Since the Carolina Panthers built a 15-1 record to become the #1 seed in the NFC, a lot of talk about Cam Newton has centered around the love/hate relationship NFL fans have with the former #1 overall draft pick. When I say “love/hate”, I mean some fans love the guy and others hate the guy.
It’s the hate that has received the focus. Look at ESPN or Sports Illustrated and there are columns discussing why Cam Newton has so many detractors. The mainstream sports media’s answer is that the Cam Newton haters are racists, pure and simple. They can’t find other reasons someone would dislike the Panthers’ star quarterback.
I want to explore that topic. Let me say I have no doubt that many haters are hating because of pure racism. Or they are hating because of mixed racism — that is, there might be legitimate reasons to dislike a player, but they are merciless in their criticism, because basic racist thoughts are in the back of their minds. Prejudice, discrimination, ignorance, fear, and hatred are still alive in America. I accept that and do not deny it.
That does not mean everyone who dislikes or criticizes Cam Newton is a racist. Sports is a tribal phenomenon. By tribal, I mean fans identify with basic markers. I’m a Packers fan; I like green and yellow. I’m a Lions fan; I like blue and silver. Aaron Rodgers is good, because he’s a Packer. Calvin Johnson is good, because he’s a Lion. Fan bases’ like and dislike of players often goes no deeper than the uniform they wear. But that’s not always the case. Life is complicated, and our basic human attitudes seep into everything we do.
The NFL: A History of Racism
Human beings are complicated. Cam Newton is an African-American quarterback. He’s the black quarterback who was barred from one NFL position for decades, because of discrimination. There was a time in the NFL — and it wasn’t that long ago — that black quarterbacks simply didn’t exist. Owners, general managers, coaches, and scouts thought African-Americans didn’t have the leadership qualities or split-second decision-making capabilities to be an NFL quarterback. At the time, quarterbacks called plays for their teams instead of offensive coordinators. Coaches simply didn’t trust blacks to call plays, plain and simple.
Even when offensive coordinators and head coaches took away signal calling, it didn’t change. Even when Doug Williams won a Super Bowl, it didn’t change. Even when Randall Cunningham was a star with the Eagles and Vikings; even when Warren Moon set the all-time pro quarterback passing record; most NFL executives still hesitated to turn their team over to a black quarterback. It took the combined efforts of Doug Williams and Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham and Steve McNair, Daunte Culpepper and Michael Vick to finally break down the racial barrier.
Even then, there were qualifications and asterisks. The African-American quarterback succeeded not because of his hard work and his skill, but because of his athleticism and God-given talent. He was a scrambling quarterback with a cannon for an arm. He wasn’t accurate, consistant, and structured like the traditional white quarterback. The new evidence had to be fit into the old mindset.
Cam Newton Transcends QB Archetypes
For some, Cam Newton reinforces those ideas. For others, he breaks down a lot of the preconceived notions. His talent is massive enough that both attitudes fit into his archetype. He might be the best running quarterback we’ve seen, because he combines size and speed and aggression with coaches who encourage him to run. At the same time, Cam Newton has become a student of the game. He’s a skilled pocket passer, who can make all the throws and make them consistently and accurately. He makes the throws in a structured, controlled, masterful way. Thus, he is talented enough to fit into both major quarterback archetypes.
Still, human beings are complicated. Cam Newton is a black quarterback, but he’s more than that. He more than a quarterback. He’s more than an African-American. He’s more than an Auburn Tiger or a Carolina Panther. He’s a man, a human being. He has personal traits which some admire and others do not like.
It’s that idea I want to analyze in this article. I want to see whether Cam Newtwon’s human traits warrant dislike. I also want to explore the tribal nature of football in this discussion. I want to see where group psychology (tribalism) and personal psychology (Cam Newton) intersect, too see why people love and hate Cam Newton.
Why Cam Newton Fans Love Him
Obviously, Auburn Tigers fans love Newton, because he beat Alabama and won a National Title, restoring Auburn to national prominence. Carolina Panthers fans love Cam Newton, because he’s made their franchise one of the premier teams in the National Football League. No one can ignore the Panthers any longer. They had the best regular season. They’ve had the most impressive playoffs. Las Vegas sportsbooks like the Westgate SuperBook have them installed as a 5.5-point favorite to beat the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
This is Cam Newton’s moment. He has a chance to win one game and ascend to the highest ranks of NFL stars. Win “Super Bowl L” and he’ll be discussed alongside Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Russell Wilson as one-time Super Bowls winners. Given his amazing skill set, many will place him ahead of two-time Super Bowl champions Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. He’ll be ahead of Joe Flacco. Maybe he’ll be ahead of Peyton Manning in the minds of many, having collected as many Super Bowl titles and having beaten him heads-up in a championship game. Tom Brady and his four Super Bowls will be way out there ahead, but then, the NFL is a “What Have You Done for Me Lately” league. Fans will be able to say he’s the best quarterback in the NFL — and make a good case for it.
They can point to a 6’5″, 260-pound quarterback with running skills and pocket skills. He’s a linebacker or a tight end who can run like a running back. He’s a running back who can sit in the pocket and throw darts to receivers. Don’t fool yourself: Cam Newton makes all the throws and makes them accurately. Even without his best receiver, Newton has dominated the NFL in 2015.
That covers Cam Newton fans. They’re typical hometown fans and bandwagoners. They’re motives are simple and easily explained. And they have a point. The NFL has never seen a quarterback with the skill package of Cam Newton. He’s like the 5-tool athlete baseball scouts roam the globe seeking out.
