There is more than one Cam Newton. And I’m not referring to the Oikos Triple Zero commercial where he sits on a couch eating Greek yogurt, speaking in third person with one version of himself in a Panthers uniform, another in a superhero costume and a third casually dressed clone cloaked in a velvet suit jacket.
Cam(era) Newton is the loquacious quarterback known for colorful suits, Versace zebra pants and a dyed goatee. He’s not exactly a shrinking violet.
During Super Bowl week last season, he sparked a conversation about perceptions of quarterbacks of color. The issue arose while addressing criticism of his end zone dancing. When it came to personal criticism, the Man of Steelo was quick to defend himself by pointing out how racial bias was still prevalent.
“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,” Newton told a media throng in late January.
That quote was discussed ad nauseam leading up to Super Bowl week, which makes his reticence to comment on the issues affecting African-Americans all the more perplexing. The other Cam Newton is a contradiction.
When his Super Bowl quote was drudged up in an interview with GQ, Newton was quick to distance himself from — himself.
“I don’t want this to be about race, because it’s not. It’s not. Like, we’re beyond that as a nation,” Newton told GQ, completing a 180-degree about-face from his pre-Super Bowl comments.
The contrast between the two Newtons was laid bare by Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett’s sermon about the impact athletes can have in the community.
“Eventually, we’ll have to get together as a whole sports community, because at the end of the day, athletes have a brand, and we control what is sold in America,” Bennett said. “Whatever is sold, usually we’re the conduits to whatever it is. So whether it’s shoes, clothes, whatever, a drink, soda, food — athletes hold the key to what people want.”
But Bennett wasn’t done.
“So as athletes, we need to start controlling that influence and keep it positive and not always about dollar to dollar. Our great players are sitting back just taking the dollars, whether it’s Cam Newton, all these guys. They’re not really on the forefront of trying to change what’s going on.”
It’s been four years since Newton proclaimed at the NFL combine his intention to become an icon. Just don’t ask him to join LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony in using that status to take stances. Newton appears to have modeled his selective silence after Michael Jordan.
In Charlotte’s professional sports hierarchy, Newton is the Apollo to Jordan’s Zeus, and Newton has been effusive in his praise of Jordan as a mentor.
Jordan was notoriously reticent to comment about social issues until he recently penned a letter addressing rising tensions between police and African-Americans for ESPN’s The Undefeated.
For nearly three decades, Jordan, the person, was defined by his unwillingness to endorse black Democrat Harvey Gantt in his 1990 North Carolina Senate race against anti-affirmative action candidate Jesse Helms.
As frivolous as it may seem, Jordan’s support was widely sought in a race Gantt would lose by a thin margin. Jordan’s reluctance, coupled with the legend of him saying, “Republicans buy shoes too,” in explaining his neutral position, created the portrait of a soulless capitalism machine just one generation removed from Muhammad Ali’s immense sacrifice for his beliefs.
Newton’s lack of social awareness has more than a shade of Jordan’s indifference to it, and has been equally disappointing. Newton’s fashion line and the profits from Under Armour cleats and apparel will continue to line his pockets. Alternatively, the fans who were most forgiving and understanding of the cultural differences that resulted in misunderstanding Newton’s unapologetic actions were African-Americans.
Today’s prominent NFL activists include blue-collar linemen Eugene Monroe and defensive stalwart Richard Sherman. It may have been unfair for Newton to be singled out by Bennett, as opposed to his own quarterback, Russell Wilson, but that’s the other side of pursuing iconic status; your gifts are exalted and your shortcomings are magnified.
For all the passion Newton exudes championing his own cause and image, it would be great if he used his presence to reciprocate the support he received from the black community.