This season, Cam Newton’s level of play, and the according level of notoriety, has risen sharply. But along with the acclaim for a star quarterback playing at an elite level, so, too, rose a furor from those who see the face of the Carolina Panthers as more villain than hero.
He dances, he smiles, he hands footballs to young fans — each action rustling up irate radio callers or a flurry of letters to the editor. For his part, Newton maintains he doesn’t care but with his Panthers playing in Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7, the conversation around the perception of perhaps the NFL’s best player will only intensify over the next week.
“I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to,” Newton said Wednesday, confronting the matter head-on in a frank statement that isn’t likely to make him any less polarizing.
Race, as he pointed out, almost certainly has something to do with it. Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock may envision Newton as the new Magic Johnson, with a dazzling smile and a game to match, but Ryan Clark, a former NFL player turned ESPN commentator, recalled the wife of one player telling him that Newton “rubs her the wrong way and I don’t know why.”
” ‘Here’s why he rubs you the wrong way, because you don’t understand it,’ ” Clark said he told her, as retold on the “Mike and Mike” show. “Because for so many years black quarterbacks didn’t have to conform to a way of playing quarterback, they had to conform to a way of behavior. [Seattle Seahawks quarterback] Russell Wilson is easier to take because every time he gets on the mic, he speaks about God ’cause I’ve been around Russell Wilson in a setting where you’re supposed to dance and he has no rhythm.”
Newton’s coach, Ron Rivera, who has experienced stereotypes as a Hispanic man, expressed hope that this is temporary. “You think in this time, this day and age, it would be more about who [Newton] is as an athlete, as a person more than anything else,” he said. “Hopefully we can get past those things.”
Not just yet, evidently. Earlier this week, Andrew Tilton, presumably a Seahawks fan who lives in Seattle, started a Change.org petition urging that Newton be banned from CenturyLink Field for being “one of the most unsportmanlike quarterbacks in the NFL.” As of Thursday, the petition had more than 2,300 signatures.
Of course, banning him from an NFL field is utterly impossible, but it raises a bigger issue: Where does this intense dislike for the presumptive MVP — whose jersey is only the 22nd best seller in the NFL — come from exactly?
It’s an issue that bubbled up and intensified during the regular season. Newton’s joyous touchdown celebrations triggered many angry letters to the editor of the Charlotte Observer, with a Tennessee Titans fan asking how she could talk to her daughter about dancing and dabbing quarterbacks, concluding by calling Newton a “spoiled brat.” Another letter-writer criticized Newton later in the season for having a child with his girlfriend outside of marriage.
Never mind that the appropriateness of suggestive dance moves might be better directed to the NFL’s cheerleaders. And never mind that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady also fathered a child out of wedlock. It was Newton that earned their ire.
Former players, including ex-Chicago Bear Brian Urlacher, have also expressed issues with Newton.
“I played defense, so I don’t like when guys celebrate with dances and stuff. You know who I like the way he celebrates is Peyton [Manning],” he told USA Today. “He kind of gives the guy a handshake and goes back to the sidelines. I think that’s a great celebration right there. You don’t see him dancing. You don’t see him doing all of that stuff. Even when he gets a first down he doesn’t do anything.”
But different isn’t necessarily bad. Where exactly is the harm in his touchdown dances, in exuberantly being himself? In terms of conduct unbecoming, there are certainly better examples.
Critics will point to a stolen laptop in college, but Newton confronted that head-on in November and spoke of his maturation.
“When I talk to people, I try to make it personable, because if I can make it anybody can,” Newton said. “You’re talking about a person six or seven years removed from a stolen laptop – things that people don’t really want to talk about – a person that had to go to junior college. It’s athletes all in junior college right now asking, ‘Am I going to make it? Am I going to get a scholarship?’ But I did all of that, and look at who I am today.
“I’m not saying that to brag or boast. I’m saying that because somebody is listening to this right now and they’re in that situation right now where they may have had a mistake that happened, but that doesn’t necessarily describe who they are as a person. We all make mistakes. But yet, it’s all about how you rebound from that mistake instead of just giving up.”
Since he has been in the NFL, he has reached out to help disadvantaged people and children during the holidays — and literally reaches out to kids with a football after every touchdown he scores.
Maybe the vitriol toward Newton is partly rooted in his outspokenness, confidence and competitiveness. He warned opponents that the best way to stop his touchdown dances was to keep him from scoring, but, as his moves became increasingly elaborate, even one of those had an endearing backstory. After running through a bunch of dances popular long before he was born, Newton explained that he and his grandmother had often done the twist, the swim and other moves when he was a kid. So much to hate there, right?
Newton is clearly being held to a different, higher standard and one easy explanation is that he is black. But ESPN’s Clark traces the dislike of Newton to culture, not race.
“He isn’t disliked because he’s brown-skinned. He’s disliked because it’s culturally hard to understand for most people,” he said. “See, for many years, if you looked at the black quarterbacks that were accepted, it wasn’t about skill set. We saw Randall Cunningham play very much like this. The plays weren’t called for him, but he played very much like this.
“Russell Wilson is a brown quarterback, but Russell Wilson’s culture is easier to understand. Russell Wilson doesn’t dance. Russell Wilson doesn’t have the hip-hop culture. Young Jeezy and Future aren’t going to Russell Wilson games. So, for the Caucasian fan, for the fan who doesn’t understand that culture, Cam Newton’s culture is too young, hip-hop, too young brown.”
Part of it, too, is that we’ve never seen a quarterback quite like Newton. At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, he is a powerful runner with a strong, accurate arm. This isn’t Warren Moon or Cunningham — or even Colin Kaepernick or Wilson. Newton embodies the evolution of the NFL quarterback and people are slow to embrace such bold change, particularly after the cerebral Peyton Manning-Tom Brady era. Everything is scrutinized, no matter how many charity events he hosts in Charlotte or how often he hands a football to a kid in the stands. It’s always been this way, dating back to the devastating assessment of Newton by Pro Football Weekly’s Nolan Nawrocki in 2011:
Very disingenuous — has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. Always knows where the cameras are and plays to them. Has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble and makes him believe he is above the law—does not command respect from teammates and will always struggle to win a locker room. … Lacks accountability, focus and trustworthiness — is not punctual, seeks shortcuts and sets a bad example. Immature and has had issues with authority. Not dependable.
A former teammate, Steve Smith, called Newton out during his rookie season for sitting by himself on the bench with a towel draped over his head. “I told [him], ‘You can get some mental reps or you can sit on that bench and sulk,’ ” Smith said then.
Newton often has that towel over his head and that’s divisive, too. One Washington Post reader emailed to say: “Players wearing caps on their heads during the playing of the anthem. Cam Newton with a cap and a towel over his head. What kind of respect are these individuals showing our flag, our veterans as well as our wounded warriors. Is this the kind of individuals we want our younger generation looking up to?????”
Now, in his fifth season and leading a team with just one loss this season to the Super Bowl, Cam Newton should be becoming the face of the league, no matter how difficult that may be for some people to accept.
“People can’t even articulate why they don’t like him, but I’m not going to turn this into race and say they don’t like him because he’s black,” Clark said. “They don’t like his culture. They don’t like what he embodies, what he embraces. It’s not right for that position, but he’s winning and it’s right for that team, so we all just need to get over it and just stop having this conversation or making him have to answer [the issue].
“Because every time he has to answer it, we have to talk about it and there’s going to be more picked apart. Then it just brings race into this thing where it’s not so much race this time, it’s culture.”