The explanation of Cam Newton’s touchdown celebration in Sunday’s victory against the Tennessee Titans is simple, but complex.
Newton is a young, successful black man celebrating through culturally relevant means.
It’s not hard to grasp that concept, though talk radio callers and a half-dozen Panthers fans who have emailed me have struggled to do so. Let’s unfold it.
In the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 27-10 victory in Nashville, Tenn., Newton extended the ball across the goal line for his sixth rushing touchdown of the season. As is his wont, he found an unoccupied spot in the end zone where he could put his dance moves on display.
First came a few dance steps and then the dab, a dance move born in Atlanta and Googled across Charlotte since Sunday afternoon. He followed that up with another dance step, “hittin’ dem folks” once, and then did it twice more in the faces of Titans defenders displeased with his celebrations.
Titans interim coach Mike Mularkey called it taunting. After the game Newton said he wasn’t being boastful; he was just being himself.
Newton is from Atlanta, the unofficial black capital of the United States. Two Saturdays ago I sat at a bar in midtown Atlanta and I was not a minority. Not that I’ve kept track, but I can’t remember that ever happening to me in Charlotte.
Newton carries with him the same culture so heavily influenced by African-Americans. Atlanta birthed Martin Luther King Jr. and OutKast. Newton saw the rise and fall of Michael Vick, the most dynamic quarterback in league history to that point.
Quarterbacks across the NFL celebrate touchdowns. Aaron Rodgers’ Discount Double Check move is so loved it’s become a commercial. Tom Brady cusses and carries on like he’s in a high school cafeteria. Brett Favre, who once did the since-banned throat-slash gesture in a game, would rip off his helmet and run around aimlessly after scores.
He celebrated a touchdown – in a league that features the greatest athletes in the world – by doing a popular dance his little brother asked him to do. Placed in a vacuum, that story should be one we celebrate.
So why is Newton any different? He celebrated a touchdown – in a league that features the greatest athletes in the world – by doing a popular dance his little brother asked him to do.
Placed in a vacuum, that story should be one we celebrate.
The great black quarterbacks who came before Newton didn’t celebrate – for any number of reasons. Maybe they didn’t have rhythm. Maybe they had different temperaments. Or maybe – and probably – they couldn’t, for fear of the reaction.
We’ve seen the kind of fuss Newton’s celebration has caused before, when baseball star Ken Griffey Jr. wore his hat backward in the mid-90s.
Black people had played baseball for decades, but Griffey brought the game to generation of kids and made it look fun.
You waggled your bat like Griffey, wore your hat backward like he did in the home run derby. You had your parents buy his signature sneakers, which rarely happened with a baseball player.
In much the same way, Newton is ushering in football for a new generation. He has the 10th-best selling jersey in the country, according to Dick’s Sporting Goods. His Superman pose is imitated at every level of the game.
Before Sunday’s game, Trenton McNair, son of legendary Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, was at the game in Nashville, where his father was the NFL’s MVP in 2003, four years after he came within a foot of a Super Bowl victory.
Trenton could have been in his dad’s throwback jersey. Instead he wore a blue No. 1 Panthers jersey, and he spoke with Newton before the game.
Of course Newton’s dances are a form of self-aggrandizement. There is an inherent “look at me” nature to any celebration – white or black player, quarterback or otherwise.
But perhaps unwittingly, Newton is introducing a culture foreign to a good portion of Charlotte. Historically, there’s resistance when that has happened. Sometimes it’s followed by acceptance.
Some people are mad at Newton, and I can assure you he does not care.
Monday morning across Charlotte, people were doing the dab and hittin’ dem folks, but only after they tried it in private Sunday night.