Cam Newton stands out.
At 6’5” and some 250 pounds, the Carolina Panthers quarterback has been the main focus of every opponent’s defense he’s seen this year. He’s the biggest reason why his squad finished with the league’s best record at 15-1 and will compete in the franchise’s second Super Bowl ever.
He will assuredly be the NFL MVP when the league announces its awards this Saturday.
Newton has racked up yards and touchdowns and popularized “Dabbing” to those who weren’t aware of its Atlanta origins.
But while the Carolina Panthers quarterback’s performance this season has been nothing short of brilliant, he’s not been without his fair share of critics.
There was the displeased Titans fan and mother whose feelings were hurt by the fact that Newton had the audacity to enjoy himself during a game back in November. Before that in 2011, NFL ‘scout’ and talent evaluator Nolan Nawrocki described Cam as “disingenuous” and possessing a “fake smile.”
The Panthers victory over the Arizona Cardinals led some Twitter users to describe the quarterback as a “thug.”
Here’s a Facebook video that’s been viewed millions of times on Facebook that puts Cam’s critics in perspective:
Sure, Cam is largely beloved and an NFL superstar. He has plenty of fans.
But his criticism is staggering for what it represents: He’s young, black, and outwardly confident. He unapologetically represents a sub-culture in such a way that leads it to be admired, being sure to do so with a smile.
And well, quite frankly, America is still uncomfortable with that.
In a recent interview, Newton addressed his growing role as one of the country’s most polarizing figures, offering a surprisingly provocative response given the sensitive media climate in which we exist, stating:
I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing [sic] that they can compare me to.
And he’s right – he’s a quarterback in a basketball player’s body, with an arm like a major-league pitcher. But his distinctiveness stretches far beyond his on-the-field skill set.
For one, he plays a position which is largely dominated by white players, leading many to contrast his every move with those of his contemporaries. It’s an analysis often involving the discussion of “class,” that is, a judgment of one’s social sophistication, and, despite what many would say, that is inextricably linked to image and race.
Former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher recently weighed in on Newton’s in-game celebrations:
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. 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.”
In many ways, Urlacher’s sentiments regarding Cam Newton echo those of Newton’s larger base of critics; further still, they reflect a seemingly willful ignorance of the behavior of Newton’s white peers.
The NFL is full of players who exercise celebrations. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers famously does the “Championship Belt” celebration after a big play, even landing a series of commercial spots with State Farm involving the gesture. Texans defensive end J.J. Watt commemorates each one of his league-leading sacks with the dance of his choice and is widely beloved by sports fans.
Rob Gronkowski’s post-touchdown spikes don’t prompt think pieces and wider cultural discussions on its appropriateness.
What distinguishes these players from Newton is the fact that they don’t elicit nearly the level of disdain, and their behavior sure isn’t censured in the way that his is. You’re unlikely to hear their “class” being questioned, and it’s similarly unlikely you’ll hear someone say that they should be more like (insert player of your choice).
These are criticisms and comments directed at Newton and often involve the suggestion that he behave in a way that is reminiscent of one of the league’s white players. Though, as if to shame Newton into abandoning his expressive personality using fellow black athletes, critics sometimes resort to using players like Russell Wilson, the reserved Seattle Seahawks quarterback, to contrast with Newton.
Hidden within the latter comparison isn’t so much a suggestion as to who Cam Newton should model his behavior after as it is a clear indication of the way in which many feel all black athletes should behave. Cam Newton is a man whose personality and confidence is as big as his frame, and many just aren’t ready for that.
With each celebration, he challenges the prescribed archetype that says he has to be the quiet, “confident” leader in order to be respected in the league, the same one that labeled Richard Sherman a “thug” because he had the nerve to show emotion during a post-game interview.
Cam Newton has turned Sunday afternoons into a performance art of urban youth culture, and he has done so while leading his team to more success than any other team in the NFL. So it isn’t a matter of who Newton should “be more like;” it’s his critics’ desire that he’d simply ‘be less black.’ His brand of confidence intimidates a certain portion of the American public who view his “blackness” as a threatening trait.
So, Cam, keep dancing, keep making kids happy by handing out footballs, and most of all, keep being yourself. In a society that highlights the negatives of black Americans, particularly black males, keep being a positive representation of #BlackExcellence.