Growing up in Philly, I was adopted into a family. More than that, I was born into a religion. We meet every Sunday. Sometimes in the afternoon, and some gatherings take place in the evening. Every once and a while, we have special Monday night gatherings. Our sanctuary is home, or wherever there is a television.
I’m an Eagles fan, a member of a tormented and nearly pitiful devout group of believers rooting for a team that has not (YET) given us a Super Bowl parade. Yet we give them our deepest love and support. Growing up, I remember gathering with family members as they watched Randall Cunningham’s acrobatic display of grace, skill, and speed as he played quarterback for the Eagles. As I got older, Donovan McNabb emerged as the next great quarterback of the Eagles. In 1999, and to much chagrin of Eagles Nation, he was selected by the “Birds” second overall as the first draft pick in the Andy Reid era. Radio host Angelo Cataldi brought a group called the “Dirty Thirty” to the NFL Draft with one mission: to “boo” the likely selection of the Syracuse quarterback. From that moment, the relationship with the Eagles’ fan base and Donovan was a strange one.
McNabb never really embraced the city, and he never was really embraced by the city. Despite becoming the Eagles’ all time leader in wins, playoff wins, yards, touchdowns, and completions, he was gravely underappreciated. There was an undeniable racial element to this as well. In a deeper sense, I was able to witness the struggles of Donovan McNabb and subsequently other black quarterbacks. First, McNabb was never truly embraced by the black community in Philadelphia. Philadelphians saw Donovan as inauthentic, and someone who had a chip on his shoulder, due to the draft incident in which he was booed. Second, he struggled with his self-identity as a quarterback in terms of the style of his game, and what he believed a quarterback should be in the truest sense of the word. McNabb stated repeatedly that he didn’t want to be known as a black quarterback, or a “running” quarterback. As a fan of a team that has had only really 3 multi-year quarterbacks in my lifetime (Cunningham, McNabb, and Vick), I am going to explore the black quarterback. On the first Sunday in February, the electrifying and polarizing Cam Newton will take the field in the Super Bowl as the latest chapter in the troubled and complicated intertwining of black quarterbacks and their relationship with sports fans and society in a broader sense.
How Black is Black Enough?
Two of the best quarterbacks in the game today, and the NFC representatives of the last three Super Bowls are Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. Both are young men of color. While their style of play and production are quite similar, the two are very different, and are RECEIVED very differently. Black fans seem to identify with Cam in ways they don’t identify with Wilson. Whites seem to be hesitant to fully embrace Cam, while there haven’t been open letters from detractors towards Russell Wilson. This season, as the Panthers have rolled through their schedule to a dominating 15-1 record and Super Bowl birth, it has seemed that a “think-piece” was written every week about Cam Newton, their star quarterback. From his “dabbing” after touchdowns, to his exuberant pointing forward following every time he ran for a first down, to the group photos taken on the sidelines when games (as most this season have been) are no longer in doubt, Cam has seemed to gain many detractors for his “lack of professionalism” and “cocky showboat-y” behavior. Most of these angry responders are white people who cannot stomach seeing such a carefree, unapologetically himself, young black man dominate the game in a position historically held by white men. Yet, there’s a very opposite reaction to Cam within the black community. It has rallied strongly around Cam, as if he is our representative. I’ve heard statements such as, “In this super bowl, we need Cam to win, because he symbolizes us!” Even African-American fans of rival teams have come to support.
As a fan that has only rooted primarily for black quarterbacks, and grew up watching Donovan McNabb, I find myself at odds. Why Cam? Why is he the quarterback we choose to root for with a unifying voice? On one hand, I understand that the support is, in part, a response to the hate from white people. That makes sense. But there’s something deeper going on here. Russell Wilson, also a black quarterback, played in the previous two Super Bowls, both against white “establishment” quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Yet there was no exceptional support for Russell Wilson. He isn’t as accepted or beloved. I asked on twitter why this is the case, and I received a slew of sadly expected responses. The prevailing sentiment was that “Russell is corny, he’s not really black, and he doesn’t identify with us.” Others said, “Because he’s lame, and he doesn’t dab.” Dab? Really? It’s intriguing how we, the black community, choose whom to identify with and support versus whom we choose to shun. Russell Wilson grew up in Virginia as a devout Christian, and he’s unapologetic about his faith in Jesus Christ. He’s dating, and publicly in love with R&B singer Ciara, and has been open about their decision to remain celibate until marriage. On the field he’s a superstar with the same skills and productivity and success as Newton. Russell Wilson SHOULD be a young man we rally around, support, endear ourselves to, and identify with. But sadly, he’s not “black enough.” This notion is maddeningly stupid and downright sad. There is no test for being black. There’s no rubric for what it takes to be a “REAL” black man.
