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Representing a Race: How the media wants Cam Newton to behave

When he broke the color line in Major League Baseball in 1947, Jackie Robinson had to do so without allowing himself to respond to the racist taunts and heckles of crowds both in opposing ballparks and in his own. This was on the orders of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Coach Branch Rickey.
Robinson was the first black player to stand on a MLB field since before the turn of the previous century, and he bore the burden of having to be “a credit to his race” in the eyes of white fans who might not allow the integration of America’s pastime if the man doing the integrating didn’t ingratiate himself to them with his behavior. Jackie Robinson in reality was a man much wounded by the anger directed his way and probably would’ve loved to speak up against the taunts and threats; however he might have been kicked out of major league baseball and American sports history would be radically different.
Now, almost seventy years later, black athletes are frequently accused of “showboating” by celebrating touchdowns or home runs, often by acting exuberantly when they play whatever game they’re paid to play.
Recently, Cam Newton received a letter from a woman complaining about his elaborate post-touchdown dances and Superman poses, especially as the Panthers are set to face the Denver Broncos in the biggest game of the year.
The letter-writer may have been well-intentioned, but many have read into it coded racist notions of “knowing your place” and behaving like “someone who’s been there before” (though in Newton’s case, this is his first trip to the Super Bowl, so he hasn’t been there before). My first response, which I know has been echoed by many in the media, is to say that if you don’t want Cam to celebrate touchdowns so much, keep him out of the end zone. But it’s not as simple as that. In America, it almost never is.
Newton is just the latest in a history of black athletes who have come to represent anti-Jackie Robinson, in many ways. Robinson had to absorb so much because he was the first, and because if he wasn’t careful he could be the last; white American sports fans didn’t take kindly to the image of a black person doing well in what was a white man’s (or woman’s) sport.
From Muhammed Ali to Serena Williams, black athletes have the spotlight on them in a way that few other ethnicities can comprehend. You not only have to be exceptional at your sport, you also have to be a spokesperson for your race. You have to “represent” something that is much more diverse and multifaceted than those who pay to see you play, and those who pay you, would care to admit. And you have to walk a fine line between social activism and entertaining the public.
I’m a Giants fan myself, so I don’t really have a favorite going into the game. But I would like to see Newton win, because he’s a once-in-a-generation talent who has earned the right to play for the biggest title in football. But he also gained my respect by addressing the notion that he is a “showboat” by saying that he’s a young African-American quarterback and that that scares some people.
Throughout our recent history, we’ve struggled to come to terms with what it means to be a country founded on the notion that “all men are created equal” when clearly such a notion is hard for us to live up to. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland: some of these murder victims were accused in the aftermath of their deaths of not “acting right” when responding to law enforcement or
self-appointed vigilantes.
They weren’t Jackie Robinson-like, in other words. But Robinson’s life was also cut short because of how much he had to stomach. Look at pictures of Robinson in retirement, his hair made prematurely white by the stress of being a “role model.” We ask our athletes to play well, we shouldn’t ask them to behave how we’d want them to, even if their behavior seems exaggerated or too “exuberant” for our tastes. I said it earlier, but I’ll say it again:
If you’re so upset about the way that Cam Newton celebrates after a touchdown, keep him out of the end zone.

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