For a player who, since he arrived in the NFL, has not had any major off-field issues and who has largely lived up to his status as a No. 1 overall pick, Cam Newton certainly seems to have his share of detractors. But behind the tut-tuts over his celebrations or professed preferences for “pocket quarterbacks,” some see another agenda: racism.
On Wednesday, less than two weeks before his Carolina Panthers are set to take on the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, Newton addressed that issue head on. “I’m an African-American quarterback that scares people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to,” he told reporters (via the AP).
One could certainly describe the regular season Newton has just had as incomparable, given that he became the first NFL quarterback ever to throw for at least 30 touchdowns (35, to be exact) and rush for 10 more. But while his playing style, which suits the strengths of a 6-6, 260-pound athlete who can move exceptionally well, may strike some as unorthodox, it’s his exuberance over successful plays, which some find self-serving and unbecoming of the position he plays, that has made him a lightning rod.
“People are going to judge, and have opinions on things I don’t have control over,” Newton said Wednesday. He added that he feels misunderstood, saying, “I don’t think people have seen what I am or what I’m trying to do.”
Newton noted that while “nothing has pretty much changed” with him since he began his NFL career, his success on the field is altering perceptions of him. “They talk about maturity. They talk about skill-set,” the quarterback said.” The only thing that has changed (about me) is that we’re winning now.”
“I don’t think he wants to be known as an African-American quarterback; he wants to be known as a quarterback,” Panthers Coach Ron Rivera said. “I think that is what drives him, to be able to transcend those boundaries, which I think is great.”
However, to the degree that Newton is viewed in the context of his race, Rivera can relate. He was something of a rarity as a player of Hispanic descent in the NFL from 1984 to 1992, and he joins the Raiders’ Tom Flores as the only such head coaches to have participated in a Super Bowl.
“It really should be about your merits more than anything else,” Rivera said. “More about what you have accomplished, what you have done.”
As for Newton’s penchant for taking great pleasure in his on-field accomplishments, Rivera said that “at the end of the day, it’s about entertainment. If you aren’t enjoying yourself, don’t play the game — it’s that simple.”
If some people don’t like Newton’s act, teammate Charles Tillman warned that they may be in store for plenty more where that came from. “He is setting a precedent as far as for how quarterbacks are now — and how they may become,” the veteran cornerback said. “He’s in a league of his own. He has created his own category for winning.”
Newton may be in a league of his own, but, with a Super Bowl win, he’s also set to become the face — one with a seemingly ever-present grin — of the National Football League. And if that “scares people,” well, considering that he’s only 26, they may just have to get used to it.