I see you, Cam. I hear you. I feel you, too.
And I thank you. You want out of the box. A lot of us do. Some people feel safe in boxes and want everyone else in them, too. They make up rules when there aren't any and pressure people to live by them.
But on Friday, NFL quarterback Cam Newton released another one of those videos my good friend Jason Whitlock loves to ridicule. Luckily, Cam wasn't wearing a women's Parisian scarf this time. Yeah, Cam wants to be a YouTube star, a life coach, philosopher, and influencer. He fancies himself as the next PewDiePie, the caustic gamer with 100 million subscribers, mixed with a little Kevin Samuels, the black lifestyle/relationship coach whose live chats attract 50,000 viewers.
Cam's latest video is titled, "You Gots To Be Cultured," and it's about opening your mind and not only un-canceling cultures, but also experiencing them and learning from them. It's part of a series he's calling Funky Fridays. Cam is in the passenger seat of a car decked out in a huge tan suede top hat, or stovepipe hat or something, smoking a cigar. The kids would say, "Cam's swag is on fleek.''
I'm not a kid, though, but a middle-aged, white, married father of two living in a Chicago suburb. I have a Labrador, a fire pit, and a three-car garage. But I'm telling you I feel Cam's latest video. It speaks to me. It should speak to everyone.
The pandemics — COVID and the constant focus on racial identity — have everyone boxed in. We can't connect the way we used to. We're afraid of being contaminated by each other or of offending each other. We're locked into separate corners, and when we come out, we come out swinging.
Cam took a swing at addressing our unhealthy isolation. And I think he did it because he doesn't want to be forced into the black quarterback box any more, where he has to worry whether people will think he's being black enough or man enough; where every move, every clothing choice, and every decision must reflect someone else's definition of blackness.
"There's nothing more of a turnoff to me than a person who is uncultured,'' he said.
"I'm pro-black; I'm black everything. Black this, buy black, do this, do that, support the black businesses, support this. But that doesn't mean I sh-- on white people, I sh-- on other people. Doesn't matter the race, ethnicity. Doesn't matter the gender, male or female.''
He talked about taking his family on vacation, presumably out of the country. And when the family started looking for the comfort food of home, Newton told them to eat the food of the culture where they were. Otherwise, there was no point to being there.
"You wonder why there's a disconnect with certain people?'' he said on the video. "It's because you're not curious enough. And I'm curious. Like, I really want to know about that stuff. I really want to know why y'all eat the food y'all eat. It's not racist stuff. I'm just curious.''
But it was clear that Newton felt a little worried, anyway, about how the box people will take his comments: "I am a black man in America and I take pride in that. I love that. I love black women. I love, you know what I'm saying, black people. But it's time for black people to look outside or look over the fence. And it's time for other people to look at our fence, too.''
Newton is the funky, right-brained creative type that people often misjudge. He wears different clothes, looks different. The zebra-striped Versace pants or the fox tail.
He's just expressing himself. And why would this mean something to me, exactly?
Because I've seen it with my own son, Michael, who is now a musician and a recent grade of Berklee College of Music in Boston. He and Newton, of the New England Patriots, play to the same city now.
I don't usually share this, but I think it's just what Newton is talking about. Michael, 22, has long blond hair and wild clothes. In high school, everyone had short hair and wore gym shorts and a shirt with a team name on it. He'd be in long red pants, a multi-colored shirt, and red John Lennon sunglasses.
Many of his high school teachers and deans assumed the worst. That look just seemed to make them assume he was up to no good, disrespectful, or worse.
The police pulled him over multiple times for no real reason. Once, they said it was because his side mirror had crossed the center line. Then they told him he seemed nervous, which gave them probable cause to search his car. They made him get out, face the other way on the sidewalk, get on his knees, and put his hands behind his back and his head down.
How humiliating. He didn't fit their box. They found nothing and sent him home.
He once asked me if he should cut his hair and change his clothes. Is that really what we want this world to be? Either get into the box or we'll assume you're on drugs, harass you, bully you, make you feel like a bad person and force you out onto the sidewalk on your hands and knees, bowing your head?
I told him he should be himself, hold his head high, and be prepared to keep being pulled over.
He would have been miserable in a box. And now he's about to be a major success and highly valuable to the world that didn't want him the way he was.
He looks different, thinks different, interprets the world differently. His grades were only OK in high school, and he suffered chronic migraines.
At Berklee, his look was taken as an expression of himself. He was cherished for his music, became a straight-A student, was considered a genius with his own style of music. Professors want to collaborate with him as a professional. He graduated magna cum laude and is now hitting the music world. He'll start releasing music very soon. And his first job is at a School of Rock in Boston, where he's working with kids on their music and their self-esteem. He loves those kids.
Look, I grew up as a jock of sorts. Good at tennis and baseball, and not bad at basketball when I was little. I don't want to overstate this, but I dipped my little toe into the pro tennis scene, played a few low-level tournaments. The point is that I'm 6'5", athletic, and competitive, and when my son was born, I figured I'd groom him into the next Wimbledon champ.
When he was in his crib, I used to take his arm and swing it in the tennis serve motion, trying to get that motion comfortable and natural for him. He could have been good, actually, but for one thing: He didn't care one bit about sports.
I loved it. What if I had forced him into the box?
In Newton's case, his interests weren't as easy to separate as my son's. For my son, his bandmates are also young men who aren't held back in their field by their individuality.
Newton is a team leader, where the teams themselves are loaded with people with different cultures. He has go to gain the respect of big, tough men, and he's trying to do it in a women's Parisian scarf.
His message would seem to be one that sports wouldn't need to hear. Sports should be promoting unity, forcing you to learn to be "cultured,'' as Newton kept calling for.
This is particularly true for the quarterbacks. Troy Aikman had to step into Michael Irvin's world. Cam has to step into the world of oversized offensive linemen from rural communities.
He's trying to figure out a society that's going in the opposite direction of what sports taught him.
I'm with Cam on this. He has something important to say, and that just might mean you have to look past zebra-striped pants to hear it.My son would love those pants.