead of the 3 other major American sports in regard to issues of parity, players rights, and diversity. As progressive as the NFL attempts to present itself to be (and maybe even obliviously believes it is), its standards and practices are just as archaic and as rigid as the MLB, which is notoriously known for its “rearwardness”. “The Shield” just has better marketing.
Unlike the NBA, which is primarily a star-driven league, the NFL is all about the teams and their unofficially appointed “faces” of the league. To no surprise these faces are almost always quarterbacks and they historically always “resemble” each other. No slight to the Tom Bradys, Peyton Mannings, and Joe Montanas of the world, because they all are/were tremendous talents, but in a league that is 70% Black, where the faces of that league are always White… something does not add up. Outside of the defensive backs and centers, the quarterback position is the most racially exclusive position. Over the last 20 years, we have seen more black quarterbacks come into the league and earn starting positions, many of which have performed at extremely high levels, but there has never been a black quarterback to be one of the “faces”. We came close with Michael Vick, whose galvanizing play had football fans absolutely fascinated, but he never quite reached the mountain-top, for well-documented reasons. Doug Williams, the star quarterback from Grambling University, was the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl back in 1988. He was named Super Bowl MVP, but he was never one of the “faces” of the league. Russell Wilson was the second Black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl in 2014. While Wilson has been a great player in the NFL, his value is often overshadowed by his ridiculously talented teams. He is certainly a star in this league, but he is not one of the “faces” of the league. Enter, Cam Newton. After winning the Heisman Trophy and leading Auburn University to only its second national championship (just a little shade) in 2010, Cam was drafted by #1 overall by the Carolina Panthers in the 2011 NFL Draft. After a record-setting rookie campaign, the rest is history.
In a couple of weeks, Cam will be leading Carolina into the Super Bowl after having a MVP season and being the driving force behind a team that lost only once this season. But for a player that has performed so well and avoided getting into any trouble, the criticism that he has received this season is without parallel. Whether it be the media being over-critical of his jubilance, fans of opposing teams calling him classless, or some patrons of the sport telling him that he’s playing the game the “wrong way”, I have never seen such a talent perform at this high of a level and be scrutinized more than I have this year and I know exactly why…
When I was a kid growing up, my favorite football player was Deion Sanders. “P R I M E T I M E”. I wore his number “21” in little league, I did his dances, I wore bandanas, I wanted to play with intensity, intelligence, style and swag, just like him. Ask most Black men around my age to name their favorite players growing up and I guarantee that “Primetime” will be one of the first names out of any of their mouths. The reason is because Sanders was not only an all-time talent, he was an embodiment of a different kind of proud, talented and successful Black man. He was not a straight-laced, mild-mannered company man. He was an ostentatious, mouthy, unapologetic mercenary for hire and he wasn’t bashful about showing the world how much fun it was to be that good. Most of all, he was Black… a hue of Black that most Black kids during that time could easily identify with. I grew up watching him. Cam grew up watching him. Sanders made playing defensive back cool… the kind of cool that only Black people can create. It’s the kind of cool that gave us Jazz and Hip-Hop. It’s the kind of cool that a lot white kids try to emulate. It’s the kind of cool that older white people are petrified of and are threatened by. It’s the kind of cool that Cam plays with. It just so happens he’s the first Black quarterback to bring that charm, character and charisma to the NFL and be highly successful. His persona is anarchy to White America and Black people love it.
A significant proportion of Americans believe that there is a certain way to go about things. To them, there is a particular way to live, act and exist. There are “rules” that they believe so deeply in, that when any of those “rules” are challenged, they take it and portray it as an affront to everything good and decent (and white). Cam does not play the game the way they want him to, but his ability can no longer be denied and his persona can no longer be avoided. He is here and he goes out of his way to let you know it. The significance is that many young black people are from the same school of thought as Cam. We approach our lives and careers differently. We carry with us an attitude, a smugness and an expectation that is different from that of our predecessors. We know what demons we have to face, we are aware of the obstacles that stand between us and our goals and we face them courageously and brazenly. We celebrate every time we destroy a stigma and we are gratefully humbled by our pasts, but humility is shown only to those who can appreciate it the same way that we do.
Black kids that were born in the 80s and raised during the 90s and early 2000s approach the world in a completely different way. As millennials, we refused to fall in line as graciously and thanklessly as generations before. When we excel, we expect to be rewarded for it. If our efforts are not acknowledged adequately, we acknowledge them for you. As black millennials, we know what the world expects of us and we know how the world views young people of color. Often times our response is jubilant rebellion. We take joy in disrupting the conservative, conventional status quo. We thrive in proving people wrong. To quote 2pac, “it’s the sweetest joy next to…. (insert indulgence)”. Cam is a product of this generation and as of late, he has represented us rather well.
The people that say that he is too arrogant, too flamboyant or too flashy do not understand being Black in America. For so long, our history in this country has been one of invisibility, being unacknowledged and not being accepted. Those of us who were able to navigate through and around the snares of inequality, marginalization, poverty, under-funded schools, and the many policy-generated concentration camps that we call our “hoods”, have taken the charge. We don’t care as much about White America accommodating us. We don’t care to assimilate to be accepted. We will be seen; we will be acknowledged. Many of us fight these battles everyday, now the rest of the country can see the manifestation of our frustrations and the exuberance of our triumphs. The embodiment of some of those frustrations and triumphs will be on full display on the evening on February 7th, 2016. Win or lose, Cam has made quite the point and he did it his way.
Black folks are far more forgiving of the discretions of other Black folks because nobody knows us like we know us, no one, collectively, cares about us the way we care about us and no one appreciates us like we appreciate us. This is the reason why Black Alabama fans and graduates can cheer for Cam Newton. This is why he has the support of Black folks all across the country, regardless of what team or school they cheer for. We take pride in the success of our people. When Cam won the MVP, we won the MVP and if Cam wins the Super Bowl, we won the Super Bowl. His success means more to us because he did it his way, and that is because his way is our way. Cam has had his troubles, but he has endured his trials and he finds himself in a place where he is free to be his “whole self”, as my grandmother would say. The problem that he must face and that we must continue to face can be encapsulated by one of my favorite movie quotes from The Color Purple: “Folks don’t like nobody being too proud or too free.”
Cam, be proud. Be free. #Dab
Terrence Merkerson is the Founder & Creator of Avenue Fifteen. Terrence earned Bachelor’s Degrees in both Political Science and Gender/Race Studies from the University of Alabama. Terrence also completed Graduate School at the University of Alabama earning a Master’s Degree in Communication.
He currently resides in Baton Rouge, LA.