While we embrace Cam Newton for being freely and unapologetically himself, we should also do the same for Russell. Cam isn’t the first black quarterback to show up on the scene and be both highly successful and highly scrutinized. The black community rejected my quarterback, Donovan McNabb, in his time, because he wasn’t “black enough.” It was as if being from a Christian two-parent home in the Chicago area was something to jeer. McNabb was deemed “a company man” during his public feud with teammate Terrell Owens. He was called an “Uncle Tom” and also received the corny label. When the Eagles faced the Patriots in the Super Bowl, Black America didn’t rally around the Eagles. We didn’t see him as US. It seems that we don’t just support black quarterbacks across the board, but we support “our types” of black quarterbacks. For white’s Cam is too “black”. For blacks Russell Wilson isn’t “black” enough. While disliked by many, Cam Newton may also be the most embraced black quarterback we have ever seen.
I happen to believe that the dislike that people have of Cam Newton and his exuberant celebrations have more to do with his position than his race. If people broadly hated black NFL success, they’d hate every receiver, running back, and corner in the game. No articles are written when Odell Beckham dances in the end zone. No one thinks twice when Antonio Brown back flips into the end zone or Von Miller does his pelvic thrust “whatever-you-call-it” dance. This is because there’s a different standard in the minds of football fans ascribed to the quarterback position.
Quarterbacks in the minds of many, are supposed to be stern, military-like figures. On the field, they display a sense of seriousness, and professionalism. Some, like Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers, have shown much emotion and celebration while playing, but for the most part, Cam’s celebrations stand out, and tend to last longer than other quarterbacks’. You won’t see Tom Brady or Peyton Manning gathering with teammates and taking “selfies” during a game on the sidelines. You won’t see Ben Roethlisberger or Drew Brees dancing in the face of opponents. I’m not saying this behavior is wrong at all, I’m saying it doesn’t fit the mold of how people view quarterbacks. If Cam were a receiver, running back, or defensive end, his dancing and on field behavior wouldn’t be a point of discussion, but he’s a quarterback, so it is.
My mother is a conscious black woman and a major sports fan. She’s the reason I love the Eagles as much as I do today. I remember when she soured on Donovan. The reason is quite simple: he stopped running. In the prime of McNabb’s career, he noticeably scrambled a lot less. He articulated, clearly and without apology that he wanted to be known as a pocket passer who could beat you with his arm. McNabb alienated many black Eagle fans with this sentiment, because like me, they wanted him to do whatever he could, run or pass, to help his team win. If you can make things happen with your legs when the play breaks down, and the pocket is collapsing, what’s the problem? You have a God given skill set that many quarterbacks to not possess. But, I also believe he was fighting against the age-old stigma on black quarterbacks. There has been this pervading notion that black men don’t possess the mental skills and accuracy necessary to be a successful passer, and thus should hold other positions. It’s frustrating for me to hear analysts talk about young quarterbacks of color, and how coaches should simplify the offense and “play to the passer’s skill set.” It frustrates me because it reminds me of how black quarterbacks used to be discriminated against. We can pass like Marino, Brady, Montana and Rodgers. It’s sad that a black quarterback would ever feel the need to not run, in order to dodge past the “dumb-athletic duel threat QB” label. Cam Newton today, possesses the unique ability both beat you from the pocket, and beat you with his legs. He insightfully described himself as something many people (cough-white people-cough) have never seen before and can’t compare him to. He’s accurate in that assessment. Cam is what McNabb, Culpepper, Vick and countless other quarterbacks ascribed to be, but could not.
In early November I was anointed as a “hater” for critiquing Cam’s play while his team was undefeated. At that time, his passing accuracy was around 50%, and his statistics at that point in the season were quite pedestrian. While others said he was playing at an MVP level, I disagreed. Why? Not because I am hater, but it’s because I hold him to the same quarterbacking standard that I apply to Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. He can perform at that level, and to set a lower standard for excellence because he’s black IS racist. Cam is the next step of quarterback play, especially in the evolution of the black quarterback. While Michael Vick made his name on his supreme speed and exciting playmaking ability, he negated the development of his skills as a passer. Cam is both a great passer and a supreme athlete, and he doesn’t care to allow the noise or expectations to stifle him. I believe that this audacity to be great, and unapologetically so, in whatever manner he himself deems acceptable is what makes Cam Newton a polarizing figure for whites, and hero for many within the black community.
Next Sunday, I’m rooting for the Broncos. Not because I hate the Panthers, and not because I hate Cam Newton. It’s quite simple for me. The Eagles haven’t won a Super Bowl, and neither has Carolina. Actually in 2003, they kept us from one, by defeating Donovan McNabb and the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. I can’t stomach seeing another first time Super Bowl winner crowned before my beloved franchise. Misery loves company, and Eagles fans are certainly miserable. Does this mean I’m not black, or that I don’t identify with my people? No. It means that I’m an illogical, crazy, emotional follower. It means I’m a fan. Now I just need the Eagles to sign their next great black quarterback, so I can mesh my fandom with my pro-blackness. Eleven years rooting for Donovan McNabb, a brother, made that easy to do.
By: Corey Johnson