by Dante Zappala

My sons took to football this year. We’d watched games before, but somehow this was the season where they started to pick up on the nuances. They learned more of the rules. They applauded the Chip Kelly firing. They followed other teams. Along with me, they became big fans of Cam Newton, the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers.

I became a believer about mid-season. After scoring late to put the game away against the Titans, he unleashed a drawn-out version of his signature touchdown dance. He was Dabbin’, which brought ire to many, including at least one player on the opposing team. In the face of an angry opponent, he kept on dancing. I found it brilliant. In a post-game interview, he said, “If you don’t like me doing it, don’t let me in [the end zone].” True enough.

Cam Newton’s demeanor on the field contorts popular culture and history with society’s biases and hypocrisies. His style of play and celebrations are akin to jazz. He innovates and improvises on old standards. He creates distinctive fault lines of opinion through agitation and reclamation. And, like jazz, there will be lovers and haters abound.

My kids are pining to get front row tickets to a Panthers game because they think they’ll be gifted a ball after a touchdown. It’s all great theater. We’ll watch the Super Bowl this Sunday with intent, hoping for a Panthers win.

Newton illustrates how the more a person resonates with society, the more we are pushed to support, defend or attack him. Every action by that person provides an opportunity for ultimate judgment.

But at some point on Sunday, I’ll have to temper my fandom in front of the boys. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that hero worship is a dangerous phenomenon. When we identify with actions and ideas, our instinct is to rally behind an individual who best represents them. But history is littered with examples of how this goes wrong. Corruption floods in. Truth is dismissed. Bad things happen.

Track-and-Field currently is mired in a huge scandal. Recent reports have uncovered systematic drug use and institutional coverups. The Russian Federation is accused of helping athletes to dope and then extorting money from those athletes to pay top officials at the world governing body, the IAAF, to look the other way. The wake of awe, anger and disenchantment will further erode a sport that many already believe is dying.

Some are even advocating that we reset all of the World Records. We should simply start over.

I can’t tell you if some of the runners I admire the most are cheating. The Kenyan distance gods and the Ethiopian track queens that are grace and power personified wear suspicious halos. There are American runners who have been exposed to have at least pushed the boundaries of what is legal. Perhaps they are clean. I hope they are. But I can’t believe.

Going into an Olympic year, I’m done hypothesizing about who wins and why. I won’t jump up and down after brilliant performances that seem to fly in the face of common sense. Should they make the U.S. team, I’ll root for the runners I know personally and leave it at that.

Perhaps this is cynicism defined. But it’s a healthy way to live. Our political landscape is filled with rabid support for various candidates that can only be described as cultish. Why do we believe that one person can lead us? Why do we put stock and faith in a person we don’t really know who is a part of a system we inherently don’t trust?

Half of the world’s population believes in a single God. We’ve offered up the idea of a savior, what amounts to an all-or-nothing proposition. The sentiment becomes ingrained and is therefore so easily hijacked by a politician, an entertainer or a lover.

The irony is that in turning that belief in an individual outward, we invite doubt and insecurity inward.

I love watching sports with my boys. Along with football, we watch races on the track and the roads. We are engaged and mesmerized by the drama. We have created our heroes and villains whom we’ll cheer for and against. On Super Bowl Sunday, my challenge is to enjoy that excitement along with them while steering them clear of the absolutism that endears.

Should the Panthers win, I might have to spare them a victory dance.

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