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The troubling overreaction to a kid trash-talking Cam Newton

When it comes to Black children, public mistakes are taken most harshly

In the summer of 2016, Chris Paul was chilling with his family. The LA Clippers guard had withdrawn from consideration for the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team and was kicking it at Michael Jordan’s Flight School basketball camp on the campus of UC Santa Barbara. One afternoon, the legend himself was there and CP3 issued a challenge. If MJ missed three shots during a game of Around the World, the whole camp would get free Jordans.

No. 23 never missed a shot, the campers went home disappointed and a meme was born: “F— them kids.” It’s hilarious, in that it signifies the hypercompetitive nature of not just Michael Jeffrey Jordan, but to a certain extent, most professional athletes. They aren’t having your noise, no matter what. It’s how they made it that far.

In 2021, apparently, the lighthearted meme based on a fun day at a sports camp came to life, when people in a little place we like to call the internet descended to publicly scold a child that some believe had crossed a threshold that under no circumstances should ever come to pass: He “disrespected an adult.”

If you know anything about Newton, you know that mixing it up with fellow athletes is a large part of what makes him go. Not only does it make him exciting to watch, it’s a real part of who he is, not just a made-up persona designed for the cameras.

The former NFL All-Pro, who won an MVP award, played in a Super Bowl and has been to the Pro Bowl three times, talks a lot of smack. He holds multiple records in the league, was a superstar at Auburn University, where he was a national champion, a consensus All-American, the 2010 player of the year award winner by two different media outlets and, of course, a Heisman Trophy winner. He’s the most decorated quarterback of his generation, in many ways. He is also the most fun.

Over the years, his 7-on-7 camp has been a place for young players to hone their skills, build community and learn from one of the most prolific quarterbacks in league history. It fosters genuine relationships, such as Newton’s bond with Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, whom Newton selected for his team when the former Clemson quarterback was still in high school. To hear them talk about their relationship is genuinely heartwarming.

Newton’s #BlessTheBabies mantra has been a staple of his existence as a pro. He’s nurturing young talent to be the best they can be. When he’s around, it’s obvious. The vibe is lively. Some might say competitive. Others might say rowdy. Kids are encouraged to talk their talk, just like Newton, and every once and again it gets hotter than the average rando might find comfortable.

Take back in 2018, for example. A kid got in Newton’s face about his Super Bowl performance, which didn’t end particularly well. There’s a video from another 7-on-7 event in which Newton responds to said child with less than a smile. It didn’t garner a ton of fanfare, although people asked if an NFL quarterback should be talking to kids at all on a sideline over some good-natured fun. The answer is, yes. The respectability politics fell on the quarterback himself that time.

Fast-forward to 2021, after Newton’s NFL career has been turned on its head slightly. At his event in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the nature of the jabs at the star changed, too. So, when a kid called Newton “a–” and said “you’re going to be poor soon,” followed up by “you’re a free agent,” quite a few people saw that as funny, and well, completely normal.

Interacting with a pro athlete at a camp or its equivalent is half the fun – if not more – of being there. Sometimes it’s mean, sometimes it’s fun, but at the end of the day it’s a game and everyone knows that. And no matter the sport, as ages and skill levels increase, typically the noise does, too.

After a Twitter account called @PatriotsNews247 posted the exchange and it garnered more than 32,000 likes and 15,000 retweets, a kid goofing around with his friends became a news story, the likes of which always seems to pass through the same bizarre filter. For whatever reason, this week the line of demarcation in this particular case fell upon a few axes of respectability, much of which was directed at a high school athlete.

One thing that will never cease to amaze me is the ease with which America can vilify a Black child under the guise of being taught a lesson.

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear of a kid making a mistake? Don’t answer that yet, but think about it.

Is it age? Perhaps it’s gender. Maybe it’s their name. Or better yet, where they’re from. In a world in which social media offers us more looks into people’s lives than ever before, the instant analyses we make on how we see each other are spread out over a much larger surface, opening youngsters up to abuse and scrutiny the likes of which those born at a certain time will never truly respect.

That weird cadre of people who unironically use phrases like “kids these days” has mushroomed in size, a phenomenon that has real effects on children. Meaning, whatever inherent biases many people had just based on their real-life experiences in the flesh, when metastasized over the internet, becomes a scenario that is a lot for anyone to handle, never mind humans still figuring out who they are.

The advice you hear from adults ranges from “stay off social media” to “you get everything you deserve.” The best-case scenario is “show your strengths” or “keep it business.” Meanwhile, we all seem to be able to find things young folks say on the internet and steal them for big business when we like them.

