Superbowl 50 and the Press Conference from Hell
Carolina Panthers Quarterback Cam Newton hasn’t had the best few weeks. On February 7, 2016, he and his team lost the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos in front of a live audience of 114 million people. And there was a controversial Beyoncé halftime performance (that warrants another discussion for another time). After the defeat, he shook hands and congratulated the man whose team had just beaten him: Peyton Manning (who has now recently come under the fire due to a major cover-up surrounding a sexual assault).
During the post-Super Bowl press conference, Cam Newton visibly wasn’t in the best of moods. He left during the middle of media questioning concerning his loss. There was severe and swift media backlash during the few weeks following that press conference. If you watched ESPN, even half-heartedly, you’ll notice the press conference overshadowed the Super Bowl. It’s gotten to the point where even the famed New York Yankees have strictly prepped their players for how not to behave during media questioning. “Be like Russell Wilson, not like Cam Newton.” A quote from a recent newspaper article describes this in detail.
Everyone Hates Cam
This has been a year of a barrage of unwarranted criticism launched at Cam Newton since starting his history-making season. From angry parents writing to the Charlotte Observer complaining that his ‘dabbing’ was traumatizing their children, to him being called an unfit leader despite only losing two games this past season. (This is not an easy feat in any team sport, let alone the NFL. The 1972 Miami Dolphins still hold the record for being the only undefeated team in the modern era).
The curious thing is most of the critique launched at Mr. Newton has been about how he is perceived on the field playing a ‘game’ he always loved to play in front of millions of people while making millions of dollars. In the wake of all the scandals over the past few years that have rocked the NFL to its core—from child abuse, to domestic violence, to the concussions, to using public monies to build privately owned stadiums–it seems that Mr. Newton’s on-field antics shouldn’t warrant much attention. In fact, the NFL should be happy that he’s making headlines for what he does on the field and not off the field. (I’m talking to you Johnny Football!) I even had close personal friends who shared their disdain for Mr. Newton with me, but they really couldn’t narrow down a single hard reason to hate him.
He plays a game, and he dances in the end-zone when he scores a touchdown, and he was upset that he didn’t win the biggest game of his professional career. Mr. Newton is still in his mid-twenties and if he stays injury-free he’ll be a sure-fire NFL Hall of Famer. He’ll be okay, but the critique of Mr. Newton highlights a much bigger problem and one that even I had to professionally deal with.
You’re Just Not That Professional
At a former employer, I served as a teacher for young adults. Upon interviewing for a job I had already been doing successfully for several months within the organization, I was sat down in a room with the executive director and my direct supervisor. There, I was told I wasn’t professional enough because I didn’t send thank you emails to the people I interviewed with, despite them being my colleagues that I see in the office every single day. I had stepped into the role on short notice after a good friend and former colleague left the organization for greener pastures. Not only did I garner the respect of the students and many of my colleagues for my leadership skills and creativity in the role, I netted the organization at least eight hundred thousand dollars in funding and perhaps additional funding due to outstanding student retention under my leadership. Well, no matter. I was demoted due to me not being ‘professional’ enough…because I didn’t send thank you cards…to my colleagues…who interviewed me for a job I had already been doing successfully at the organization for months and not to mention holding an advanced degree from Chicago’s most prestigious university.
This was hogwash of course, but still it was pointed out to me. By both a mentor and another colleague and friend of mine the true problem that the organization had with me concerning my performance was my ‘perceived’ attitude. Even before the “not-professional” meeting, I was pulled aside by the executive director and told not to get too cocky because the position wasn’t fully mine just yet. My mentor told me I had been too confident in my abilities. My confidence, despite not being trained properly for the role, is what lay at the heart of the problem (much like with Mr. Cam Newton, Serena Williams, or Muhammad Ali all black athletes who excelled and excel in their respective sports). Time and time again during these athletes’ careers, they faced harsh criticism from fans, and the media due to their unrelenting confidence. (With Ali, it didn’t help that he refused to fight in Vietnam due his political convictions).
This is the same case for many non-famous black people in the workforce across America. It’s an unwritten rule that we black people should know our place and just be happy to have been invited to the party and fade into the background. We shouldn’t be too confident in our abilities; we shouldn’t make others look bad because we shine so much at our respective jobs. In fact, black people have an old saying: “We have to work twice as hard as our white counterparts to garner the same amount of respect.” The paradox of this saying lies in the reality faced by a black person who is confident in his or her abilities and not afraid to flaunt it. Excelling in your field as a black person, something strange can happen. We’re immediately perceived in the same light that Mr. Cam Newton has been perceived in during this recent NFL season. President Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama have been called ‘uppity’ during the historic 2008 Presidential Election. These terms and ideas go back centuries when it comes to black people who are comfortable in their blackness and confident in themselves and their abilities. As a black person, you should never think you’re as good as white people even if they’re your equals.
White America tends to promote and validate those black people who present themselves as not rocking the boat, those who keep a low profile, or downplay their blackness and confidence. Famous individuals such as the Rock or Will Smith have transcended their ‘so-called’ blackness; thus, they are not seen as being ‘regular’ black people. They have become subtypes, and most black people don’t fit into this category.
The Perceived Black Menace and the Acceptable Negro
The point is that black is always seen as a threat in America, especially since we live in a culture of white supremacy. An ultra-confident and secure black person will always be seen as threatening to some or many. America was never meant to be a place where black people had an equal seat at the table. Black people in America are the only group of people held to an impossible standard that keeps changing, i.e. a moving target. At the beginning of the article, I stated that the Yankees advised their players to be like Russell Wilson and not like Cam Newton. My friend who voiced her disdain for Cam Newton cited that Russell Wilson was a real leader. Both men are black quarterbacks in the NFL playing at an elite level. Russell presents himself as a quiet clean-cut, God-fearing, humble guy who is grateful to be in the NFL, and Cam Newton presents himself the same way. Yet Cam Newton’s flashiness and bravado both on and off the field makes people feel he’s arrogant and ungrateful. I don’t know either man personally, but they have two different public personas and have been treated accordingly.
White people have the luxury to be individuals and be seen as individuals, so when a white person is confident in himself and his abilities in his field, he will be promoted and called a leader (even if he is a jerk, like the fictional character Dr. House from the famous FOX television show). There is a real example of a white famous quarterback who plays in an audacious and boastful way. His name is Aaron Rodgers. Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers play the game very aggressively and similarly. Instead of ‘dabbing,’ Rodgers’ motions his for imaginary pro-wrestling championship belt after making a major play. The biggest difference between the two is one is called a leader and cerebral, and the other is called arrogant and unprofessional by both fans and media.
Black people need to understand this double standard and create their own standards. Don’t be afraid to be confident in your abilities, and value yourself as a black person in a workforce where you will face various macro-aggressions. This is the reality. You shouldn’t de-emphasize your blackness. After all, no matter how clean-cut you are, you’re still a black person. No matter what, you’re always a threat because of the biological skin color you were born with.
A confident, in-your-face black person in the public eye will always face public scrutiny; some will be deserved, but most will be underserved. The conversation needs to refocus on the professional black people who suffer in silence in the workplace: those black people who cut-off their natural hair style, who try to talk as ‘white-sounding” as possible, get perms, stay quiet in team meetings, and don’t stand behind their ideas. We need to make our own standards and continue to build up our own black-owned organizations. Until we reach that point, hold your head high and fake it till you make it when you go to your workplace. Know that you belong there and you’re more than capable doing your job.