Cam Newton Meets Booker T: WWE Predicted Super Bowl 50 Thirteen Years Ago

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“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.

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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.

On Thought Experiments, Pro Wrestling, and the Suspension of Disbelief

If you’ve read some of my older posts, then you know that as a young man, I was a big fan of professional wrestling.  I don’t think I’ve ever told this story, but I got homesick during my freshman year of college.  I hadn’t really watched wrestling since middle school, and I ran across the WWE’s Friday night show, Smackdown!, one random day and it took me away for a couple of hours.  So I quietly paid a little bit more attention to wrestling, because if it meant that I didn’t have to think and I could just be entertained, it was worth it to burn a couple of hours.

I kept on watching casually throughout college, and watching old matches on my laptop, much to the surprise of many college friends.  I can remember one buddy of mine walking into my room and he saw me watching a match with a wrestler named Kane performing, who wears red and black tights and he said, “Come on man, you watching a man in pajamas jump on another man in his draws!”  I laughed and thought to myself that he missed the mark completely, and that many will.

In an ironic twist, I pursued philosophy in undergrad and, because of my natural abilities, did very well and continued to pursue it.  I can remember many buddies of mine ridiculing my major (and in many ways, my lifestyle – being a philosopher by nature is how I always described it), calling it worthless, useless, made-up, just opinion, using imagination, not a real major –

SIDEBAR – If somebody can tell me what a real major is, I’d like to know.  Punk bastards.

BACK TO IT – and plenty of other (literally) ignorant comments about what philosophy is, does, aims to do, and ultimately they would, as I said it, shit on my major, comfortable that engineering, the hard and soft sciences, and plenty of other majors were real ones, and the one (well, one of the two) I chose was bullshit.  It was a bullshit major to them because you could (seemingly) write whatever you want to write and it’s right.  It wasn’t practical because they’d always ask, “what will you do with that?” with a sarcastic tone as if to say, “You can’t do shit with it – it’s not valuable in the world and you know it.”  Much like with my buddy and his comment on the pajamas, I thought to myself that they missed the mark completely and that many will.

In a weird way, professional wrestling and philosophy have more in common than we’d originally think.  Those who defend it will defend it to the death (note the “It’s Still Real To Me” man on the wrestling side of things) and are passionate about the importance of their business.  Both get charged up as being fake, or at the very least as not being legitimate.  Both used to be held in high esteem as being totally real – philosophy never really had a strong foothold in the U.S. (name 7 famous American canonical philosophers without looking anything up one day as an exercise) partly because the culture of this country has always been results and goal oriented with less and less emphasis on the intellectual world.  Philosophy fell out of its position of intellectual power as the hard sciences came around with the indefatigable “right” answers that philosophy couldn’t provide.  Pro wrestling originated as a carnival attraction where there’d be a wrestler who would take on all comers and if he couldn’t beat the guy, there’d be someone behind a curtain with a rod who would knock out the poor fellow to make sure the wrestler won.  Jump forward about 15-20 years from then, and wrestling consisted of “works,” which meant that they weren’t trying to hurt each other, just make it look like it, and “shoots,” where the two guys were really getting after it (but still entertaining the fans).  But the fans never knew that most of the time, these guys don’t have a problem with each other in real life – the fans thought it was all a shoot.  The bad guys and the good guys really didn’t like each other, they thought.  It was real to them, and the wrestlers did everything they could to keep it real for the fans.

In a very weird twist, I noticed one more connection – both philosophy and professional wrestling require you to suspend your disbelief in order to participate.  In philosophy more specifically, I’m talking about thought experiments.  In wrestling, the term is “kayfabe.”  I’ll give a couple of classic examples for both.

John Locke – The Prince and the Cobbler thought experiment.  When trying to give an account of personal identity in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke gives a thought experiment.  Imagine that there is both a prince and a cobbler, with distinctive habits and behaviors to both.  They go to sleep, and when they awake, the mind of the prince is in the body of the cobbler and the mind of the cobbler is in the body of the prince.  He’s trying to get us to wonder who is who and how we determine who is who (the question of identifying persons).

Jerry “The King” Lawler – During his famous 1982 feud with comedian Andy Kaufman, Lawler delivered two jumping piledrivers to Kaufman, who would be carried out on a stretcher and would play up (known as “selling”) his injury, making it look real, complete with hospital time, a neck brace and plenty of vitriol shown towards Lawler for his actions.

Look at the second example, Lawler and the piledrivers.  In case you haven’t seen a piledriver (which has been banned in the WWF/E since 2000, save for Undertaker and Kane), it’s a pretty dangerous looking move.  Like most wrestling throws/holds/etc., when done improperly people can get serious injuries.  Owen Hart breaking Stone Cold Steve Austin’s neck is one of the more famous examples of a piledriver gone wrong.

That move would ultimately cause the premature end to Austin’s career some 6 years later.  Meanwhile, if you or I did this to somebody, the cops would be called and we’d have all kinds of legal problems.  Inside the squared circle, it’s a legal move to perform.  This is an example of suspending our disbelief.  Another example, albeit even more…well, just look.

Again, clearly if this were to happen outside of the arena, police would (rightfully) be called and there would be all kinds of problems with this.  I’m going to assume they’re obvious to everybody why doing something like that to somebody for real would be an issue.  But we watch that, we’re aghast that it happened, but nobody called the police because in order to participate, it has to be that it’s real, but not REALLY real.

Back to the first example, Locke and the Prince/Cobbler.  Sure, we can imagine this scenario – the mind of the prince and the mind of the body switch off, but we all can safely say that this isn’t real.  Our disbelief, however, is suspended so that we can carry out the thought experiment and think about if its our minds that make us who we are or if there’s another criterion that could be exercised.  If we’re hung up on the fact that this mind-swapping is unlikely to occur, we don’t get to the more salient point of the example regarding the problem of personal identity.

Suspending our disbelief allows thought experiments to work, particularly as the scenarios get more and more far-fetched (halving your brain and putting one half in another person; teletransporters out of Star Trek being used that effectively de-materialize you (kill you) and re-materialize you; a man waking up with the life memories of Guy Fawkes).  These things aren’t really happening, but you have to believe that they do happen in order to progress through the experiment and get a conclusion.

Speaking of conclusions, I’ve reached mine.