Cam Newton had a baby late last month. He is not married to the mother of his baby. We don’t have a problem with this, but some people do. A couple of them wrote letters to the editor.
This is not a new thing, this moralizing about babies out of wedlock. It’s a very old thing. Much like Cam’s now-famous scolding from the Tennessee mom, there’s some definite generational tension going on with the baby news. Births to non-married parents are much more common now, but if you’re over, say, 50 years old, you were taught that it’s not enough to be in a committed relationship with a long-time partner. If you want those babies, you need that ring.
This also is not just a Cam thing. For those who are suggesting that white New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady didn’t get called out when he had a baby with his ex-girlfriend back in 2007, well, actually he did. Talk radio in Boston was on fire for a few days. People wrote blog posts. Even the mainstream media got in on the righteousness. Said one Boston Herald columnist: “Father Tom is not around at all, but on the other side of the country making out with his Supermodel.”
So this is not only a black athlete thing. But it definitely is a black athlete thing. Cam Newton is having to lug some other people’s baggage here. Sports has long been dotted with stories of athletes, most of them African-American, having multiple babies out of wedlock, often with multiple partners. Sports Illustrated famously did a cover story on it almost 20 years ago, titled “Paternity Ward,” that began with details of then-Charlotte Hornet Larry Johnson, who had five children by four women.
All of which is part of something larger. As Miami Herald columnist Dan LeBatard wrote back in 2010: “I once asked Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis why so many black athletes have children out of wedlock. His response? Because so many of us are children out of wedlock.” This pattern of children without fathers is at the root of some problems that afflict black communities (although it’s not nearly the only reason for those problems, as many want to believe). So when a prominent black athlete has a baby with a woman who’s not his wife, he gets put in that same box, rightly or wrongly.
Because this is a role model thing. Or, more precisely, it’s about people wanting athletes and celebrities to model the behavior we want modeled. We do that a lot still. We talk about the example athletes should set for children. We ask them to speak out on social issues. We demand that they not sulk during bad moments or overcelebrate during good ones. We ask them to be some better version of us.
Funny thing is, in this case, Cam Newton is doing pretty well with the role modeling. He’s been in a long-term relationship. He’s stayed out of trouble as an adult. He’s long emphasized the importance of education, going back to Auburn University in his offseason to earn his degree. On those trips, he also visited the same elementary school he quietly visited as an Auburn player.
Newton didn’t make a big deal out of those visits, by the way, although he could have. Because everything he does is news. Every public appearance and Instagram photo and traffic incident. That’s part of the territory for public figures.
It’s something Newton learned long ago, how people project all their own issues – be they generational or racial or something else – onto athletes and celebrities. He’ll surely explain that at some point to that son of his, although he’ll probably put it in simpler terms. Maybe something about how you should live your own life and not worry about what others think. That’s the kind of thing good parents say.
Peter St. Onge