Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on realizing a dream. rbonnell@charlotteobserver.com
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on realizing a dream. rbonnell@charlotteobserver.com

Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton reframes discussion of race at Super Bowl

February 02, 2016 08:36 PM

UPDATED February 03, 2016 10:14 AM

SAN JOSE, Calif.

One week after Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton broached the topic of race, you’ve heard nary a peep about it in the biggest media week leading up to the country’s biggest sporting event.

Newton, the soon-to-be NFL MVP, said Tuesday that this – being at the top of professional football in Super Bowl 50 – is bigger than being just a black quarterback.

“I don’t even want to touch on the topic of black quarterback,” Newton said when asked about his legacy in the shadow of black quarterbacks Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham, “because I think this game is bigger than black, white or even green. So I think we limit ourselves when we just label ourselves just black, this, that and the third.

“I wanted to bring awareness because of that, but yet I don’t think I should be labeled just a black quarterback, because it’s bigger things in this sport that need to be accomplished.”

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A different message

Newton should not be labeled just a black quarterback. No one on the field Sunday at Levi’s Stadium will care about his race and no one watching should either.

But the conversation was ignited last week in Charlotte when Newton responded to a question asking why he believes he’s become such a lightning rod for criticism.

“I don’t think people have seen what I am or what I’m trying to do,” Newton said. “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.”

Since Newton’s college years there has always been criticism. Now throw in that he’s talking about race. Mix it in with the fact that he’s a quarterback, a position that is historically white and exclusionary.

The comment sparked think-pieces both locally and nationally, from writers who have covered Newton his entire professional career to those who have never met him. The talk has continued here in the Bay Area, but Newton won’t put any more chum in the water.

Not a ‘race thing’

In a taped interview with ESPN that aired when the Panthers landed in San Jose, Newton said he didn’t intend for his comments to be interpreted as a “race thing.”

“I said that I’m not a person that can necessarily be labeled because when I was coming out, I was labeled to guys that no longer are in this league,” Newton said. “I didn’t mean it to come off as a race thing. I didn’t mean it to come off as anybody that’s being brash or flamboyant about a specific question. I was saying facts. I am hoping to be a trail blazer to give an avenue not only for African-American quarterbacks, but athletic quarterbacks as well.”

On that point Newton is probably talking about JaMarcus Russell, an athlete who set back the perception of black quarterbacks by years. The Raiders selected Russell, an athletic, black quarterback who could seemingly throw the ball a mile, with the No. 1 overall pick in 2007.

He held out for more money before his first training camp snap and signed a $61 million contract with $32 million in guaranteed money. Three years later he was out of shape, lacked any semblance of a professional football player’s work ethic and was out of the league.

No sniff of controversy

By now we all remember or have been reminded of the pre-draft knocks on Newton: That he wouldn’t be able to understand the complexities of NFL defenses, that he has character flaws and that he can’t be trusted.

Five years later he has taken the Panthers to the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history, and he’s done it without a sniff of actual controversy.

Newton disagreed Tuesday with the notion that stereotypes about black quarterbacks still exist.

“I think we shattered that a long time ago,” he said. And certainly there has been progress with a person of color quarterbacking a team in each of the past three Super Bowls – Seattle’s Russell Wilson twice and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick the other time.

There may be other factors at work for his softened stance from last week, too. Newton tested the waters last week with his race comments and, whether they were interpreted correctly or not, they made waves.

These sports stars are athletes, but they’re also entertainers. Bringing up such a divisive topic like race – again whether he’s right (and he was) or not – could alienate companies, consumers and fans.

A platform to speak on race

At 26 years old, Newton has a platform to speak on race. But he doesn’t have to be this generation’s Jim Brown or Muhammad Ali, and it’s unfair for anyone to ask that of him when you’re damned if you do talk about it and damned if you don’t.

“So when you ask me a question about African-American or being black and mobile,” Newton said Tuesday, “it’s bigger than that, because when I go places and I talk to kids and I talk to parents and I talk to athletes all over, and they look at my story and they see a person, African-American or not, they see something that they can relate to. They see a guy who went a different route than just going to a major Division I school and flourishing there.

“It’s bigger than race. It’s more so opening up the door for guys that don’t want to be labeled, that have bigger views than say, well, I’m in this situation. I’m limited in this environment right now, but I also want to be an artist, I want to be a poet, but I don’t have the means to necessarily do the right things at that particular point. So, for me, I’m living the dream that I’ve always envisioned myself living when I was 8-, 9, 10-years old.”

And now he’s a role model for the 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds of this generation. They can be black or white or any race.

At the same time, Newton knows what he means to the African-American community. He had to have heard the sigh of relief last week when he finally made those comments.

Newton will stay true to his roots.

“I’m trilingual myself,” Newton said Tuesday when asked about the Panthers’ Spanish radio broadcast. “I know how to speak Spanish, English obviously … and I speak pretty good Ebonics.”

Jonathan Jones: 704-358-5323, @jjones9

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