Scott Fowler

NFL might ‘go to hell,’ but Panthers QB Cam Newton has different destination in mind

I can almost guarantee you that Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will join the ongoing NFL protests in some way on Sunday before or during his team’s game against New England.

Newton gave the oddest game-week press conference he has given in his seven years as a Panther on Wednesday. It went for 18 minutes. It contained 15 questions. All 15 were about the NFL protests – there was not a single query about the actual upcoming game against the defending Super Bowl champions – and Newton’s answers to all 15 were nuanced and thoughtful.

After being part of what he called an “extremely productive” meeting between veteran players and team owner Jerry Richardson at Richardson’s home on Tuesday, Newton also sounded regretful that he had not joined the NFL-wide protests that hundreds of players did join last Sunday.

So get ready. Because like it or not – and Newton is well aware many of you will not like it – here it comes.

I don’t know what he’s going to do Sunday in terms of protesting, but I will be extremely surprised if the quarterback doesn’t do something. I would guess he will share some sort of unification gesture with his teammates at the beginning of the game and then maybe also do something else on his own.

The quarterback has digested the issue now, he said, which he had not fully done over a weekend in which he was consumed with game preparation. He has also gotten permission from Richardson to peacefully protest without repercussions from the owner if he feels so led.

“The time is upon us,” Newton said, “to do something to bring people closer together.”

Trump says NFL might ‘go to hell’

The issue continues to burn as President Donald Trump continues to heap more fuel on the fire of his anti-NFL message via Twitter and interviews.

On Wednesday, President Trump talked with reporters about NFL players who have protested social inequality, police brutality and other issues. “You cannot have people disrespecting our national anthem, our flag, our country – and that’s what they’re doing,” he said. “And in my opinion, the NFL has to change. Or you know what’s going to happen? Their business is going to go to hell.”

Trump also restarted this firestorm last week by saying at a political rally in Alabama that any NFL player who disrespected the flag was a “son of a bitch” who should be fired. And he has blamed NFL rating woes on protests during the anthem (although NASCAR, where no one has protested, also has seen a ratings drop).

Muhammad Ali – the great boxer who was also well-known for his refusal to accept the status quo – is one of Newton’s heroes. When asked Wednesday what the late Ali would do in the current situation, Newton said: “I really don’t know. ... But I know he would be very stern in his beliefs. And like I say, he would have thought about something, and this is that time for me.”

Lock arms with teammates? Take a knee? Raise a fist? Stay in the locker room during the national anthem like teammate Julius Peppers – the sole Panther to protest last Sunday – did against the New Orleans Saints?

All of that is possible. But knowing Newton – the man who created his own alphabet and comes to every postgame press conference in clothing finery a peacock might envy – it may be something unique.

What is clear is that Newton and his teammates have received some assurances from Richardson that a protest will not affect their standing on the team. I thought Richardson’s “stick-to-sports” statement about Sunday’s protests was tone-deaf and would hurt Carolina in the 2018 free-agency period. This fence-mending was necessary from both a business and a human perspective, and I’m glad it occurred.

Benefits and backlashes

Richardson also told the Panthers players he met with that they had to be prepared for public repercussions if they went down the protest path, Newton confirmed. The quarterback doesn’t seem to mind that idea, saying nearly everything he ever says has “its benefits and its backlashes.”

Newton also reiterated a common theme from protesters – their stance is about social inequality and has nothing to do with the American flag.

“By no means do we want to offend anybody,” Newton said. “Nobody who has protested meant for it to be disrespectful to the United States flag.”

As for his personal message, Newton said it was to unify people. Wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed “One Love” in an unusual typeface, Newton said: “The message is unity for me. Black, white, different minorities around America – that’s my message. I want everybody to come together. We get nowhere separated. ... We all are created equal. ... We need to find some type of way to come together to make the situation better. Because where we’re going now? It’s not healthy. It’s not healthy at all.”