Cam Newton and the Ali factor
by Dell Franklin
Cam Newton, you marvelous beast, us white folks so want black folks like you all to act like us, be like us, you know, more reserved, carefully spoken, modest, inhibited, supposedly respectful of opponents and fans and especially the institutions that for centuries, as a black man, gave you the royal shaft. I mean, it gets under our skin like a painful itch that won’t go away when we see a super-humanly talented black dude like yourself brim with confidence, strut your stuff, disdain our cultural traditions, conquer the stage of the most exalted sport in our realm—football.
It’s kind of like when the great Muhammad Ali conquered the then most exalted sport in the entire world back in the 1960s—boxing.
“I am the greatest!” Ali exclaimed with righteous fury as he danced around the ring, his opponent either crumpled on the canvas or blear-eyed on his stool. “I am champion of the world!”
And he was.
“I am beautiful,” Ali boasted. And to women, and I suppose white women, too—tsk tsk—he was. But to white men he was a source of bitter resentment and hateful anger that this cocky, uppity nigger, who was once Cassius Clay, had converted to Islam and changed his name to Ali and was knocking out and embarrassing white pugs all over the place, clowning and mocking them as he did so, showboating, and not saying it, but implying, “IN YOUR FACE, WHITEY!”
Cam’s got it down, like he made a study of it, first things first flashing a Magic Johnson-like smile to deter all negative thoughts, almost as if he talked to the Magic man who told him to keep on smiling, brother, and there ain’t nothin’ they can do, you’ll get ads, ads and ads and ads, and the kids’ll love yah, it’s hard to resist a smile, bro’, no matter how phony your spiel.
Thing is, Magic’s smile is utterly spontaneous and all encompassing while oozing sincerity and a nameless joy at living that includes everybody. And Cam, beyond movie-star handsome, has the rehearsed, dazzling smile of a born-to-be winner of unprecedented narcissism with dollar signs dangling like blinking neon.
So Cam, flashing that magnetic row of piano keys, mentions that as a black man, talented as he is, bigger than life that he is (kind of like Wilt and Shaq), he scares people, and I suppose he means us whiteys, because black folks sure as hell ain’t gonna be scared, and shouldn’t be, because, like Ali, he is theirs!
But he’s different than Ali in that although Ali’s clowning, mocking, poetry spewing and boasting and joshing with and scolding the press for disbelieving his beliefs and feats was part of an act; he did it with a twinkle in his eye, and a personality and wit so contagious, so endearing, you just had to love the guy. Ali had everybody in the press room in stitches half the time, was beyond comfortable on stage—in his glory, in fact—like a great comedian who had the audience transfixed on his every next word.
Cam, on stage, is a tortured, cringe-worthy attempt at acting that an acting teacher and class would crucify. Back a few seasons ago, when the Panthers were losing, his overly distraught sap sessions after losses were maudlin drivel, his moping, his blaming of himself, so uncharacteristic of an egomaniac used to total, unquestioned dominance and constant adulation.
This whole shtick, or schlock, is embarrassing. What’s more, unlike Ali, he is boring, like a knockout beauty queen so pursued and placed on an untouchable pedestal there was never time to form a real personality outside of fielding adulation and toady behavior from hopeful hat-in-hand suitors.
The trouble with a lot of athletes of his ilk.
Even his act of ripping off the Superman cape and joggling his head and saluting and giving away footballs to children after touchdowns seems a calculated PR move, the first act causing the squeamish emperors of the league in their luxury booths to wince at the over-the-top showmanship, but then to swoon with approval at the big black Adonis handing a football to a little white kid, another trick to make one think the NFL owners are good guys and not greedy criminals, that the entire bloodsucking organization of zillionaires and its employees are about humanity and community.
When Newton talks about being scary, does he mean big and black scary? You know, like the terrifying visage of a scowling Sonny Liston back in the 1960s, when Ali called him “The Big Ugly Bear?” Or Mike Tyson, slaughtering opponents with a cold-blooded calm, his face a mask of evil intent?
Come on, dude, who do you think you’re kidding? Ali scared white folks because he represented what was happening in all of sports—the black man taking over because he was fiercer, hungrier, more dynamic, bigger, faster, and goddammit, whether you like it or not, in many cases, smarter! And rubbing it in on the white hordes.
Black athletes were coming. They dominated Olympics track and field, baseball, football, basketball, and boxing. Marciano was gone and we had Ali, Frazier, Holmes. In baseball, Musial, Williams and DiMaggio were gone, and besides Mickey Mantle, we had Mays, Aaron, Clemente, Frank Robinson. And in basketball it was already confirmed black men reigned over white inferiors.
Most of those great black athletes were ingrained to remain humble and duty-bound appreciative for white club owners to give them a chance and in some cases were referred to as “Uncle Toms.”
But not Ali. His was an individual sport, and he was the greatest, was champion of the world, and although there is no proof whatsoever that this man who employed Ferdie Pacheco as his doctor and Angelo Dundee as his trainer had a problem with white people, he was telling the rest of us with the ferocity of a roaring lion, “I am a black Muslim man, I am not fighting your stupid war, I’m seein’ black brothers getting killed by the bushel, so, In Your Face, Whitey!”
Cam Newton, you ain’t scarin’ nobody, and your act is so easy to see through that the more you win, and the longer you’re on the stage, the easier it’s going to be see what a complete phony you are, cheesy smile and all.§
Dell Franklin is a passionate sports enthusiast and writer who lives in Cayucos, Calif., where he laments the growing cancer of entitled pro athletes in clubhouses around the nation. More of his essays are available at dellfranklin.com.