When black athletes can't win: Attacks on Cam Newton are consistent with how the white establishment has always treated African-American stars

tags: racism, sports

Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author of "Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education."

Super Bowl Sunday was a fun evening for the many Americans who don't like Cam Newton. The Carolina Panthers' quarterback failed to fall on a crucial fumble and sulked through a press conference after the Panthers' loss, confirming what Newton's critics call his poor "attitude."

But what people — mostly white people — don't like about Newton is his style. Newton wears his emotions on his sleeve, his shoulder pads and everywhere else. His touchdown dances, his loud clothing and (except for Sunday's press conference) his loud mouth make him different from what white fans think many sports stars should be.

And yes, that selective disapproval — there are plenty of loud, brash white players who never get criticized on these grounds — has a lot to do with race. If you think otherwise, I've got two words for you: Willie Mays.

Mays has become an icon of baseball, the first black superstar of the sport. So it's easy to forget that many white fans loathed him for his bold moves on the base baths, his signature "basket catches" in the outfield, and the way his cap always seemed to fly off his head as he ran. Mays was derided as a "hot dog" and a "showboat," who lacked the supposed stoic decorum of a proper ballplayer.

Or consider Muhammad Ali, another sports deity who was despised earlier in his career. It wasn't just Ali's conversion to Islam or his opposition to the Vietnam War that rubbed millions of white people the wrong way. It was the exuberant, hyper-active style he exhibited in the ring. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee? Aren't boxers supposed to just stand there and punch away?

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