On Wednesday, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was asked why he seems to be a lightning rod for criticism or judged more than other athletes. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
On Wednesday, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was asked why he seems to be a lightning rod for criticism or judged more than other athletes. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Scott Fowler

Cam Newton: The most polarizing figure in Super Bowl 50

By Scott Fowler

sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

January 27, 2016 07:23 PM

UPDATED January 27, 2016 11:01 PM

Cam Newton scares people.

I have seen this up close. He scares defensive backs 60 pounds lighter than he is trying to tackle him. He scares some little kids because he looks like a giant, which is why he drops to one knee so often to talk to them.

And he scares some conservative folks, and some folks in the football establishment, and some folks who don’t cotton to dancing, and a few folks who are – no two ways about it – just plain prejudiced.

This is a topic that Newton has danced around for most of his five years in the NFL.

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He stopped dancing Wednesday.

“I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people,” Newton said, “because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.”

Based on the emails I have received for five years on this topic – some of them thoughtful, some of them hateful – he is right.

People like boxes. Cam Newton has turned out to be too big to fit into any of them.

A running quarterback? An athletic quarterback? A black quarterback?

Yes, Newton is all of those. He’s also a pocket passer. A leader. A winner. A soon-to-be NFL MVP.

Does he show off after a first down? Lord, yes.

Has he established a “Sunday giveaway” tradition with footballs and kids that has become one of the most delightful NFL traditions ever? Lord, yes.

He has been criticized ever since he made it into the NFL, and yet in five years in Charlotte I’ve never seen him embarrass the Carolina Panthers organization.

I have seen him pace a team that is 17-1 this season and going to the Super Bowl next week. I have seen him interact as easily and frequently with children as any athlete I’ve ever been around.

“I’m comfortable with the position that I’m in right now,” Newton said.

And, he added, both he and the Panthers could “care less what you say” if you don’t like them.

“Now the true fans,” Newton continued, “they know what’s up. They’re going to be supportive whatever happens. ... But people are going to judge and have their own opinion on certain things that I don’t have control over.”

A season of controversy

Of course, Newton does have control over some things, and he chooses to do them anyway. This season he has torn down a Green Bay banner, thrown a Seattle “12th Man” flag, treated the end zone like his personal dance club and organized photo ops on the sideline while the game is still going on. Some people absolutely love him for all of that. That crowd skews toward the younger side (although certainly there are some older people who love him, too).

Newton is expected to be named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player on Feb. 6th when voting results are revealed the night before the Super Bowl

And some people absolutely can’t stand that sort of stuff, including former NFL stars such as Dick Butkus and Richard Dent. Too brash, they say. Too showy.

Newton will be the most polarizing figure playing in the Feb. 7 Super Bowl, and it’s quite possible he will also be the best player. Whatever he does on Super Bowl Sunday, though, he promises he will stay true to himself.

“When I look in the mirror, it’s me, you know what I’m saying?” Newton said. “Nobody changed me. Nobody made me act this certain type of way. And I’m true to my roots. And it feels great.”

Trying to transcend race

Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who became a head coach the same year that Newton was drafted in 2011, seemed puzzled as to why Newton is still polarizing to some.

“It’s funny we still fight that battle – based on what?” Rivera asked. “He’s been in conversations every year for awards. This year he’s in the conversation for MVP. I still don’t get why he has to (be criticized). And maybe there are some people out there who are concerned with who he is, which I think is terrible. I really do.”

Rivera noted that Newton has never wanted to be known as “just a black quarterback.”

“I’m kind of in the same boat,” Rivera said. “Some people want to tag me as a Hispanic head coach. That’s great, but the truth of the matter is I just want to be tagged as a head coach. It should really be about your merit.”

Newton and Rivera both joined the Panthers in 2011, and the quarterback and coach have long been linked together. The Panthers are now 22-2 over their last 24 games

Yes, it should, and Newton has had a very meritorious season.

Scare people? Yeah, he does – but most of them should be defensive coordinators.

“I think people ought to be scared of a quarterback with his skill set more than anything else,” Rivera said. “He’s a tremendously gifted athlete, a terrific quarterback, a smart football player. ... He’s always strived to get that separation. I don’t think he wants to be known as an African-American quarterback. I think he wants to be known as a quarterback – and a great one at that. That’s what drives him.”

Newton said that he tries to reserve judgment on others because of the judgments that have been heaped upon him dating back to his college days at Auburn and the “pay-for-play” scandal that involved his father and Mississippi State. The NCAA determined Cam Newton and Auburn were innocent of wrongdoing in the case.

“I have come to this point in my life where I’ve been faced with so much from good, bad or indifferent,” Newton said, “that I try to check myself if I’m trying to judge somebody. I think we all are guilty of it at times. And if we look in the mirror, look in our own closet, we see that we’re not perfect.”

‘I’m going to say it anyway’

It’s interesting that Newton knew that he was opening this can of worms Wednesday and chose to open it anyway. Before issuing the “scare a lot of people” quote that now will be repeated constantly between now and Super Bowl Sunday, the quarterback thought carefully.

“I think that’s a trick question,” Newton said when asked why he has become a lightning rod for criticism. “Because if I answer it truthfully, it’s going to be, ‘Aw, he’s this and that.’”

Newton paused.

“But I’m going to say it anyway,” he said.

At 26, Newton long ago realized he will never please everyone. But he has grown up some, even though he likes to say he is exactly the same person who strode out of Auburn in 2011 as Carolina’s No. 1 draft pick. And he does understand what will make him even more popular on Feb. 7. It is something that he is much more in his control of than a letter to the editor.

“Find any way – any way – to win a football game,” Newton said. “Because when you win, that’s going to give them something else to talk about.”