Cam Newton confounds both his fans and his haters — but he’s not so different from the rest of us
Award-winning essayist and poet Claudia Rankine explores the Panthers quarterback his brilliance, sullenness, fragility and resilience
Cam Newton is an incredibly talented human being who has a job white Americans see as a white man’s job, and apparently this is vexing to America. Cam Newton is sometimes reduced to his athleticism, as in “an athletic quarterback,” aka black, which is predictably comforting to America. Cam Newton wears a Superman T-shirt under his jersey, which is a wink to America. Cam Newton likes flashy clothes like NFL legend Joe Namath, which is scandalous to America. Cam Newton is arrogant, and that is outrageous and an oxymoron to America. Cam Newton has a shoe contract with Under Armour, whose CEO, Kevin Plank, once supported racist Donald Trump, and this is commonplace in America. Cam Newton has a son named Chosen and a daughter named Sovereign-Dior, which seems like freedom to America. Cam Newton is a typical male human holding misogynistic beliefs who says sexist things like “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes,” and this reveals something about him but not something about America? Cam Newton believes winning is everything, and that is reassuring to America. Cam Newton celebrates winning by dancing on the field, and that is distasteful to America. But mostly, Cam Newton is a young man growing up in the American public while being extraordinary and ordinary and disappointing and magnificent and resilient all at once. Cam Newton is no Colin Kaepernick, which means he still has a job, America.
The genius of Cam Newton’s father was not to shut down his son’s need for expression and attention but to compartmentalize it. When Cam wanted to be noticed, his father told him to dress up on Fridays. The message communicated was to play the game so you can do what you want one day a week. After his rise to quarterback fame for the Carolina Panthers, people took offense to his celebratory dances; Newton was advised to instead give the ball to a child when he was done. The implication was that he should play on American sentimentality around childhood innocence and all would be fine. Share the moment with the children and you will be able to have your moment, because the win, Cam Newton, was never about you. You are a means to an end that does not include you. Newton incorporated the advice into his celebratory routine.
And yet the one place Newton appears to be the least edited is in his body. Among his gifts is the ability to inhabit his emotions fully. Whether walking out of a news conference to sulk privately after a major loss or when celebrating exuberantly, Cam Newton is simply being himself. And that self is not defined by the scripts that are created in a country governed by anti-black racism: He is not a criminal, though he did steal a laptop in college; nor is he overtly political, though he did once raise his fist in the symbol of black power; nor is he an Uncle Tom, though he does understand how easily he could lose what he has earned, and he recently went on the record defending Panthers owner Jerry Richardson after racism and sexual assault allegations: “When you hear a report about Mr. Richardson, a person that we all, as an organization, have so much respect for and the people who did come out saying certain things about racial slurs, sexual assault … it’s still allegations.”
We Americans have difficulty facing our realities, and when confronted with someone who understands the precariousness of his status due to his identity as a black man, Americans interpret their difficulty with him to be solely his failure. Newton’s latest failure is his continued support of Richardson, which makes me wonder whether he understands that his talent is separate from Richardson.
Newton belongs to a league in which one owner, Houston’s Robert McNair, said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” If Newton understands he is being objectified, he has his own agenda within that understanding. Like Michael Jordan, Newton is a company man. He has come to work and to be paid. But Newton’s stance is messier and more flamboyant than Jordan’s. I can’t remember Jordan making untoward statements or dressing that differently from those we might encounter in corporate America.
Though Newton doesn’t overtly protest against company rules, he also refuses to conform entirely to the unspoken rules for the black professional in his dress and occasionally in his actions. In the run of protests that began with Kaepernick taking the knee and then grew into an NFL-wide confusion over whether the protests were against Trump, white supremacy, police violence against blacks, or the owners’ racist statements, Newton raised a fist in honor of black pride but in protest of nothing apparently. He told reporters: “I did it to show black pride because I am an African-American. But more or less, I want all people just to see when I play, I want them to see the joy that I go out there and play with.”
If the silent and beloved GOAT, Jordan, is on one end of the protest spectrum and the outspoken and beloved LeBron James, Serena Williams and Kaepernick are on the other end, then Newton lives between these legends with an eye on his owners: “For the two hours, three hours, whatever a time that a sporting event is on or your team is playing … people from different shapes, colors, creeds, ethnicities and cultures come together. At that moment, they’re rooting for the same thing. I feel as if we all stick together, if we all come together and listen, hear, speak, we can better help the situation,” Newton once said. “We get nowhere divided.” Despite all that has transpired in the U.S. since President Obama’s statement “There are no red states or blue states, just the United States,” Newton still lives by Obama’s edict.
In fact, all of us who are not on the streets protesting but doing our jobs and collecting our pay and health insurance and retirement are in Newton’s lane. The political and corporate structures that govern our lives know how to punish protesters, with “free agent” status, but this other way of being, this pragmatic if flamboyant way of being, where one tries not to bite the hand that feeds, this lane that Newton exemplifies, confounds owners, players and fans alike—even as we remain complicit with his positioning. Most of us sit behind our desks, doing what we do, trying to get paid, while all manner of shit goes down around us. Every single day, with troubling tweets coming out of the Oval Office, should be the day we as Americans risk something for the greater good of our democracy, but the traffic of our lives continues uninterrupted by those taking to the streets in protest of this administration. We didn’t sign up to be activists. And neither did some of the athletes who get paid millions to entertain us.
It is difficult to fault Newton for wanting to hold on to who he is, which includes what he has. Newton’s swagger suggests an independence and freedom we see unleashed on the field, but only on the field. All his millions come at the expense of not pointing out the racism and misogyny that exist inside the culture of his sport and the structure of our country. That’s the price of the ticket. Cam Newton can be Cam Newton as long as he throws touchdowns and keeps winning.
Last year’s encounter with sports writer Jourdan Rodrigue made all the headlines. Newton seemed genuinely surprised that Rodrigue came to a news conference prepared with the correct football terminology: “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes. Like, it’s funny.” His sexism was apparent. It lives alongside Rodrigue’s own blatant racism (see the reports about her Twitter account). In listening to Newton’s subsequent apology, the part that stands out is the one that points to the lesson he has learned:
“The fact that during this whole process I’ve already lost sponsors and countless fans,” Newton said, “I realize that the joke is really on me.” If we imagine that the security of black stars’ economic status means they can risk disrupting or displeasing the American public, think again. Though he ends his apology with the statement “Don’t be like me. Be better than me,” which is in direct conversation with Jordan’s Gatorade ad “Be Like Mike,” Cam Newton is basically just like us, America.
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!
Claudia Rankine’s most recent book, Citizen, which explores black experience and identity, is the only poetry collection to be a New York Times best-seller in the nonfiction category. She won the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant in 2016.