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Commentary: Cam Newton center of attention

Video: Panthers' Cam Newton true to his roots

On Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was asked why he seems to be a lightning rod for criticism or judged more than other athletes.
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On Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was asked why he seems to be a lightning rod for criticism or judged more than other athletes.

My first impression of Cam Newton – and probably yours, too – was colored by something other than skin pigment.

That color was green, as in money.

In 2010, Newton was midway through his junior season at Auburn when reports began to circulate that his father, Cecil Newton, sought a substantial chunk of cash in return for Cam to sign out of junior college. (Cam Newton spent his two years of college at Florida as Tim Tebow’s backup.)

How substantial? Between $120,000 and $180,000, according to documents released by the NCAA.

No one was surprised to learn this sort of thing happens – especially in the SEC. But this particular example felt both brazen and tawdry. A father pimping out his own son’s athletic talents to the highest bidder.

I see myself not only as a football player, but an entertainer and icon.

Cam Newton, two months before the 2011 NFL Draft

The NCAA spent 13 months investigating and did not produce any evidence that actual money changed hands. (Both Newtons also denied receiving payments.) Under that cumulus cloud of suspicion, Cam Newton led Auburn to an undefeated season and national championship while winning the Heisman Trophy.

My second impression of Newton was colored by his own pretentiousness.

After he declared for the NFL draft, Newton created another stir by declaring he was more than just an athlete.

“I see myself not only as a football player, but an entertainer and icon,” Newton told SI’s Peter King in February 2011, two months before the Carolina Panthers selected him No. 1 overall.

An entertainer and icon? The guy had yet to play a snap of pro football but was already talking like someone with a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio.

The guy had yet to play a snap of pro football but was already talking like someone with a bronze bust in Canton.

These are the reasons I was predisposed to dislike Newton. It had nothing to do with his athletic ability, his physical prowess, his excessive touchdown celebrations. And certainly not the color of his skin.

It was because he came off like a total prima donna.

After getting the chance to observe Newton during the buildup to Sunday’s Super Bowl – seeing that megawatt smile up close, listening to how he answers questions and hearing his teammates and coaches gush about him – my opinion has shifted.

I am no longer predisposed to hate Newton. In fact, I kind of like the guy.

“Cam’s a great dude,” said Panthers linebacker Ben Jacobs, the former Fresno State standout. “What people don’t know is he’s a great teammate. He gets a hard time for being cocky, and I expect that from people who haven’t played football and don’t know how emotional this game is. When I look at Cam, I see a great captain and a great leader.”

Tight end Greg Olsen echoed those sentiments, calling Newton “everything you could hope for” in a quarterback.

“Cam brings a lot of energy,” Olsen said. “Everyone sees it on Sunday, but we see that in every walk-thru, every meeting. He brings a lot of life. He brings a lot of energy to everything he does, and it’s contagious.”

Not only does (Newton) talk it, but he walks it. He’s one of those guys that’s all in and he’s truly committed.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera

Newton did himself zero favors last week by attributing all the criticism he faces, all the parents who’ve written angry letters to newspapers and bloggers who scrutinize every minor misstep, as a factor of race.

“I’m an African American quarterback that scares people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to,” he said.

When subsequently asked about his legacy as a black quarterback, Newton responded: “I don’t even want to touch on the topic of black quarterback, because I think this game is bigger than black, white or even green.”

Let’s not be naive. Of course skin color is a factor in the way some people view Newton. I was reminded of that recently when logging to to Facebook and seeing a blatantly racist comment attached to a column I’d written about Tulare native Virgil Green of the Denver Broncos.

So, yes, that sentiment exists.

But in Newton’s case, I’ll argue it’s not the prevailing one.

The reason people formed negative perceptions of Newton isn’t because of race.

The reason people formed negative perceptions of Newton isn’t because of race. It’s because he (and his family) gave us reasons to do so.

Newton will be the sixth black quarterback to start a Super Bowl as well as the fourth in the past four years. So America is used to the concept. What makes Newton different from recent predecessors is he isn’t overtly religious like Russell Wilson. Nor is he sullen like Colin Kaepernick, who drew criticism for his tattoos.

Newton is dynamic, charismatic and boisterous. In a league full of physical specimens, he was created in a different laboratory. Probably no quarterback in NFL history has possessed his combination of arm strength and running ability. At 6-5 and 260 pounds, he has the frame to not only withstand punishment but also dole it out.

There’s not a whole lot of guys, if any, who have played the position the way he can.

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen

“He’s doing things that have not been done before,” Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman said. “He’s changing the way the quarterback position is played.”

Are Newton’s on-the-field celebrations a little over the top? Sure. But judging by the number of people who emulate his dabbing pose, it’s clear his influence is widespread.

That influence will only grow if Carolina wins Sunday. Newton would become the first player in football history to win a college national championship, a Heisman and the Super Bowl. He would become the NFL’s biggest star, the icon he set out to be from the very beginning.

“I just wanted to become relatable,” Newton said. “It’s bigger than race.”

Consider me in complete agreement.

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