Many people will actively root against Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in the Super Bowl on Sunday, and not simply because they are Denver Broncos fans.
They will say he is arrogant. Although one could argue that virtually all NFL quarterbacks must possess a degree of ego to lead a football team to success on a national stage. And Newton enjoys the vocal support of his teammates, whom he always praises profusely in public.
They will say his touchdown celebrations are unbecoming of a quarterback, perhaps ignoring the fact that he is playing a game that is supposed to be fun, and nearly all his peers engage in similar antics.
Some will even bring up alleged indiscretions from his college playing career, although a stolen laptop and the possible acceptance of illegal payouts from schools to retain his services pale in comparison to some of the activities other recent student athletes have been accused of. And unlike many others, he went back to school last year to earn a sociology degree, several years into his NFL career, to fulfill a commitment he’d previously made to his mother.
It seems that hating Cam Newton has become something of a cottage industry (he’s even been compared unfavorably to GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler) and the more he succeeds, the larger the chorus of critics has become. Playing in the NFL is arguably a privilege and therefore intense scrutiny comes with the territory, but there is a sneaking suspicion in many quarters, and with Newton himself, that race may be playing an insidious role in the backlash against him.
For several decades, white players dominated the quarterback position, and it was little more than an open secret that talent and skill had nothing to do with that phenomenon. This year, Newton will be just the sixth quarterback of color to start a Super Bowl in its 50-year existence, and technically this will be the fourth time a black QB will be at the helm of a championship contender this decade (the Seahawks’ more milquetoast Russell Wilson appeared in the last two).
By all accounts, Newton had a historical season on the football field. He led his team, which was expected to have a down year due to significant injuries on their roster, to a 15-1 record. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 30 touchdowns and rush for 10 more in one season. He tied the record for most rushing TDs by a quarterback, after just five years in the NFL. And this season he set a new record for most combined yards through a quarterback’s first five seasons. But that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the records he’s broken or is close to breaking since his Rookie of the Year winning season in 2010.
And yet Newton is routinely ridiculed as unintelligent, obnoxious and a bad role model for children. He has even been upbraided in a hectoring letter to the editor of his local Charlotte Observer for having a child out of wedlock. The golden boy of the NFL, Tom Brady, did the same thing in 2007, but no bother. Newton is clearly being held to a different standard, and this dichotomy is nothing new.
We saw it with Muhammad Ali, who was vilified for declaring himself "the greatest" before taking a stand against serving in the Vietnam War. We saw it with John Carlos and Tommie Smith, two Olympians who raised their fists in protest during the 1968 games. And more recently we’ve seen it LeBron James, when he had the audacity to choose to play for another team, not for more money, but because he felt they presented him with better chance to win. James became a lightning rod, even after his "decision" bore fruit in two championships, because he was viewed as ungrateful and disloyal. But really his gravest act was exercising his own power.
Professional sports is one of the few avenues in American life where black men are provided the opportunity to dominate. But as far as some fans and sportswriters are concerned, with that power comes great responsibility. Black athletes are often expected to be seen and not heard. Their talent is often dismissed as natural (“beast” and "freak" are preferred terms bestowed on black players) as opposed to the result of hard work and dedication. They are expected to be perpetually humble and not revel in their own excellence. When black athletes deviate from the status quo, they are dismissed as prima donnas -- greedy and spoiled.
Newton refuses to play by these unwritten rules. He has unapologetically embraced the hip-hop culture, which the NBA (with its dress codes) and the NFL (with its penalties for excessive end zone celebrations) have tried to suppress. And he is paying the price for it.
Ironically, Newton was castigated earlier in his career for sulking too much and not taking the leadership role of his team by the reigns. Even his biggest detractors must admit his teammates now have his back, and he has never lashed out at his haters. In fact, he wrote a thoughtful response to a woman who attacked his celebratory dances in print and even reached out to make nice with a sports journalist who questioned his maturity on a regular basis.
In late 2014, a car crash not only could have ended his football career, but his life. And yet he emerged relatively unscathed, leading his team to a playoff victory and then this year to the best season in the franchise’s history.
But even if none of that impresses Newton’s critics, they need only look at the faces of the young, often white children he hands his touchdown footballs to in order to understand why he is a significant figure in the world of sports and worthy of some measure of admiration.
Here is a physically imposing black man with a megawatt smile and charisma to spare – bringing joy to the hearts of kids who are likely in no way preoccupied with or distracted by his race. They are simply thrilled to have an incredibly gifted athlete, even if just for a moment, make them feel like they are a part of the most popular sport in America. Their ebullient faces are not rehearsed nor cynical – they are genuine in a way that highlights what can be positive about football, in a time when so many aspects of the game and the people who play it have been called into question lately, and with good reason. These kids will grow up admiring and emulating a black man, without thinking about the fact that he's black.
Super Bowl Sunday will present an epic showdown -- two of the league's best defenses will face off in what could be quarterback Peyton Manning’s last game of his storied career. Even Newton’s most vocal opponents wouldn’t dispute that he, too, deserves to be there on merit. What should be more evident is the he also is deserving of their respect.