“People don’t dance no mo.” – Goodie Mob

Super Bowl 50 weekend is here! The game promises to be a memorable one—the Denver Broncos vs. the Carolina Panthers, the “Sheriff” vs. “Superman.” Yet, despite all of the excitement, this historical moment has been unnecessarily tarnished due to the criticism directed at Carolina’s quarterback Cam Newton. Specifically, sports critics and fans have been condemning Cam’s conduct on the field, specifically, how he celebrates after making or producing a touchdown.

The controversy over Cam’s dancing became a public debate after a Tennessee mother wrote a letter to Cam complaining about his dancing following a Carolina Panther vs. Tennessee Titans football game during the regular season. Offended by his dance celebration she writes,

“Mr. Newton,… thousands of kids watch you every week. You have amazing talent and an incredible platform to be a role model for them. Unfortunately, what you modeled for them today was egotism, arrogance and poor sportsmanship.”

What????? Cam is a bad role model because he celebrates a touchdown by dancing?

I see it is time to educate sports fans and critics alike on culture, specifically African American culture.

When Cam scores he celebrates by dancing in the end zone. Many find this display offensive and “unsportsmanlike,” feeling that Cam should express himself in a more “acceptable” way—maybe, like, giving his opponents a hand shake and then jovially jogging back to the sidelines. Well, that is not Cam! Cam is a young African American, and he is expressing himself culturally in the way he knows how—as an African American!

What is culture? Culture is a set of shared customs, practices, attitudes and behaviors of a particular nation, people or social group. Culture is a way of life, and it is exemplified in how we express ourselves. Obviously, African Americans culturally express ourselves much differently than other groups of people. It is evident in our language, art, music, worship services, etc. Although I do not know its historical origins, I do know that celebrating during competition is a custom within the African American culture.

Looking back over my childhood, I can see all types ways that African Americans celebrated when competing. Has anyone ever seen African American play dominoes or spades? It is truly a cultural experience!

When playing dominoes, for example, African Americans don’t just count, we celebrate in each point we make! Scoring always has a cultural expressing of celebration attached to it. I can just see and hear my grandfather, uncles, family members and friends as they competed. “Fever!” (five)…“Tenderloin steak!” (ten)…“Twenty days in the county jail!” (twenty)…and the sayings go on and on. Playing spades was no different. At times, when making a book, an individual would stand up, rear back and throw the card on the table, then follow it up with a dance! Playing dominoes and cards in this manner was our cultural way of having fun and entertaining each other. It was not taunting (ok, sometimes it was); it was just how we played the game and how we had fun playing that game.

Competing in sports was no different. We celebrated when we scored in all types of ways. A big football fan, I was a wide receiver in my younger days. In the tradition of my favorite childhood athlete Billy “White Shoes” Johnson of the Houston Oilers, I would pretend that I was him and dance in the end zone whenever I made a touchdown, when playing football in my Brownwood, Texas, neighborhood.

Celebration during competition, therefore, is a practice within African American culture. Fans and sports critics must recognize that Cam is a product of and operates within this African American tradition. I agree with Cam in his response to the question in a press conference last week of why he thinks he has become more of a “lightening rod” for criticism than other athletes:

“I said it since Day One: 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….And it’s like, here I am, I’m doing exactly what I want to do, how I want to do it and when I look in the mirror, it’s me. Nobody changed me. Nobody made me act a certain type of way and I’m true to my roots. It feels great.…”  (See TheBigLead for full quote.)

Cam is African American and it is great to see that he is unapologetically embracing this fact! (And, the Carolina Panthers are doing so, too! See “The Panthers Are the Most Unapologetically Black Team in NFL History”.) Why should Cam, or anybody else for that matter, deny or chose not to express himself culturally just to make others feel comfortable?

Yeah, Cam! Be yourself and embrace your African American-ness!

Is the real issue about Cam’s celebrations, or is the critique really about the fact that Cam is celebrating as an African American athlete? White athletes also celebrate and express themselves in a myriad of cultural ways on the football field, yet they have not received the public criticism that Cam is currently experiencing. New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski violently spikes the ball after a touchdown. Carolina Panthers defensive end Jared Allen impersonates cow roping after a successful sack. New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz salsa dances after a touchdown. In fact, Cruz reaped rewards for his dancing, receiving product endorsements as well as an invitation to be featured on “Dancing with the Stars” as a result of his dancing. Greenbay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews displays beast mode following a successful sack. Houston Texans defensive end JJ Watts displays a surf celebration after he has made a sack. Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker dances after a successful field goal. Where were the public outcries and criticisms against these athletes and their cultural expressions? Did a “concerned mother” write a letter about their various displays of celebration?

