The Internet Would Like To Tell Cam Newton What To Think, For Social Justice

The Internet Would Like To Tell Cam Newton What To Think, For Social Justice

Cam Newton's goal is to 'win football games and inspire joy.' Being a social justice activist every day doesn't accomplish either.
Mary Katharine Ham
By

A GQ writer recently got a sit-down interview over an Atlanta brunch with the Greatest Smile in Sports, Cam Newton. The NFL MVP spent last season steamrolling the Panthers’ opponents only to lose as a one-touchdown favorite in the most important game of his life. His sulky post-game press conference raised as many hackles as his joyful sideline dancing and scoring swagger had earlier in the season.

We have entered the era of public complaining, and everyone’s got something to say about Cam— his smile, his frown, how he should turn it upside down, and his crazy Versace pants. Now, everyone has something to say about Cam’s reactions to what everyone says about him.

For his part, Cam seems mostly joyful, thoughtful, and focused on winning football games, raising a son, and entertaining people. For a professional quarterback, that doesn’t seem like such a bad list of priorities. The Internet, and the writer of the profile itself, disagree. Social justice warriors and the media have a playbook, and Cam has angered them by not learning his plays like a good public figure.

Let’s start with the writer, Zach Baron, who asks Cam about race in America and the North Carolina bathroom law, doesn’t like the answers he gets, and conjures different ones for Cam.

An honest question: Can you name a contemporary athlete who has been subjected to more veiled and sometimes outright racism than Cam Newton? Is this even a controversial opinion, to think that Cam lives in a world of coded and not-so-coded critiques that basically boil down to resentment about the existence of such a sublime black quarterback?

So, we know that the reporter thinks is the answer to his own question. Cam disagrees:

According to Cam Newton, yes, actually. It is. ‘I don’t think of it like that,’ he says. Shaking his head softly.

Cam goes on to answer several questions about this fraught and tense subject, but before we even hear those thoughts, we’re treated to an entire paragraph of second-guessing by the person asking the questions (emphasis mine):

I want to be clear about a few things here. We’d met maybe 25 minutes prior—one of those situations where we’re both trying to talk about a lot of things in a relatively short amount of time. It’s amazing, the scale and duration of what Cam’s endured from the football public; it’s why I wanted to ask him about it. But faced with a national-magazine writer and a switched-on tape recorder, you too might say something other than what you really thought, if that thought seemed like a dangerous, potentially uncontrollable thing to share with a stranger. With a person whose motivations you couldn’t be sure of. Maybe today he woke up and felt like being just a quarterback, not a black quarterback. Maybe he feels fatigue at having to have this conversation with any random reporter who thinks he’s entitled to his thoughts on this subject. Maybe losing the Super Bowl, and hearing all the criticism of Cam Newton that poured out afterward, left him in a place where he just wanted to retreat, at least in front of a reporter, and for once in his life just not be responsible for explaining away the cruel and insinuating things that other people say about him. Maybe he just didn’t feel like participating in the whole economy of outrage that surrounds him today. Actually, I know he didn’t feel like it, because this is how the rest of this conversation goes:

Only then do we hear the thoughts on race in America of the high-profile black athlete who is the ostensible subject of this piece. If I may go meta for a moment and be a writer who is examining a writer who is examining Cam, the above paragraph reads like a reporter who is anticipating a social-justice backlash for an interview subject he likes and trying to write some protection in. He’s like a tiny, literary O-line with hipster glasses for the social media age.

Here’s what Cam had to say, and it did indeed cause a backlash. Turns out Baron can’t throw a decent block.

GQ: Your now former teammate Josh Norman said last year, ‘I’m going to be precise when I say it: It’s hate.’
‘His response may be somebody else’s response, but that’s not how I feel.’
GQ: Do you feel like football fans are racist toward you?
‘It’s not racism. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.’
GQ: So if it’s not that, what is it, do you think?
‘I’ll let you be the judge. I don’t look at it like that. I look at it like some people have certain beliefs, and I have my own belief, and we can agree to disagree on certain things. But this is what makes sports so amazing, that we can start a discussion around a table, in the newspaper, in the magazines, that will get people’s attention. And that’s what sports does.’
GQ: In January, right before the Super Bowl, you said: ‘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.’
‘I don’t want this to be about race, because it’s not. It’s not. Like, we’re beyond that. As a nation.’
GQ: You really think so?
‘Yeah. I mean, you bring it to people’s attention. But after that, that’s it.’

Sure, a bit anodyne, but also kind of…nice. “We can agree to disagree on certain things,” and I’m not going to get all up in my head or their heads about the nastiness and its possible cultural origins–this is something we could use more of in our society. (If you suspect I’m just another privileged white lady looking for a black man with a tame demeanor to suit my culturally ingrained racist expectations, please see my defense of Richard Sherman post-Super Bowl in 2014.) The requirement that every public figure comment on every thing, and that every one of their opinions be expressed in the exact, prescribed social-justice-warrior approved way is stifling and stupid, and doesn’t make for better “national conversations.” Maybe Cam knows that.

Elsewhere in the article, Cam shows what people like about him. When confronted with a letter to the editor from a Patricia Broderick about him having a son out of wedlock—a subject matter which could indeed have racial overtones— the quarterback reacts like a human being, not an activist.

“Congratulations would be in order if he had been man enough to marry the mother of his child and make a home,” the letter read.

Cam:

‘What do you want me to do, write another letter back to her? No. And she’s preaching to the choir. When she mentions those things, those are all things that I’ve thought about. With my father being a preacher, you don’t think I’ve had this discussion before?’

Now he’s laughing. Patricia’s got a point! For somebody who is supposed to be me-first, Cam is very good at imagining and understanding what is in other people’s heads. He just doesn’t always happen to agree.

That’s a real exchange between real people, approached with far more grace and humility by Cam than Broderick offered him. In contrast, here’s the reporter pushing Cam again, this time on Trump and the North Carolina bathroom law. There are favored left-wing causes in the news in the state in which this football player slings touchdowns, and a trendy men’s mag must needs ask about these causes.

GQ: Do you have an opinion on Donald Trump?
‘I don’t. I think he’s an unbelievable businessperson. That’s probably it. But outside of my personal belief, that’s just, you know, my personal belief.’
GQ: Did you vote for the North Carolina governor that enacted that bathroom law?
‘Um…that’s too personal. You know, I gain nothing by answering it.’
GQ: I think the bill is repellent. I’m not trying to be coy.
‘I love people too much to care about those type of things.’

And the Internet is losing its mind.

Cam’s no dummy. He has a professional sports league telling him how to act and a professional social justice action league piling on. He’s shown a propensity to push the bounds with both, with so much likeability neither can keep him down.

Cam is the person subject to the public life’s strictures and the torrent of hate that comes with it. This is how he chooses to deal with it. What does he earn by jumping into these controversies? How much credit did he gain with those who trash him today with his comments about being “an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to?”

None, because over a brunch in Atlanta he decided to say something that diverged from the SJW line of the day, and he’s now a sellout. “I gain nothing,” he says, and he’s probably right. Aligning with approved causes feels nice at first, but it’s a rhetorical Hotel California.

The GQ profile says Cam’s goal is to “win football games and inspire joy, in that order.” When asked about the risks of football to his own son, he doesn’t think twice about whether he’d let him play: “Of course…(Critics) don’t talk about the joy it brings! Super Bowl Sunday trumps every TV rating known to man.”

He’s playing his own game, has his own thoughts. The way the Internet is trying to edit him, you’d almost think he scares a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing they can compare him to.

Mary Katharine Ham is a CNN contributor.

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