America’s Racist Obsession With Policing Cam Newton

More than a century later, American sports fans still can't leave black athletes alone

USA Today Sports
Jan 05, 2016 at 1:31 PM ET

“I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to,” said Cam Newton, barely more than a week away from starting at quarterback for the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.

Newton’s frank and frankly accurate comments illuminate a reality he is now grappling with: Cam Newton can’t win. He’s the odds-on favorite to win the NFL’s MVP award and his play at quarterback led the Carolina Panthers to a 15-1 regular season record and Super Bowl berth, but still, he can’t win.

Whether it’s fans whining about him hitting the dab or jumping all over harmless Instagram posts to accuse him of thuggery most foul, Newton has caught flack from a football fan base that betrays a reflexive disgust with him and everything he does. This disgust, however, isn’t about showboating or whatever else he’s been accused of. This is about race, and the contempt has spilled over into his private life.

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Over the holidays, Newton and his partner, whom he describes as his longtime girlfriend, had a baby boy, but instead of celebrating the footballer’s new fatherhood, some fans fixated on his supposed moral failures as a man. For them, he represented another case of a black man acting irresponsibly.

One fan wrote to the Charlotte Observer, “Cam is a role model to many of our young males, both white and black. The least that he and his longtime girlfriend could have done is to get married prior to giving birth to show his followers that not only is he a superstar, but also a person with high morals.”

Beyond the Charlotte Observer’s shall we say curious history of running vitriolic reader letters aimed at Newton, this faux-concern for Cam and his child, Chosen, is part of an American history that has policed black men and their marriages. This is done to check black men’s imagined lust for white woman and mark their unwedded status as proof they’re inherently irresponsible subhumans driven by an insatiable sexual appetite. The black athlete, because of his hyper-visibility in the public and the press, plays an important role in both the policing of black marriages and the mocking of black manhood. He becomes the great example, the “see I told you so.”

No athlete was the subject of more controversy, nor became more problematic for whites, than Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of boxing. Despite his 1908-1915 reign coming at the height of the Jim Crow era, Johnson laid public claim to his manly authority and openly flaunted the white women in his life. He dressed them lavishly, went out with them in public and dared anyone to say anything about his love life.

Because of his autonomy and athletic success, white promoters searched for a “great white hope” to beat Johnson in the ring. When no man could be found to do the job, the U.S. government used the law, the Mann Act, to prosecute Johnson for his interracial love life.

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Meanwhile, no one seemed at all concerned with the accusations of domestic violence that followed Johnson throughout his life. The act of sleeping with and marrying white women was what concerned the public and Johnson’s refusal to kowtow to racist social norms would become an indelible part of his legacy.

Johnson’s legacy and the white insecurity it triggered haunted the black athletic icons that followed him. Simply put, black athletes who wanted to succeed in sports had to stay away from white women and the only acceptable way to do so was publicly proclaiming marriage to a black woman before any suspicions could be raised.

In the 1930s, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis—both of whom got married in 1935—felt this pressure. Louis’s handlers, who believed he had a legitimate shot to fight for boxing’s heavyweight championship and desperately wanted him to avoid the “bad negro” tag, wouldn’t even let Louis take pictures with white women in public. Further, they forced him to marry Marva Trotter, a black woman he barely knew. Successfully portrayed as the “good black,” the married Louis fought for and won the championship in 1937.

The following year, Louis wrote an article titled, “Why Married Men Become Champions” for Liberty magazine. In it, he talked about the virtues of marriage, settling down and staying at home. He also quoted Owens, who reportedly said, “Joe, the best thing I ever did was get married. When a man is married to the right girl and happy with his home, why, he doesn’t think about gallivanting around. So when he has a job to do—like break a record—he doesn’t have to mess around with it. He breaks a record.”

This article wasn’t about training secrets; it was about trying to convince whites that they didn’t have to worry about the black champion chasing white women.

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Branch Rickey, then an executive with the Brooklyn Dodgers who went on to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, showed similar concerns when he signed Jackie Robinson. In his first meeting with the player who would break baseball’s color barrier, the first question Rickey asked Robinson was, “You got a girl?” As Robinson recalled, “It was a hell of a question.” Indeed, it was a hell of a question. Before they talked baseball, they talked Rachel Isum, then Robinson’s girlfriend. The face of integration and the new symbol of American Democracy couldn’t be single and leave open the possibility of another Jack Johnson. Rickey told him to get married.

Black college athletes also faced the same interrogation as they integrated their respective sports. Jim Brown, the lone black player on his Syracuse football team in 1953, said the school didn’t offer him a scholarship until he showed he wouldn’t be a risk: “I had to prove that I was interested in touchdowns, not white girls.” Fifteen years later, nothing much had changed. In his groundbreaking 1968 series on the black athlete, Sports Illustrated writer Jack Olsen claimed, “The first message that is passed on by the coach to the uneasy young Negro is often: Stay away from white women.” The long reach of Jack Johnson continued to touch black athletes.

While the black athlete’s relationship with white women still stirs up emotions amongst fans, the 1990s saw a new element added to the mix that continues to drive the narrative of how we see the black athlete: the disappearing black father. As America became increasingly enamored with the myth of absentee black fathers—the legacy of the infamous Moynihan Report—the black athlete couldn’t shake the stereotype. Shamelessly, the May 4, 1998 edition of Sports Illustrated has a cover featuring a young black boy with the headline, “Where’s Daddy?” The article is a despicable display of journalism that digs into the private lives of athletes and is filled with stories of parties, paternity suits and players having extramarital affairs. What was the point other than to mock black manhood and capitalize on a public hunger for anti-black stereotypes?

As some have pointed out, we don’t treat white athletes who have children out of wedlock in the same fashion. An obvious example being New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who left his pregnant girlfriend for a Brazilian supermodel. Why does Brady largely get a pass while Newton is excoriated for comparatively minor offenses at worst? Because Brady’s whiteness functions as a shield that Newton lacks. Brady’s fatherhood was not in question, because people assumed he would be there for his child. Newton, clearly, not so much.

We can see this sentiment play out thanks to one of Cam Newton’s recent naysayers, who wrote to the Charlotte Observer, “So the man whom we celebrate, and with good reason, has produced a son. Congratulations would be in order if he had been man enough to marry the mother of his child and make a home.

So, how should Newton and other black athletes respond to invasive criticisms and left hooks to their manhood? They should respond like Jack Johnson did. In 1912, as Johnson faced trumped up charges in court, Johnson told those overly invested in his love life, “I do want to say that I am not a slave and that I have the right to choose who my mate shall be without the dictation of any man… So long as I do not interfere with any other man’s wife I shall claim the right to select the woman of my own choice. Nobody else can do that for me. That is where the whole trouble lies.”

It seems Newton is starting to follow the examples set by his predecessors. If nothing else, the week before the Super Bowl just got that much more interesting.