Yet with quarterback Cam Newton at the helm, the Panthers pulled off a 17-1 season. Despite the success, however, Newton senses not everyone is happy for him.
"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," he told the Charlotte Observer on January 27.
Newton stands out as a quarterback. Is he fast? Yes. And matched with his larger build (6-foot-5 and 245 pounds), he's the kind of player his opponents may wish they never had to catch when they try to tackle him.
But Newton isn't making a case for his exceptional skill. He’s pointing out a double standard: Athletes of different races are evaluated by different standards on and off the field.
There’s little denial that Newton is one of football’s best: NFL pundits today call him "the next generation of NFL quarterbacks." But as Newton has said, getting there has been "a process," that's resembled something more like painstakingly slow-cooked collard greens than instant grits.
His description is humble, especially considering he is on the cusp of making history: If the Panthers win, he'll join a small group of three black quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl and five to ever start. Overall, black quarterbacks have historically been rare in the NFL. As Lindsay Gibbs wrote for ThinkProgress this week, black football players have often been steered away from the team's star role in their youth, or forced to abandon the position altogether to play professionally. The reason: Black players were not deemed smart enough to play such a pivotal position, and that stereotype has caused lasting damage.
Through Newton's five-year professional career, these old stereotypes seem to have manifested as him coming off as arrogant, with an ego his abilities cannot support.
One of the most infamous early reviews of Newton came from Pro Football Weekly writer Nolan Nawrocki in March 2011.
His assessment of Newton when he played for Auburn University was not only a scathing critique of his performance as a player; it also questioned his integrity as a person:
Very disingenuous — has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. Always knows where the camera are and plays to them. Has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble and makes him believe he is above the law — does not command respect from teammates and always will struggle to win a locker room. Only a one-year producer. Lacks accountability, focus and trustworthiness — is not punctual, seeks shortcuts and sets a bad example. Immature and has had issues with authority. Not dependable.
Nawrocki had Newton pegged as a No. 10 draft pick for Washington. Newton exceeded Nawrocki’s expectations as the No.1 overall pick for the Panthers. After his first season, the Associated Press named Newton offensive rookie of the year for his league record for rushing by a quarterback that season, and also becoming the first player to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 500.
He continues to generate numbers that raise the bar for the NFL. In December, Newton became the first player in the NFL to pass for 3,000 yards and rush 500 yards in his first five seasons. Who had the previous record for first four seasons? Newton.
He sets his own records and breaks them. Nonetheless, the same criticism persists.
"Tennessee mom" Rosemary Plorin penned an open letter to Newton after her beloved Tennessee Titans lost against the Panthers last November.
She began the letter conceding her team’s defeat in her daughter’s first live NFL game. But she criticized his conduct in the end zone:
"The chest puffs. The pelvic thrusts. The arrogant struts and the ‘in your face’ taunting of both the Titans’ players and fans."
Victory dances are common ways players celebrate during the game. Newton’s end zone victory dances have sparked the national Dab dance craze:
So why was he chastised for his behavior?
Sure, not everyone saw the potential of the now-26-year-old. But today, that potential has been realized beyond what many — Newton included — might have expected. So what’s the deal with describing him as being full of himself?
The criticism hurled Newton’s way is quite common for black athletes. Muhammad Ali, one of the world’s most renowned heavyweight boxers, was called arrogant, too. Did he have a boisterous personality? Yes. His smack-talking poems are legendary. But Ali had a heavyweight championship under his belt; his confidence wasn’t unfounded.
Similarly, Serena Williams — one of the best athletes the world has ever seen — has been accused of the flaw, undoubtedly compounded by her gender. In December, commentators called her arrogant when she spoke about returning to the Indian Wells tournament where she and her sister Venus Williams were subjected to racial abuse by spectators in 1999.
But there’s also a growing body of research that shows Ali, Newton, and Serena Williams's experiences aren’t exceptional. They’re the norm.
One of the first studies on the topic was published in 1977 by psychologist Raymond Rainville. Rainville, who is blind, can’t see difference, but he can hear it. He noticed that football game announcers on TV commented on athletes in different ways depending on the athlete’s race.
The differences were pronounced: If announcers were talking about black players, they tended to focus more on their physical abilities. White players were mostly described based on hard work and intellect.
Other distinctions between black and white players included that black athletes were seen as passive agents acting out of impulse, while white athletes were considered active participants.
The conclusion: Announcers use coded language to talk about athletes that perpetuates racial stereotypes. And researchers have been building on Rainville’s work since.
In 2005, the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media published a comparative study on how race plays into announcer commentary at basketball and football gamers. Here’s what researchers James A. Rada and K. Tim Wulfemeyer found:
- During games, announcers were more likely to make general comments — both racially coded and non-coded —about black players compared with white players.
- Ninety-two percent of the comments about physical attributes were directed at African Americans.
- African Americans received 96 percent of the negative comments about intellect off of the field.
- White announcers were most likely to use coded language in their commentary (91 percent) in comparison with announcers of color, and all but one coded comment came from men.
Though a decade has passed since that study, there’s nothing very novel about the critiques lobbed at Newton. Even though time has changed, an implicit bias still frames how black athletes are perceived.
Is Newton's public image a problem for Newton or for the public?
It’s estimated that 117 million people will tune in for Sunday’s game.
Will the double standard persist?
On Tuesday, one Twitter user called Newton a "thug" in comparison with Broncos quarterback Payton Manning. The difference between the two: the photo of Manning showed him clean-shaven in a suit, while Newton was sporting a Panthers beanie.
The tweet and the attached account have since been deleted, but other users called out the hypocrisy.
Money is on a Newton-led victory for the Panthers. But racially tinged biases signal it won’t come without scrutiny for the team’s leading quarterback.
"Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion," Newton said in response to the "Tennessee Mom" open letter. "Everyone is. You can’t fault her for that. If she feels offended, I apologize to her, but at the end of the day, I am who am. It is what it is."
But based on existing bias, Newton saying he will remain true to himself is a radical act, one that mirrors the powerful (silent) statement Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch made leading up to last year’s Super Bowl.
Lynch, who has a notoriously contentious relationship with the media, faced a potential $500,000 fine from the NFL if he didn’t show up for media day.
So did he show up? Yes, but on his own terms. When asked questions from the press, the only response he gave was, "I’m here so I won’t get fined." He repeated this 29 times.
"It don’t matter what y'all think, what y'all say about me, cause when I go home at night, the same people that I look in the face, my family, that I love, that’s all that really matters to me," he said in an official statement.
Lynch — like Newton — was setting a boundary between how people perceive him and how he perceives himself.
He was breaking the rules for how black athletes are seen, because he took control of his public image. Newton is doing the same. Some may fear Newton defying expectations, but it may offer insight into bias that frames how he and other athletes are allowed to be themselves.