SAN JOSE — Cam Newton is a black man in America. He also is an NFL franchise quarterback who has led his team to Super Bowl 50 and inspired detractors with his success. Each label has its own unique set of pressures, challenges, and responsibilities, and neither is going away before Sunday’s game.
No matter how nimble Newton is he can’t escape either circumstance as easily as he does defenders left grasping at air.
He can’t demur from the truth: that race is a factor in how he is perceived because the expectations for comportment at the position he plays have been shaped largely by quarterbacks who didn’t look, play, or act like him.
How a quarterback should conduct himself on the field, in the end zone, and at the podium is analogous to the vague cry for a candidate to act “presidential,” whatever that means. These are individuals, not automatons.
It’s rarely a subject for debate when NFL players at other positions reach the end zone and break into self-aggrandizing celebrations or behave as if they found a cure for cancer after picking up a first down. It’s common practice.
Newton is far from the first outspoken, brash, unapologetic quarterback with a charismatic personality. His coach, Ron Rivera, played with one who won a Super Bowl 30 years ago. Jim McMahon, the quarterback of the 1985 Bears, a.k.a. the “Punky QB.”
Joe Namath was an iconoclast who became an icon because he defied the establishment.
Let’s not pretend that the Dab — Newton’s trademark, hip-hop-inspired dance move — is some sort of civil rights statement in disguise. It’s not. It’s just a fun football celebration from a guy who enjoys the spotlight and himself.
And not all criticism or dislike for Newton has racial roots. He offends some sensibilities with his puerile (ripping down an opposing team’s sign, really?) and petulant behavior, a la, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers.
What people don’t understand about racial prejudice, however, is how it can bivouac in your mind.
For Newton, or any other black man, there is always that lingering thought — does this person dislike me for who I am or what I am? That feeling predates football and quarterbacks.
Newton has been trying to dance around the race issue this week, moonwalking back from the comments he made last week that people not liking his style of play, his patented post-touchdown showmanship, or his procreation without marriage has a racial tinge.
“I’m an African-American quarterback that scares people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare to me,” Newton said last week.
Tuesday at the Panthers media availability, Newton did a 180-degree turn when asked what he wanted his legacy to be as a black quarterback. The question was asked by an African-American reporter.
“I don’t even want to touch on the topic of black quarterback because I think this game is bigger than black, white, or even green,” said Newton. “So, I think we limit ourselves when we just label ourselves, black, this, that, and the third. I want to bring awareness because of that. But I don’t think I should be labeled just a black quarterback because there are bigger things in this sport that needs to be accomplished.”
He later added, “I just want to be relatable. It’s bigger than race. It’s more so of opening up a door for guys that don’t want to be labeled.”
Another reporter followed up and challenged Newton to back up his original comments. It was uncomfortable.
It was the type of question that Newton’s opposite number in Super 50, Denver’s Peyton Manning, doesn’t have to answer before the Big Game.
Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are just quarterbacks, revered or reviled for reasons that are eminently frivolous in the grand scheme of society, like say being accused of playing with underinflated footballs with scant proof.
Cam looks conflicted here.
The responsibility he has as the Panthers quarterback is to defuse any distraction that his original comments about race might play before the biggest game of the season. That’s football culture.
His charge as a thoughtful, high-profile African-American athlete who broached the subject last week is to speak the truth and continue an important conversation that shows how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.
Access to the most high-profile position in American professional sports has not always been easy for African-Americans. There have been stereotypes, code phrases (”pocket passer”), and preconceptions that have prevented some of Newton’s predecessors from getting their due or their day.
Black quarterbacks tend to get typecast.
Folks forget that Warren Moon was one of the most prolific pocket passers in NFL history. They don’t remember that Tony Banks and Byron Leftwich should have rested on plinths in the pocket because they were statues.
What’s the difference between Russell Wilson and Fran Tarkenton? One Super Bowl ring.
Newton will be the sixth African-American quarterback to start a Super Bowl, joining Doug Williams, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Colin Kaepernick, and Wilson. This is the fourth straight Super Bowl to feature a black quarterback.
During his playing days from 1995 to 2005, Kordell Stewart had to deal with the “black quarterback” label. Now an analyst for the streaming app TuneIn, Stewart sees progress.
“I don’t think in this era and time it’s another standard for African-American quarterbacks because they’re getting picked as the No. 1 pick. They’re getting picked as the No. 2 pick. So, the respect is there,” said Stewart.
“It’s just sometimes they want them to conform not just in being a quarterback alone, but in how you act as a quarterback. Cam Newton is not the guy to tell how to act because he just wants to be himself.”
Newton is not the first successful African-American forced to bridge two worlds and blend two cultures, and he won’t be the last.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.