Kids get blamed for doing the same things kids have done forever. But because a certain generation can’t handle the concept of documentation for anything other than incarceration, exploitation or titillation, if something remotely off-kilter happens on a camera, it’s viewed as being more wrong or inherently genius.

Short version: Adults have a much easier time being cranks because of technology.

So, what did you come up with, regarding mistakes? In the case of this week, the most obvious thing that came to folks’ mind was punishment. The amount of words I’ve read in just one day regarding violence alone was not startling, but certainly noticeable. The number of people willing to say that they would fight a teenager over getting roasted, or tangentially infer that a kid should get his ass beat by a stranger or adult simply for talking greasy, is numerous.

The obvious point being, by whatever psychological code of the streets that many internet parents operate by, any and all children who step out of their vision of what’s “respectful” deserve physical retribution.

What’s fascinating about this is how through years of celebrating the verbal jousts of young Black kids via music, we’ve sanitized their existence as long as the track bangs. But if two kids are just plain arguing or talking trash, now they’re ratchet. The number of people who watched that video and said “there goes his chance at a scholarship, no coach wants to deal with that” seemed to far outweigh the attitude that was in fact celebrated in a commercial Newton appeared in a few years back.

If racist and anti-gay tweets don’t keep kids off of baseball teams, why should trash talk keep a kid out of a football program?

Thankfully, Newton himself chose a different option: to pause. In a second video, posted by Newton, you see a further exchange in which the NFL quarterback challenges the kid to talk about his game, but ever committed to the bit, he tells him that he can watch him on YouTube, like everyone else. It’s an incredible exchange between two Black males, simply communicating their desires. I loved to see it.

It reminded me of a million lessons learned on a million fields or gyms or diamonds or barbershops or backyards or bedrooms or basements. Newton was the adult, and acted like one. But the vitriol online didn’t really end. Per usual, when it comes to Black children, very few people choose the most humane option: to protect.

Monday, in one of the more unfortunate situations I’ve seen in a long time, the young man in the video issued a public apology in which he tagged Newton and various news outlets, including this one, for the fallout from the viral video. Various birdbrains used the opportunity to comment on cancel culture, and even more had the nerve to say the apology was half-hearted and his parents made him do it.

While it was a nice gesture, there is no world in which a high school kid should feel he has to issue a public apology to a superstar athlete over some spiciness at a camp, or really anywhere. There should definitely be no world in which that child feels the need to tag news organizations to get his point across, and effectively beg for mercy. That price does not fit the bill for the occurrence. It’s not that serious.

Apologize in private, I guess, sure. But if young athletes are out here mastering their statement game ahead of their football game and being blamed because they’ve talked a little smack? That ain’t it. The open animosity toward Black children is not something I care to revisit on a serious level in this space, but there is a straight line from one to the other.

There’s a direct correlation between the unnecessarily stringent standards we hold Black kids to regarding their behavior in public spaces and how the value of their lives is perceived. So when it comes to figuring out a solution in a sticky spot, blaming a kid for a gross ecosystem of scrutiny is just pointless, never mind harmful.

The fun part about being a kid is making fun of adults. And the whole point of making it to adulthood is that we all know that. The notion that “disrespect” is inherently punishable by public humiliation is just wack and toxic. Just because that’s how our parents were doesn’t mean it made sense.

Perhaps there will be a coach or a teacher out there who will see the young man’s actions as something to be taken positively. Instead of “outspoken,” perhaps they’ll call him a “vocal leader.” Maybe instead of “stubborn,” he’ll be known as “committed.” It all depends on how you choose to view the motivation of a kid.

Newton has been the best example of leadership in this whole situation, which is ironic considering the critiques he’s gotten over the years for being too self-absorbed and flashy. If the kids want to grow up to be like Newton, just listening to him isn’t the only way to do it. Newton made it to the top of the NFL world by working hard and being himself.

Does that mean that Newton is incapable of making mistakes? Absolutely not. His comments about a female reporter in 2017 were rightfully identified as sexist, and presumably he learned a lesson that week, too. But what happened in Myrtle Beach was nothing close to that for anyone involved.

“As athletes that are often seen on TV, loved by most hated by some, people often forget we are real DADs, real FRIENDS, real BROTHERS, real SONS, REAL HUMAN BEINGS,” he wrote on Instagram.

That goes for when the camera is on, as well as off. Even if the kids are the ones who press record.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at Andscape. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B and remixes — in that order.