By Kate Aguilar
I spent the week leading up to the Super Bowl in El Paso, Texas. For a historian of race and sport, it felt quite fortuitous to be awaiting Super Bowl 50 while engrossed in the emotion surrounding the 50th anniversary celebration of Texas Western’s 1966 historic 72-65 win over the University of Kentucky. During that game, Coach Don Haskins chose to play only his Black players against an all-White Kentucky squad, a decision now “largely credited with ending segregation in athletics at universities across the South.” This was the first time five Black players would start in NCAA Championship history, a reality captured in the 2006 film Glory Road.
The three days of festivities honoring this historic moment included a commemorative exhibit, panel, and a game between the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) Miners and Western Kentucky. Before the game, players from the 1966 team were introduced. The highlight of the game was arguably President Barack Obama’s tribute to the team, shown during halftime. As a part of it, the president remarked:
Fifty years ago, long before the Hollywood movie or the Hall of Fame inductions, a group of basketball players in El Paso – Black, White, Hispanic – just wanted to win some games. They did a lot of that, because in basketball it doesn’t matter what you look like, just that you can play… So by becoming the first team to win an NCAA title with five Black starters, the Miners weren’t just champs on the court, they helped change the rules of the game off it. They didn’t know it at the time, but their contribution to civil rights was as important as any other.
It may seem odd to pair the two events together – the 50th anniversary of Texas Western’s win and Super Bowl 50. And, yet, President Obama’s tribute remained with me while watching the big game, even as “Superman” Cam Newton looked, well, decidedly human.
A few days ago I wrote a blog post on Newton, or more precisely on the “discussion” surrounding him. As always, I was grateful for the feedback I received, both positive and negative. I was struck by the number of people who reached out to me to question if there was, in fact, a “discussion,” or if it was merely a media fabrication. More than one person reminded me that the “media has gone all in on racial debate discussions that are divisive for clicks and ratings,” as blogger Jason Whitlock observed on “The Herd.” Even Charles Barkley, who wrote the book Who’s Afraid of a Large Black Man? (2006) with ESPN’s Mike Wilbon, questioned the framing of the story, blaming ESPN for spinning a “white vs. black, good vs. evil” narrative with regards to the Manning-Newton matchup. (Although Barkley would go on to say he did think there was a racial element to the criticism of Newton.) Regardless of the wording, the underlying questions were the same: Was there really a “discussion,” and who, exactly, were his critics?
The questions made me step back for a moment and reflect as to whether I was a part of the problem (media spin) or the solution (deconstructing racial signifiers to help us deconstruct our racial prejudices/biases). They were necessary ones when considering the significance of Cam Newton for contemporary cultural politics, and my use of him for a blog on sport history. My gut reaction, of course, was to respond that it wasn’t the media that created Newton’s comments. He, after all, was the one who said I am Black and that may scare some people. I also wanted to attack criticisms like a letter to the editor published in the Charlotte Observer, where a mother talks about the damage watching Newton’s performance inflicted on her innocent child. But I felt both responses were more reactive than proactive.
Then I watched the Super Bowl, a pretty unremarkable matchup between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers. A pretty unremarkable matchup that ended with what may appear to be a relatively unremarkable comment. A word that made my skin crawl. After the Panthers “imploded with turnovers, penalties, sacks and mistakes,” retired NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski – who had previously said he would choke Newton until “hopefully he [couldn’t] breathe for a long time” for his on the field behavior – called out Newton for cutting short his post-Super Bowl press conference by tweeting, “You will never last in the NFL with that attitude. The world doesn’t revolve around you, boy!”
A relatively unremarkable word – boy – that when spoken to or about a Black man, even a Superman, reminds us of how historically Black men have been called “boys” to emasculate them, to remind them they were second-class citizens. For some, it remains just as if not more offensive than being called the “N-word,” while both are still used as a form of subjugation. Even though Romanowski immediately apologized, promising he meant no harm, social media users quickly reminded him, as one man wrote, “I have a hard time believing you don’t know the implications of calling a black man a ‘boy’ in 2016.” Despite his apology, Romanowski was using the racial signifier in its historical context to question Newton’s manhood. For me, it was difficult to read this racial signifier alongside another, the continual references to Manning as the epitome of “class” and “manliness” in my Facebook feed, especially considering the fact that he did not shake the New Orleans Saints’ players hands after Super Bowl XLIV (2010).
This, of course, is not to say that Manning is not classy, nor to excuse Newton for cutting his press conference short. Dealing with the media is part of his job. I cannot imagine what it is like for any athlete or coach to have to do so after a loss, especially one of this magnitude, nevertheless they are aware of their contractual responsibilities. It is somewhat ironic, though, that Romanowski called out Newton for his lack of self-control when considering his previous comments on his desire to cause him serious harm. It is ironic considering Romanowski is remembered as a particularly dirty player who was ejected multiple times and had once spit in an opponent’s face following a play. However, to my knowledge, no one questioned his manhood, and he did last in the sport.