The National Football League (NFL) is also complicit in the effort to restrain the cultural expressions of African American athletes. In the 2015 NFL Rulebook the NFL explicitly penalizes athletes for “excessive celebrations,” which the NFL considers “unsportsmanlike conduct.” As a company that makes billions of dollars, has the NFL become such a replica of the corporate culture that it has forgotten that football is a game? Aren’t athletes suppose to have fun? Why then should athletes be criticized for expressing themselves in a positive way? Even the fact that Cam’s dancing has become controversial is testimony to what NFL has become—the “No Fun League.”

Although the NFL is comprised predominately of African Americans (approximately two-thirds), it is also responsible for continuing to operate within a white cultural paradigm. The league demands and expects African Americans to curtail their cultural expressions. On top of that, the league still chooses to have white athletes to be the face of the NFL—i.e. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and JJ Watts, just to name a few. It is evident that all of this is done in an attempt to please white America. Essentially, the face of the league must not only be white, its African American athletes must also express themselves in ways that are acceptable to white America.

Yet, Cam is unapologetically true to himself and his culture. Cam is African American, expressing himself like a young African American, by doing an African American dance, that originated from the “African American Capital of the United States of America”—Atlanta! Obviously, Cam and his dancing reflects and embodies a part of the African American culture that some of white America clearly does not want to accept. Cam, however, has chosen to embrace his culture instead of whitewashing it to make it acceptable to white America.

Cam’s blackness, therefore, is an issue. The complaints directed at Cam and his character are a direct result of him being African American. A stellar athlete and fierce competitor, Cam should expect to have his share of haters anyway. That is par for the course. Yet, he is an African American quarterback—a position traditionally held by white athletes. Moreover, he is culturally expressing himself as an African American and, all the while, leading his team to the Super Bowl! Cam, therefore, is not only challenging the traditional roles of African American athletes in the NFL, he is changing the culture of the league, and on top of that, he is quickly becoming the face of the NFL. Yet, for much of white America to welcome him, in their opinion Cam must first learn to culturally conform and lighten his blackness.

Whether he choses to alter his cultural expressions or not, Cam will continue to have his share of critics. Interestingly, does anyone remember, just two years ago, fans and critics alike were complaining that Cam was disengaged and withdrawn?

Making a touchdown in the NFL is hard work. Professional football players are competing with and against some of the biggest and best athletes in the world. Football is a violent sport and athletes are risking their lives to entertain fans. How can an athlete do all of the work—mentally and physically—and not have fun doing so? Athletes should be able to do the work and reap the rewards. What is the matter with celebrating your achievement in your own unique cultural way? Since football is a team sport, shouldn’t athletes also be given the opportunity to celebrate with their teammates as well? Currently, the NFL penalizes athletes for celebrating with their teammates. That is absolutely absurd!

In the United States we live in a pluralistic society comprised of many cultures and subcultures. That is what makes us unique as Americans. We should embrace and celebrate our cultural differences, not condemn or denigrate them. Let’s look at Cam and his dancing for what it is—Cam being himself, an African American.

I’m looking forward to having a wonderful Super Bowl Weekend. Although Peyton Manning is my all-time favorite athlete and has been so for the last few years, I can’t help but cheer for my Atlanta and neighborhood homeboy Cam Newton as well. It is noteworthy to state that if Cam wins the Superbowl and the NFL Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award, he will be the first athlete in history to win the the National Junior College Athletic Association National Football Championship, Heisman Trophy, National Collegiate Athletic Assocation (NCAA) Bowl Championship Series (BCS) National Championship, the Superbowl and the NFL MVP. Cam will truly make history! As a US historian, I am all for making history. I send my best to Cam Newton for a spectacular game.

In short, Cam is no “angry black man.” Cam is just having fun! Might I add, having fun his way!

Cam, although Manning is my favorite athlete, I am looking forward to seeing you do your dance on Sunday!

Categories: Opinion pieces

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