09 February 2016

Character in sportsmen and statesmen

The results of the New Hampshire Republican primary probably won't be changed much by Donald Trump calling Senator Cruz a pussy recently. Many voters have decided that conventional norms of public propriety are irrelevant if not obstructive in a time of national crisis. Meanwhile, people want to crucify Cam Newton, the quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, for his terse, sullen answers to questions at a post-Super Bowl press conference. Newton is the highly-hyped Most Valuable Player who led the Panthers to a nearly-perfect regular season and some impressive playoff wins, only to be embarrassed by the Denver Broncos defense in the big game. Before the game, and really ever since Carolina emerged as a dominant team, Newton has been under peculiar scrutiny. Football fans are still fighting the old kulturkampf over how to celebrate success. Newton offends an oldschool mentality because he dances when he throws a touchdown pass or runs one in himself. Writing as a football fan, I think athletes in all sports go overboard celebrating these days, but I can't get worked up over it as some people are. Because Newton is a young star who was pitted against a beloved veteran, Denver's Peyton Manning, and because Newton is black while Manning is white, debates over athletes celebrating themselves become culturally and racially charged.

There remains a perception that celebrating the way so many players do is a black thing, or at least was brought into the game by black athletes. Yet I remember seeing a documentary about Joe Louis, the black boxing champion of the 1930s, that described how Louis, down on his luck and forced into professional wrestling, had to be taught how to celebrate his victories, since doing so went against his nature. You could just as easily argue, I suppose, that all the self-celebration you see now represents the leeching into competitive sports of pro-wrestling attitudes, though that still begs the question of why pro wrestling deems it necessary for winners -- including the good guys as well as the egotistical bad guys -- to celebrate themselves. In any event, the question arose whether Newton was a proper sports hero, many feeling that a certain stoic modesty better became champion athletes. The question became moot for a few months when Newton lost, but his critics have kept piling on. They cite a crucial moment late in the game when Newton had the ball stripped from him and, instead of diving to recover his own fumble, visibly recoiled from entering the scrum on the ground. This proved to the critics that Newton had either given up on the game or always lacked the character of an athletic hero. Worse, Newton was blatantly disappointed by losing and brought his disappointment to the press conference, where he answered questions curtly, with downcast eyes, before abruptly walking out. This in turn proved Newton a sore loser.  Etiquette dictated that he praise the winning team and show optimism about his own team's future. But while Newton congratulated Manning on the field at the end of the game, all he could say about Denver to the reporters was that the Broncos outplayed his team.

To reporters and many watching on TV or online, Newton lacked graciousness. We don't want our sports heroes to dwell on their disappointments. They're supposed to be role models of achievement and so should appear positive at every opportunity. Newton's performance probably looked worse to many observers than it was because his glum demeanor bookended his supposedly egotistical exuberance during the regular season. He'd gone from one extreme to another -- though he clearly could have been much worse in defeat -- without achieving the golden mean of character expected of sports stars. Throughout the year, people have been deciding whether to like Newton or not based on almost everything but his performance on the gridiron. His words and gestures are micro-analyzed and the man himself is subject to lofty scorn and, in some cases, bigoted contempt. The ironic thing about all of it is that so many people still insist on this sort of code of character in athletes while in politics growing numbers of us seem to be saying that none of that matters anymore. A lot of the people condemning Cam Newton as some low-grade character are probably voting sometime this year for Donald Trump, the man who called his rival, a U.S. Senator, a pussy -- to be fair, he was merely repeating what a fan in the seats had said, though he made a big joke out of how it wasn't a nice thing to say -- and earlier joked about being able to shoot people without losing popularity. It just goes to show that we demand different things from different roles. Some may say we demand too much from our athletes, that we take sports too seriously. Does it follow that we take politics too seriously if we expect our leaders to be dignified? It could be the other way around. Perhaps we demand manners of our athletes because sports are ultimately superficial, while to demand manners from our leaders is not to take politics seriously enough. Let's have a vote on that someday.

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