The NFL has made the Super Bowl into a week-long event, starting with “opening night” on Monday where the media are invited to ask questions to players. The event is largely playful as it “has become less about football and more about the eccentric in recent years, with costumes, props and bizarre questions filling the mass media availability session.”
But one question in particular dealt with race. This year’s Super Bowl pits one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Peyton Manning, who happens to be white, against another quarterback who could become even greater than Manning, Cam Newton, who happens to be black.
Indeed, there are racial undertones heading into the Super Bowl. Newton has become a lightning rod for criticism. He has been criticized for smiling, dancing, and even wearing a towel over his head. White people have debated whether that criticism stems from racism or from Newton’s excessive celebration.
But here’s where the underlying racism came to the fore on Super Bowl’s opening night. The question reminded me that despite any excitement for the actual game, a shadow has been cast over this year’s Super Bowl. And that is the shadow of racism in the form of white superiority. One reporter asked Newton about his legacy as a black quarterback. He responded by saying,
I don’t want to even touch on the topic of black quarterback because I think this game is bigger than black, white, or even green … I don’t think I should be labeled as just a black quarterback because there are bigger things in this sport that need to be accomplished.
That answer wasn’t good enough for another reporter, who pressed the topic of Newton being a black quarterback.
Reporter: Why don’t you want to elaborate on it? It’s a big issue.
Newton: No it’s not.
Reporter: The stereotype that a mobile black quarterback cannot throw in the pocket effectively … you don’t think …
Newton: I think we shattered that a long time ago.
Reporter: You really believe that? Why don’t you back it up and say something?
Newton: Why should I back it up?
Reporter: Because you brought up the topic and it’s still an issue.
Newton: It’s not an issue. It’s an issue for you.
And with that comment, Cam Newton held up a mirror to white America and the racism that infects us.
Now, we might think this was just a crazy reporter, but his question points to the fact that the stereotype does exist. Let’s be clear, the question is not just a stereotypes; the question is based on racism that infects sports. The idea that black quarterbacks are valuable because they are mobile (which really means athletic), not because they can throw in the pocket (which really means skilled), is part of a much larger racist narrative in sports. It’s the same narrative that claims Serena Williams is a great tennis player because she is “powerful,” but is actually “less thoughtful” and “less strategic” than her white opponents. But like Cam Newton, Serena dominates her sport because she is powerful and smart.
Newton’s response to the reporter was brilliant. After all, the racist stereotype was shattered 26 years ago! In 1990 Randall Cunningham threw for 30 touchdowns, 3,466 yards, and ran for 942 yards – which combined for an NFL record until 2006.
But racist stereotypes are hard to break. A white reporter demanding that a black quarterback answer for white stereotypes against black quarterbacks points to the power structures of racism in American culture. Black people must answer for racism? Really?
Fortunately, Newton refused to play the game. That’s because he knows it’s not his issue. It was the reporter’s issue. It’s white America’s issue.
Underlying the hostility against Newton for his smile, his dancing, his success, and even the towel over his head is a deep sense of resentment. Resentment stems from a desire for what another person has. One such desire is for a sense of superiority.
Much of white America wants to know that we are superior. We become resentful when we lose that sense of superiority to another. This dynamic plays out on the football field like this – black athletes dominate the sport. For white people to maintain a sense of superiority, we want to believe that the most important position in American sports – the quarterback – belongs to us.
So, for much of white America, when a black quarterback becomes successful, we become resentful. We start making excuses that confirm our superiority. Like the reporter, we assume Cam Newton isn’t successful because he’s actually good at being a quarterback. He’s not a “pure” quarterback like our boy Peyton Manning. He certainly can’t “pass in the pocket.” No, he’s successful because he is powerful, athletic, and aggressive!
Newton is right. That’s a false narrative that he doesn’t have to answer for. The truth is that Newton is powerful. He is skilled. He is an amazing quarterback. And any hatred or resentment against him is not his issue. He doesn’t have to answer for the racist stereotypes of white America that were shattered long ago. In fact, no answer he could give would be good enough to dismantle that stereotype.
ESPN commentator Bomani Jones stated that, “Cam can’t shatter the stereotype because every time somebody shatters the stereotype you put the damn thing back together … Cam is not responsible for shattering the stereotype. The people who put it out there, they are responsible.”
Jones is talking to white America. We are the ones who put the damn stereotype back together every time it’s shattered. That’s our issue to answer for, not Cam Newton’s issue. We are the ones responsible for shattering the racist stereotypes that infect not just football, but all of American culture.
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