Give Cam Newton a break on those race relations comments, people

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton warms up prior to preseason action vs the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Stadium in Baltimore, MD. on Thursday, August 11.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton warms up prior to preseason action vs the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Stadium in Baltimore, MD. on Thursday, August 11. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Are people are making too much of Cam Newton’s comments about race relations in the new issue of GQ magazine?

I think so.

He says in the interview that America is beyond race now, and that the oft-repeated criticisms of his exuberant playing style and celebrations have nothing to do with race.

That’s certainly not what much of the online commentary, especially from the comments section trolls, have shown since he emerged on the national scene. Here’s one small, steaming pile of the kind of hyper-racialized vomit the man seems to bring out in some folks.

Black people have been defending him his entire NFL career from overt racism like this, as well as less overt criticisms weighted down by implicitly racist presumptions – i.e., if he’s an “athletic” running quarterback, surely he can’t read complex NFL defenses and throw the ball accurately, too.

So, not surprisingly, his “racism is dead” comments haven’t gone over well with black folks. How, they are asking, could he say such a thing when protests are erupting in cities across the country over police shootings of young black men?

Even the famously apolitical Michael Jordan contributed $2 million to groups trying to resolve that problem. At the start of this year’s ESPY sports awards show, NBA players LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and Chris Paul delivered a powerful message in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and against racial inequities.

And now, here comes Cam saying everything’s fine.

Did it make me raise an eyebrow? Yes. We’ve got a black president, but nobody can seriously claim we’ve reached the promised land.

Do I think Cam’s trying to dodge the issue? In this interview, yes. In general, no. We’ve seen enough of Cam by now, especially here in Charlotte, to know that this is not a guy who is afraid of being himself, speaking his mind, or bringing a distinctly African American cultural sensibility to his work and play.

This is still the guy who said this before the Super Bowl: “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.”

But then the Super Bowl turned into a black-and-blue nightmare for the Panthers. And now, I think, Cam’s running away, mentally, from the whole experience – and that includes the things he said.

I know most African Americans aren’t interested in my amateur psychoanalysis. Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett sure wasn’t having any of it recently when he compared the outspoken NBA stars to Cam and other NFL superstars.

“Our great players are sitting back just taking the dollars, whether it’s Cam Newton, all these guys,” Bennett said. “They’re not really on the forefront of trying to change what’s going on.”

I’m sure Cam knows about and is concerned about what’s going on. But he’s had to walk a different road than those NBA stars. None of those men, not even LeBron James, have provoked quite the kind of intense, racially loaded backlash Cam has endured. LeBron has been pilloried – rightly and wrongly – for being everything from too self-centered to too whiny to too egotistical.

For being too black? Not really. That’s been Cam’s burden to carry. America just wasn’t ready for a dancing, prancing, preening Big Black Dude to star at quarterback, the most important position in the country’s most important sport.

Surely all that extracurricular activity meant he’d prove to be too undisciplined to play the most intellectually demanding position in football.

If you don’t think any of that had anything to do with race, I’ve got some prime swampland I’d like to sell you.

Cam, of course, has proven all of that wrong. And now, the man’s tired of sticking his finger in the electrical socket that is virtually any dialogue about race relations in America.

He was talking to GQ magazine. He loves fashion. When the writer started asking about race and the Super Bowl, I imagine some version of this thought spooled through Cam’s head: Aw, man, can’t we just talk about clothes and fun stuff? Just this once?

So he ducked the question. We all know what Cam said wasn’t what he really thinks about race relations. But he just didn’t want to go there at that moment. He wanted to talk about clothes.

I’m willing to give him a pass this time. Maybe that’s because I’m a rabid Panthers fan who rates about a 7 on the scream-at-the-TV intensity chart. Or because, as a middle-aged dad, I don’t expect a 27-year-old to navigate politically explosive interview questions with a politician’s expert ease every time.

But mostly it’s because the man’s heart is in the right place. Just look at the recent story of him quietly giving food to a homeless man. Or his summer camps for young athletes. Or his work with Nickelodeon on his new show, “All In with Cam Newton,” helping kids across the country learn to live out their dreams.

Cam fumbled that interview question, just like he fumbled in Super Bowl 50. But it’s a new day, a new season. And, like most Panthers fans, I’m optimistic.

Cam wants to move on from the Super Bowl. I’d suggest he move on from that GQ interview, too.