As the national anthem started to play Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, Cam Newton had to understand inaction would not be an option. Not for him, a prominent African-American public figure in the city and one of the most famous athletes in the country. Not in that place, roiled all week by protest and, at times, violence after the killing of a black man at the hands of a police officer. Not at this time, after Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling sparked both endless opinion and a wave of supporters across NFL sidelines.

No matter what Newton did, even if he stood still, even if he essentially did nothing, it would be scrutinized and interpreted in so many different ways, by so many different people. If he knelt, he would be lauded by some for taking a stand and criticized by others for inflaming a city rife with unrest. If he stood, he would be cast as feckless and cowardly, or sensible and understanding. His importance to the city and his fame as the reigning NFL most valuable player ensured intense examination from all corners and all agendas.

And this is what he did: Newton wore a T-shirt during pregame warm-ups emblazoned with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” During the national anthem, Newton stood. He wore a towel over his head and tucked his chin to chest, as usual. A few feet away, teammate Marcus Ball raised his fist.

Corine Mack, the president of the Charlotte chapter of the NAACP, has spent her sleepless nights this week promoting peaceful protest and pressuring the city to release tapes of Keith Lamont Scott’s killing. She is a football fan, but she said her mind and heart would not be focused on the Panthers.

Demonstrators marched and chanted outside an NFL game in Charlotte as protests continue over the shooting of a black man by Charlotte police on September 20. (Video: Reuters / Photo: Charlotte Observer via AP)

Still, Mack encouraged players to join a protest Monday evening at Marshall Park. She said it would be “a blessing” for both Panthers and Vikings players to make a gesture during the anthem and “show this country that enough is enough.” She also believed Newton could make a singular impact.

“I’m not one to put a burden on someone else,” Mack said Sunday morning. “But because he is an African-American quarterback, because other African-Americans and so many youths look up to him, because other African Americans are all proud of him and look to him, I do think it is important he takes a stand. I do think it will matter if he takes a stand for justice. I hope he leads his team in that way. In no way would I criticize him because he doesn’t. Everybody does what they can do. But I am truly hoping for Cam Newton in particular to take a stand. I am.”

Late Sunday morning, Mack received her wish in one form, when Newton took the field wearing the T-shirt sporting the words of King. The shirt and his decision to stand for the anthem, during a week of unrest, and after he said he saluted Kaepernick, will draw widespread opinion.

Newton has grappled throughout his career with how to express the intersection of his race and position. As a black quarterback, he plays the position in sports infused with the greatest social weight, even now. Last year, Newton said, “”I’m an African-American quarterback that scares people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.” This offseason, he told GQ magazine America is “beyond” racism as a nation.

During his weekly press conference Wednesday, Newton discussed the Charlotte protests for roughly 13 of the allotted 15 minutes and gave expansive thoughts. He stressed the need for both police and civilians to be held responsible for their actions – he used the word “accountable” no fewer than eight times. He spoke openly but also carefully.

Reached late this week, Newton’s father, Cecil, considered sharing his thoughts on Newton’s unique position. Ultimately, he declined, feeling the matter had grown too sensitive and tense for his opinion to do anything but make things more difficult on his son. “Anything I say is going to be misconstrued,” Cecil Newton said. “I don’t want to bring a lot of undue attention to Cam.”

“I know that the place that I stand, sometimes it’s a lose-lose,” the younger Newton said this week at his press conference. “You say something in one sense, and everybody is saying, ‘you’re a traitor.’ You say something in another sense, and, ‘Oh, he’s just too real,’ and you can’t necessarily say that. So I’m in a position now where I say something, it’s going to be critiqued. And if I don’t say something, ‘Oh, you fake. You flawed.’ I’m a firm believer of justice. I’m a firm believer of doing the right thing.”

Newton’s understanding of how much his words will be scrutinized have not prevented him from expressing himself. He was asked Wednesday if he feels frustrated by how he can receive scorn from so many people, regardless of whether he takes action or does not.

“When you talk about race and you talk about this, and people stand up for a certain community, whether I want to or not, there’s no denying I’m a black person,” Newton said. “I’m an African-American. But when I stand for something I know that I stand for, and I’ve been growing up around all my life, and still, as soon as you say something, ‘We still need to do right for blacks,’ that’s just, ‘Oh, oh, he’s this, he’s that.’ But yeah, the police brutality is embarrassing to even talk about. When you sit up here and you list the names, it’s crazy to even think about, how did this even happen? How does police take a leave of absence, still getting paid?

“But also, when you look at the most dangerous cities in America – Atlanta, Birmingham, Chicago, Miami, Louisiana – I know from being a black person, there are a lot of black people who don’t do right by black people. So you can’t be a hypocrite and just say, ‘Oh, a white man – or a white police officer – killed a black man.’ Now, that’s still messed up. I’m not saying it’s okay. I’m saying we still got to have a clear-eyed vision on both sides. And it starts with holding everybody accountable and policing yourselves. That’s all I’m saying.”

Newton’s actions were closely studied Sunday, perhaps more than any NFL player. He knew he would be embraced by some and disparaged by others, no matter what. It may not be fair, but Newton took the field, and will likely continue to take it, with a unique and complex scrutiny.

“I’m always going to be true to who I am,” Newton said this week. “I’m always going to salute people who stand for something, and also people who represent holding themselves up to a standard. And it doesn’t matter their race. I don’t see that through a black-white lens. There’s good people that doesn’t have a badge on them. There’s good people that has a badge of them. We all know people who are in a police department. And we also know bad people that are civilians, and there’s bad people who are police officers. That’s just life as a whole. All I’m saying is, we all have to, as United States citizens, just have to be accountable for what we do.”