Realistically, sometimes empathy can’t be achieved. There are those who refuse to even attempt to put themselves in another’s shoes.
But other times, it is learned.
That was one of the striking points of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s press conference this week, in which he spoke for nearly 20 minutes, solely about social issues.
Newton admitted he does not deal personally with the types of racial inequities suffered by many in this country, because of his social standing.
But he said he will publicly discuss those inequities, and try to understand them. He even called racial injustice in America “an epidemic.”
“I often remind people of where I’m from – I’m from Atlanta, Ga., by way of College Park,” he said. “And it’s a lot of stereotyping, it’s a lot of cultural division, so to speak, in those areas.
“So the person that I am now, if I were to see a person of a different race, of course I’m going to get their best behavior. But when you go back to those sides of College Park, of East Point, Ben Hill, Bowen Homes. ... A person growing up, walking down the street may not have the same cushion, so to speak, from a policeman. That’s what I mean.”
These introspective, empathetic comments are in stark contrast to the now-infamous interview Newton gave to GQ magazine in 2016, in which he told the author that he did not want the story to be “about race” because “we’re beyond that, as a nation.”
Of course, even those who skimmed over racial issues before have now seen racism thrust into the spotlight almost daily – between the divisive rhetoric of President Donald Trump, the tragic events at Charlottesville, and in the hateful reactions of many to the peaceful, kneeling protest of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
And they – Newton included – see more clearly that we, as a nation, are really not “beyond that.”
Maturation and platform
Perhaps it was natural maturation that has helped Newton develop more confidence in communicating his beliefs. Perhaps it was about understanding and accepting the social responsibility he has because of his platform as an NFL star, as head coach Ron Rivera believes.
Perhaps it’s conversations with family and friends such as his father, Cecil, or his brother, Caylin, who is a freshman at Howard, a historically black university.
Or teammates, such as Julius Peppers, who was the lone Panther to remain in the locker room in protest during last week’s national anthem.
Or safety Kurt Coleman.
Coleman explained the idea of empathy to me this week as he has learned it. He urges others to learn it, too.
“I gave the analogy, my dad had breast cancer. My stepmom had non-smoking lung cancer. My dad had prostate cancer. I love working with kids who are dealing with those types of illnesses,” he said. “Making a difference in their lives and their families’ lives is important to me, because I know what it’s like. I’ve stood on that side of the fence.
“It’s the same type of thing. When you understand something a little more, you feel convicted to do more.”
A team discussion
Coleman was one of the captains and other team leaders who met with owner Jerry Richardson to discuss the wave of demonstrations and protests during the national anthem across the NFL, and social issues that they felt merited dialogue.
It seems ever more likely the Panthers will demonstrate in some manner Sunday at Gillette Field in Foxborough, Mass., where they meet the New England Patriots at 1 p.m.
“I’ll say just this. It was a very positive and productive meeting,” said Coleman.
But to the players, what will be more important will be to back up a demonstration with action.
“I’m excited about what we’re going to be able to do moving forward,” Coleman said. “Action is going to be taking place within our team, and within our community. There is a lot of people we want to get involved. I’m excited for what we are trying to build here, and it’s all positive.”
Coleman explained that the team wants to join the community with the leaders of Charlotte and the Carolinas.
“I think an understanding has to (come from) all parties, and I think the only way you get that is by bringing everyone together,” he said. “So everyone can share their ideas and their feelings. It’s tough for me to say I know exactly what the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is going through. ... You have to ask, you have to figure out what the process is like.
“That’s the action we’re talking about. Bring the community leaders, bring the Carolinas leaders. Bring Congress, bring the Senate. Let them experience what it’s like on our side. Given the platform that we have, we are in the position to make a difference, and we want to make a difference.
“But we have to start taking steps.”
And those steps will most certainly include Newton.