Cam Newton lost the biggest game of his life Sunday night.
How would you have handled sitting in front of dozens of reporters answering questions 30 minutes later?
Maybe you would have handled it better than Cam – not sighing and giving mostly one-word responses before walking out abruptly three minutes later.
But here’s the problem with that. We are not like Cam. He is not like us.
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Newton is held to a standard to which we – media, fans, observers – hold most superstar athletes. Win or lose a big game, you have to face the music. That’s the deal he struck when he signed up for professional football, and that’s especially the deal when he, for the better part of five years, has said around the world that he wants to be a role model for children.
First, let’s take the Super Bowl 50 postgame news conference for what it is. Newton, scowling in the locker room after the toughest defeat of his career, had to go to a podium in front of hungry media on deadline and answer some decent, some inane questions about the events of the night.
I was still in Carolina’s locker room and wasn’t present for Newton’s questioning. But I know the setup in that auxiliary news conference area, and I’ve watched the video several times.
Though he gave mostly monosyllabic answers, he was capable of answering questions. We know that because he answered one, and it was in response to a question that he shut down with a “no” earlier in the session.
“They just played better than us,” said Newton, who was named the league MVP the night before. “I don’t know what you want me to say, I’m sorry. They made more plays than us, and that’s what it came down to. We had opportunities. It wasn’t nothing special that they did. We dropped balls, we turned the ball over, gave up sacks, threw errant passes. That’s it, they scored more points than us.”
Nearby, victorious cornerback Chris Harris Jr. could be heard eagerly responding to a question about how the Denver defense shut down Carolina’s passing game.
Newton – deciding that whatever this was, wasn’t worth it – said he was done and left the podium with a team spokesman.
That the losing quarterback, or any member of the losing team, has to essentially share the stage with the winners is an unfair request by the NFL. Levi’s Stadium was made, in part, to host big events such as the Super Bowl. The respective team’s mascots had their own room on the ground floor of the cavernous building.
They should have found somewhere else to stick the Panthers rather than have to hear the Broncos in ecstasy.
While that is going on, we media members expect these athletes on the losing squad to bare their souls. “How does this feel?” we ask, as if we don’t already know that summoning any kind of words for an indescribable feeling is impossible enough.
We, the sports-writing media, think too highly of ourselves. We remain the conduit for fans, but that rope frays with every new social media app made available or publicist hired. Only country music singers give themselves more awards than sports writers.
For the past two years, Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch gave the media nothing during Super Bowl week. It turned into “the” story of the week, with writers taking torches to Lynch for not carrying out his obligation.
“I’m just here so I won’t get fined,” he famously said.
But that’s Lynch, and that’s his brand. He’s the guy who retired during the Super Bowl on Sunday night and made the announcement on Twitter by taking a picture of cleats tied together and thrown on a powerline. Why should you, or we, expect more?
Newton has carried out his media obligations all week, even if there was some eye-rolling and sighing during some lagging portions of it. He was getting the same questions over and over again, and he let it be known by Thursday.
“It means a lot,” said Newton when asked about his close relationship with tight end Greg Olsen.
“I’m sorry if I’m bland,” Newton said Thursday when asked about wearing the hospital bracelet from his December 2014 car accident, “but, man, I’ve been asked that question thousands of times. To be respectful, it means a lot. Obviously, it’s a life-changing moment in my life.”
There is precedent for sports figures not playing nice with media and people loving it. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Poppovich is famous for his five NBA titles and his mastery of avoiding any question during an in-game interview.
Sometimes Patriots coach Bill Belichick seemingly doesn’t bother waking up to answer questions (unless you ask him about left-footed punters or the best blocking tight ends in NFL history, and then he’ll fill up your notebook).
I have interviewed both, and I believe I have asked good questions to both. And I didn’t get much of a quote from either one of them.
It’s not endearing to me, but that’s who they are. They make no bones about it.
Newton, meanwhile, will play the game. He’s been especially good at his news conferences since the Thanksgiving Day win against Dallas, when the spotlight began to shine brighter on him and his team.
Even in Atlanta, after losing Carolina’s only game of the regular season just days after the birth of his first son, Newton sulked at his locker for at least 30 minutes and then sucked it up and stood at the podium and took several questions.
My colleague Scott Fowler asked Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders, who expressed his confidence arguably more than any other player in his generation, what he thought of the way the Panthers play the game. That question was on Thursday, and Deion was prophetic.
“Let me tell you the difference,” Sanders said. “I play like that when I lose. There’s a difference. It’s easy to have joy when you’re winning. But you’ve got to keep that joy when you’re getting your butt kicked too. You’ve got to keep that same swagger, that same confidence. That’s real. When you 17-1, oh it’s easy. Yeah.”
It’s one thing to give fuel to Sanders, an NFL Network analyst who regularly and shamelessly makes outlandish characterizations and inserts himself into stories.
But it’s another to give fuel to all the haters that Newton mentioned in his taped MVP speech.
Those same people – from those of an older generation, to opposing teams’ fans and to those scrambling for ways to explain their distaste for Newton without using coded racist language – were served a perfect example. This is the ammunition they can use for the cold months of Newton’s offseason.
But this is about more than these haters who don’t have Band-Aids for their feelings, as Newton said in his latest Beats by Dre national commercial. This is about a person who wants to be great on the field and a cultural force off it.
Newton has built up a great deal of capital with his play on the field and his actions off it. He’s acknowledged his college-age mistakes, and we should have moved past them by now, and his work in the community has reached thousands of children.
For that and his play on the field, Newton became a role model – willingly.
Too often we look to athletes as role models when we shouldn’t, or when they don’t want us to. Former NBA star Charles Barkley famously told us all that he is not a role model, and with that admission he has carved out quite the career as the say-anything TV analyst, even though his basketball exploits fade away with each crop of new NBA stars.
But Newton is a role model, and he embraces it. This is what he has set out to do from day one.
“I’m given a stage, and what I do on that stage means a lot,” Newton said Wednesday, “because for people who I’m going to actually meet and for people that’s watching this live and saying, ‘Damn, Cam’s cool.’ For these same people that are saying, ‘Hell, I hate Cam,’ either way, I’m going to stay true to who I am and try to fulfill the things that are important to me.
“For anybody that’s (following in my footsteps), I want to make the road as clear as possible, because those are the same things that help me.”
There were factors at play Sunday night that caused Newton to react how he did after the loss, and hopefully the NFL works out its kinks in Super Bowls to come.
There is no contract for being a role model, but there is a deal in place. Millions were watching after Super Bowl 50, and Newton didn’t hold up his end.