“Triple H – he’s a champion you can be proud of. Do you want a thug for a champion?” – Jerry “The King” Lawler
“People like you don’t get to be World Champion. You’re not a champion – you’re an entertainer. Go ahead, do your little dance.” – Triple H
“….you can pick up our bags, put that chauffer’s hat on, drive that limousine, take our bags up to our rooms and do something you’re qualified for.” – “Nature Boy” Ric Flair
13 years ago, these men playing “characters” on television disparaged a future Hall of Famer as part of a racially charged WWE storyline. Booker T, the most decorated champion of the second largest wrestling promotion in the history of the industry, was set to face then (and ironically enough, current) World Heavyweight Champion, Triple H, at Wrestlemania XIX. In order to add some emotional charge, the decision was made to turn the Connecticut blue blood Triple H really bad by having him and his mentor, Ric Flair, use as many racist tropes as they could get away with. Reminiscent of 10 years prior with Ron Simmons (the first African-American heavyweight champion in professional wrestling history) and Harley Race (manager for Vader, then-WCW World Champion who would lose the title to Simmons), the barbs tossed at Booker T by not only Triple H and Flair but also Jerry Lawler on commentary were nearly constant for the weeks approaching Wrestlemania. Wrestlemania has commonly been referred to as the Super Bowl of wrestling, easily the biggest show of the year that sells out football stadiums worth of attendance annually and has millions watching globally.
This year, in the weeks leading up to Super Bowl 50, there was an intense amount of racially charged commentary leveled at 2015-2016 MVP Cam Newton. From him wearing a hoodie or a hat to how he celebrates his touchdowns and leads his teammates, he couldn’t be himself – a young Black man who openly embraces Black culture – without it being a subject of popular criticism. There was the mom who wrote an open letter that the endzone dancing Cam does is shameful. There are the comments about how Cam’s emotional behavior isn’t the right way to be a leader and certainly not a quarterback – the most important position on the team. Quarterbacks are supposed to be quiet leaders of men, intense but never too boisterous and certainly not classless. Most of the commentators were white, and once that “thug” word snuck up again after the Panthers won the NFC Title it was like the world re-wrote the storyline from over a decade ago in real life.
The World Championship to be decided between veteran champion Peyton Manning of football’s royal family and Cam – the athletic Black upstart with accolades from the small time who never forgot his roots. Peyton isn’t known for racist statements (unlike recently FIRED Riley “I’ll fight every nigger here bro” Cooper) so there’s no direct comparison for the competitors, but the masses can fit the role of Lawler, Triple H, and Flair. The masses uttered vile statements and worse towards Cam while placing a glass ceiling over his head and saying that his emotional conduct on the field (similar to Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady), flashy playing style (Broadway Joe anybody?), and his exuberance of fun while playing (“Brett Favre just looks like he’s having fun out there!”) are all contributing to his own downfall. Meanwhile, the elephant in the room is that he’s Black – big B, not little b. That means he likes being Black and embraces what Blackness looks like in the current era. It’s got a different style than before; it’s a little extra, it’s a bit more emotional, and it’s extremely unapologetic. It’s been dangerous to be unapologetically Black in recent years for many of us, but for Cam it translated into him being a representative of Black people everywhere – for Black people to be proud of and white racists to hiss at from behind their keyboards.
On Super Bowl Sunday, I took an informal poll of the friends at the gathering I held about who was rooting for the Panthers and who was rooting for the Broncos. We all were rooting for the Panthers, mostly on the back of Cam being Cam over seeing Peyton win one on the way out. They noticed, however, that the people they’d asked about the game were often white rooting for the Broncos and Black rooting for the Panthers. “That Cam, there’s something about him I just don’t like.” “Peyton plays the game the way it should be played.” These were the kinds of reasons given for why they rooted against the Panthers – it was that they had a Black (Big B, not little b) quarterback leading them as the face of the franchise and how he was doing things didn’t sit right with these white people. Never mind that Peyton Manning had his worst season since his rookie year and was benched; it was that he took the benching with grace and his disposition is a champion’s disposition. He appears unflappable at all times, the way that men are supposed to be – cold, cerebral, unemotional, effective. Cam represents a different kind of man and doesn’t have that traditionally white championship demeanor. His celebrations and emotional play remind me of Tiger Woods when he burst on the scene. That fist pump is iconic because he did it often and because golf was the ultimate in polite sports – celebrating like that was virtually unseen. Nobody could say shit to him though, because he was the best of a generation. The same may one day be said of Cam, but if 15-1 and a Super Bowl berth isn’t enough for people to get off of his back about enjoying the ride and being the same kind of player that got him to this stage then they might not be looking to be convinced. We should remember they’re calling Cam a thug and everything else even though he’s been a model citizen in the NFL and regularly displayed the kind of community commitment that a face of a NFL franchise should.
