Mac Engel

Cam Newton is the latest study in racial progress

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton jokes with teammates during practice for the NFL football team in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday. The Panthers will meet the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif., on Feb. 7.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton jokes with teammates during practice for the NFL football team in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday. The Panthers will meet the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif., on Feb. 7. AP

Anybody over the age of 8 remembers where they were when they heard O.J. was found innocent. It has been just over 20 years since O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and her friend.

The nation’s reaction went down black-and-white lines.

I stood in my bosses’ office in the Missouri State University athletic department with four colleagues, and a handful of older women who had stepped in just to watch the verdict. There were eight of us, all white, crammed into that small office to watch a 13-inch monitor. When the verdict was read, we were all silent and shocked.

My boss, an older man who was born and raised in the South, repeatedly said in his baritone Missou-rah twang for the next hour: “That ain’t right, boys.”

That ain’t right is how most of white America felt. As white Americans were angered by the decision, black Americans celebrated that a black man beat a system that had beaten them for more than a century. That was viewed as progress.

On Tuesday, FX will air its eagerly anticipated miniseries on the O.J. case while the Super Bowl will mark our latest progress report on race relations. Just how much different was it in October 1995 when O.J. walked free compared to 2016 when Cam Newton is criticized for dabbing after touchdowns?

Racial equality is better, but the furor directed at Newton says progress in this area moves slowly and that we, as Americans, simply can’t get this one right.

Super Bowl week starts Sunday, and the quiet narrative is like the O.J. case: White America prefers to see the paragon of team rhetoric, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, win his second title, while black America wants Cam to become the third black quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

Cam comes across as the product of Generation Me, while no one has worked harder to cultivate the image of Mr. Team more than Manning, even if there is not be a bigger ME, Type-A control freak in the NFL than the son of Archie.

Since Cam came into the league, he has made people uncomfortable because he is brash and celebrates. He has been moody and petulant. He pretends he is Superman. He dabs. He celebrates boisterously and loudly. He flashes a 75,000-watt smile that rubs people the wrong way.

He says he is criticized because “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.”

That is not true, but no matter what good he does or how many footballs he throws into the stands to little kids, the reaction to Cam this season smells like racism, because maybe that is exactly what it is.

Certain complaints about his behavior sound like old white America preferring not to see a black American boisterously celebrating anything.

Some of the complaints also don’t sound like racism as much as ageism. Cam is a product of Generation Me. He has grown up with a level of self-love, bordering on narcissism, that previous generations deplore.

Plenty of white dudes exhibit the same types of selfie-stick antics and they don’t hear nearly the level of criticism. Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt celebrates sacks; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski’s shtick is loud and obnoxious, but he’s just a funny sports hero.

All three are the biggest and baddest kids on the block. They know it, and yet the treatment of one vs. the other two supports the theory that IT is because one is black and the others are not.

America was built on the ideal of equality, but we know that is not the case, and maybe it’s a preposterous notion.

Even the loudest critic of America’s racial progress since the O.J. case had his pitch lowered by several decibels when Barack Obama was elected president. Twice.

Who could have conceived 40 years ago that a black woman — Oprah Winfrey — would become beloved by all?

Since O.J., we have seen a black man become the most celebrated golfer in a previously nearly all-white sport — Tiger Woods. Women’s tennis player Serena Williams is as dominant as anyone who ever played her sport.

There are examples of progress, and yet there are still so many embarrassing examples of inequity, too.

Serena is the most dominant woman tennis player today, and yet her endorsement earnings pale in comparison to the pretty white girl whom she routinely crushes, Maria Sharapova.

Forbes recently reported that five of the nation’s Top 500 companies are led by black CEOs.

This year’s Academy Awards features zero black nominees among the major categories. The only nominees from the movie Creed and Straight Outta Compton are the white supporting actor (Sylvester Stallone), and the two white people who wrote the screenplay about the pioneering rap artists from L.A.

Can you imagine the field day host Chris Rock will have with this?

Perhaps all of these white people who were nominated are better, but it looks awful.

And that is what is wrong about vilifying the benign behavior of Cam Newton on the field. It’s OK not to like a person, but to rip on Cam for his benign, “generationally consistent” behavior looks small, petty and racist.

We are celebrated globally as the nation of diversity. And yet when people beat up on Cam for dabbing, it feels like we have made zero progress since O.J. was ruled innocent.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

Mac Engel: 817-390-7697, tengel@star-telegram.com, @macengelprof

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