It is here that Super Bowl 50 reminds me, as does President Obama’s tribute, of why sport matters; of why Cam Newton (still) matters to a discussion of race and history. It is here that President Obama’s words resonate: “Because in basketball it doesn’t matter what you look like, just that you can play…” His tribute reminds us how and why sport unites us. It brings together people from many different racial, economic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds, who otherwise might not have come together, because they could just play. In play and through play, they can unite for the good of the team. It is what makes sport great, and the reason even race historians like myself can empathize with the desire of many to define sport as “colorblind.” (Who doesn’t want to believe Sandra Bullock’s character possessed a blind side? But read on, my friends, listen further. President Obama goes on to say, “So by becoming the first team to win an NCAA title with five Black starters, the Miners weren’t just champs on the court, they helped change the rules of the game off it.” They couldn’t have done so without starting five Black players. They couldn’t have done so if their opponents, and everyone else up until that point, had not started predominantly if not all White lineups. They changed the face of the game because it was a White face, and because everyone knew it.
Now I recognize that the gut reaction to this example might be, “Well, yeah, Kate, that was 1966. I didn’t say we were colorblind in 1966.” But a Black quarterback and his actions remain a topic of conversation in 2016 because of how few there have been up until this point. Yes, Newton is not the first. Nor will he be the last. But he is one of a small group. Only 5 of 32 teams this season. Like the Black coach in football (college and professional), he is a minority. A minority in a sport where Black players are the majority. A minority in a sport where White quarterbacks are exclusively defined as “cerebral,” or more thoughtful/rationale/intelligent.
Yes, I recognize that talking about race to play up a divide in some circles has become quite profitable. But if we believe that talking about race in sport is only a media creation/power play, we are in danger as consumers of having our own blind side. Of missing the historical significance of not just a Texas Western but the Black quarterback. For as President Obama’s tribute so deftly shows, sport while ultimately not about race – defined above all by who can play – is played by real people who are impacted every day by their racial, economic, and cultural backgrounds and their/our perceptions of them.
And so I joined the discussion. I took up the question of how race and culture frame our contemporary understanding of Newton. Not because I wanted to further a media firestorm, necessarily, but because the embers were already burning, long before ESPN got involved. Historically and in the present, race matters; it frames how we think, who we interact with, and how we participate in the popular culture, sports included. This remains a fact whether we discuss it or not.
Newton is a Black man in a position that has historically excluded Black men. It is possible to dislike Newton for his “style,” as it possible for Romanowski to have used the term “boy” without intent (although more improbable, in my opinion), but both terms should at the least make us sit back and consider the language and images we use every day. Whether they reinforce or further contribute to our and others’ prejudices and racial biases. We should wonder… If sport is colorblind, why did Richard Sherman’s actions (as written about previously) cause a spike in the use of the word “thug” immediately thereafter? If sport is colorblind, why are White quarterbacks still referred to as “cerebral,” in contrast to Black quarterbacks as more intuitive (lacking rationale)? If sport is colorblind, why does the HBO show Ballers cover only Black football players struggling to keep their money, mouths, and wandering eyes in line when White and Brown players exhibit similar behaviors/struggle with similar issues? These questions need to be asked. A discussion needs to be had. Newton – and the media – didn’t start it. But he is a part of it.
After the post came out I was asked another interesting question: What do you want to achieve in this field? I thought about this while swept up in the electric atmosphere of the 50th anniversary celebration. When I tell people I am an African Americanist, rarely does a day go by that well-intentioned people don’t tell me that they wish race didn’t have to be a part of our reality. That we could just love each other for who we are. As I reveled in the achievement of the 1966 Texas Western team and the moving tribute from our president, it hit me that perhaps what I wish most to achieve is to help people learn how the two are interconnected, to appreciate each other means recognizing that who we are is colored by our identities: race, gender, class, and sexuality.
President Obama reminded the audience, “They didn’t know it at the time, but their contribution to civil rights was as important as any other.” The men who joined Texas Western did so not because they were Black or trailblazers but because they wanted to play. But in being Black, they transformed the sport. I talk about Cam Newton. I talk about Colin Cowherd. I talk about Ballers because race, sport, and American history are intertwined. Race is a part of the way we organize our thoughts, in the past and the present; on the field and off of it; it is not the only way, but we must not be afraid of a thoughtful discussion of it as a part of our efforts to live more harmoniously. In discussing it, we have the ability to see such language – racial signifiers and media spin – as ultimately that of our own making. In owning it, we have the ability to help create an altogether different conversation. I hope that sounds like a game plan worth discussing.
~ A special thank you to those who took the time to offer feedback; your thoughtful reflections served as the basis for this post.
Kate Aguilar is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Connecticut where she studies racial formation, gender, sport, and political culture in the post-1945 U.S. Taking as a lens the University of Miami’s football team, the Hurricanes, her dissertation analyzes the central place of the sport and the city to the 1980s development of the New Right; a focus that makes evident the significance of the Global South and the diverse racial, national, and transnational histories of South Florida and the Caribbean to Ronald Reagan’s particular brand of conservatism and the masculine national identity it fostered. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.