Booker T was unapologetically Black before we had any idea of that term. As a pro wrestler, he came into his own “raising the roof,” hollering “can you dig that sucka,” and using Black slang naturally in the mid-90s and early 2000s. His signature move was the Spinaroonie, a breakdancing predecessor to Cam’s Dab that he broke out when he was on a roll or to celebrate a win. During a live pre-match interview on Pay-Per-View, he got so into the interview he said, “Hulk Hogan! I’m coming for you, nigga!” Prior to Wrestlemania, he told his life story live on television in front of millions: youngest of 7, his Dad ran out on him, Mom died while he was a kid, he fell in with the wrong crowd and went to jail for armed robbery. Came out of jail and invested in himself, caught a break, and the rest is history. It’s a story all too familiar for many Blacks in some way shape or form, and his ability to use his entertainment and athleticism to win championships should be an example that you can be yourself and succeed with the right chance. For the entirety of his career, except for a brief stint as a King, he was an entertaining Black guy who wrestled as an entertaining Black guy. He was himself, evidenced by his last words to Triple H before the bell rang at Wrestlemania XIX, “Yo punk ass in trouble. Yo punk ass in TROUBLE.”
Some people think that smart wrestling logic would be that after all of these indignities suffered from Triple H and Flair, that Booker T would be the fan favorite underdog who deserved to win the World Heavyweight Title. In a well executed, technical match, Triple H (thanks to interference from Flair) retained the World Title at Wrestlemania. Booker hit all of his best offense but had too much to overcome in order to win, though the abrupt finish killed the match – Triple H hits his finishing move and after an extremely long time, pins our hero with one hand. Lawler continues to disparage Booker’s past in prison and claim that he just doesn’t measure up to Triple H throughout the match, with Jim Ross doing his best to salvage some respect for Booker T. The story ends up going that the hero suffers public racist humiliation and isn’t able to overcome it in the biggest match of his career. The whole reason the story takes the hero through so much hell is so that the hero has a redemptive victory, right?! This would have been possible down the road but there was never a rematch between Triple H and Booker T for the World Heavyweight Championship. Perhaps WWE was being refreshingly honest about America – the Black hero’s best hope might be to make it to the big show but if he doesn’t win, he won’t get anymore shots.
There wasn’t a storybook ending scripted for the for real life storyline, as the Panthers fell short in Super Bowl 50 much to the delight of the Cam haters. Bill Romanowski, a guy who spat in people’s faces while playing football against them, commented that Cam’s attitude isn’t championship worthy, “boy.” As though one of the dirtiest players in the game for a generation has room to make moral commentary since Romo was mostly a mad dog who had to be leashed. Cam’s inability to handle losing “well” enough or graciously enough mattered to a public who didn’t participate in the game. It matters more than Johnny Football apparently rupturing a woman’s eardrum. It matters more than when Peyton Manning, the same championship quality guy, stormed off the field without shaking hands after losing to Drew Brees in the Super Bowl. It all matters more because he’s Black.
Still, I wish that Cam scored in the Super Bowl JUST so he could dab on em. Just like I wish I’d gotten to see a Wrestlemania World Championship win for Booker T. I vividly remember watching Triple H berate Booker T with coded and explicit racist language and feeling personally insulted as a fan. Booker T was a Black person who embraced Black culture willingly, much like myself, and to see the person I could vicariously live through experience such humiliation without the comeuppance did turn me away from watching wrestling for years. Although Booker T never received a rematch against Triple H, Cam has a rematch every season until he retires or the masses accept an unapologetically Black person (note the backlash Beyonce is receiving for her halftime show performance). Unfortunately, there’s no way to avoid watching Cam’s rematches.