Why Fans Hate Cam Newton: A Perfect Racist Storm
Think about Cam Newton’s allegiances. Then think about the natural rivals of the organizations he’s represented. His team affiliations are a natural provocation to the most racist sections of the United States.
He was a big star with the Auburn Tigers. We’ve explored that Auburn fans love him, but fans and alumni from other SEC schools are less likely to be so forgiving of his heritage. Let me say that college football fans from SEC schools tend to have an Us-against-The-World attitude, often justifying each other’s rankings in the national polls. Yet many of them hated Cam Newton.
Blame the Big Southern Dummies
Think about those schools: Alabama Crimson Tide, Georgia Bulldogs, Tennessee Volunteers, Florida Gators, and Ole Miss Rebels. Those fan bases are from the Deep South, center of the Confederacy. Alabama and Mississippi are the bastions which held out against anti-segragation. As the song goes: “In Birmingham they love the Gov’nor, boo hoo ooo. Now we all did what we could do.” Translation: Governor George Wallace did his best to maintain segragation and keep the Black Man down, and we love him for it. Long story short, Cam Newton’s main college rivals were also some of the most racist fan bases in the country. I’m not saying all ‘Bama and Ole Miss fans are racists, but many are.
Then Cam Newton went to the Carolina Panthers. Obviously, NFL fans in Charlotte and the Carolinas are likely to give Cam Newton the benefit of the doubt, especially when he’s leading them to the Super Bowl. But even as late as 2014, Panthers fans still weren’t sold on their quarterback. They needed 15-1 to come around. Now, most Panthers fans are going to love the guy — and with good cause.
But look at the Panthers division rivals: Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Once again, these fan bases are located in the Deep South. These are the NFL teams with the most appeal in the wider region. People from Alabama and Mississippi are more likely to like a team from a nearby state. The fans the Cam Newton has played against the most have been in the South, meaning he’s been a lightning rod for a lot of hate.
Tribalism in Football
This doesn’t explain everything. With the Panters at the top of the NFC, Cam Newton is likely to tick off the fans of the Seattle Seahawks, the Arizona Cardinals, and the Green Bay Packers. Certainly, the Panthers got under the skin of New York Giants fans this year, though Josh Norman is certainly more to blame for that. By being good, Cam Newton is going to create a lot of animosity. That’s the nature of sports.
But the question is: do these NFL fans have reasons beyond football success to hate Cam Newton. His TD celebrations are a little overboard. They don’t fit the mold of a typical NFL quarterback. But are his 12-second touchdown celebrations enough to warrant the level of hatred that causes random fans to write insane letters to him.
Let’s take a look at the evidence.
Why Fans Hate Cam Newton: He’s Arrogant and Entitled
Cam Newton has never lived down the recruiting scandal which enveloped his senior season at Auburn. As he was winning a national championship, the national media was turning Cam Newton into a villain. Sports radio talked for months about his recruitment and the taped conversation in which Cam’s father, Cecil Newton Sr., may have solicited bribes from SEC alumni for his son’s commitment to their school. The whole scandal made Cam Newton and his father seem arrogant, entitled, and morally corrupt. Years later, that first impression no doubt remains with many open-hearted fans (as well as closeminded racists).
To this day, when Cam Newton does a choreographed touchdown celebration, many fans take it as a reinforcement of those early impressions: that he thinks he’s special and should engage in special behavior. So does the victory lap he takes when the team wins a home game. Panthers fans see him wanting to celebrate with them and acknowledge their support, like Packers fans would view the Lambeau Leap. Many other NFL fans see Cam Newton setting himself apart from his team, drawing the cameras and the accolades to him. To these people, he wants special attention from the fans in the stadium — and the fans at home. It’s like he’s saying, “Look at me. I’m the winner.”
This seems like ticky-tack stuff. Okay, he celebrates like a receiver would. He high fives Panthers’ fans. Big deal. That’s nothing. Do you really want to hate a guy for how he celebrates?
And yet, there is a body of evidence which suggests Cam Newton is a special level of arrogance. His early years in the NFL are rife with arrogant behavior. When the team lost, he would cover his head in a towel and sit apart from his teammates, brooding. Several years into his career, his teammates did not vote him a team captain. For an unchallenged NFL starting quarterback, that is nothing short of bizarre. And a surprising number of media members and NFL players have their anecdotes to tell which indicate Cam Newton and his people are arrogant and entitled. I don’t have the time (though I wish I did) to detail every single incident, but let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. I give “Exhibit A”: the 2012 Pro Bowl.
The 2012 Pro Bowl: A Study in Arrogance
Anyone who watches the Pro Bowl anymore knows it’s a farce. The most farcical part of the game is the fact that defenses don’t really rush the passer. I don’t blame them; no one wants quarterbacks injured needlessly in an exhibition game. No pass rusher wants to get injured trying to rush in an exhibition. The Pro Bowl is more useless than a preseason game. At least in the preseason, teams are gearing up for action. Pro Bowl players are gearing down for the offseason. They’re on vacation, goofing off.
Except that didn’t happen in the 2012 Pro Bowl. When Cam Newton was on the field, AFC defenders actually rushed the passer. They were trying to sack the rookie quarterback. In specific, Von Miller of the Denver Broncos and Antonio Smith of the Houston Texans (now a Bronco) were rushing against Cam Newton. People might think the NFL veterans were hazing the rookie. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports reported that was not the reason. The reason is Cam Newton and his entourage gave off an air of entitlement and arrogance which set off the AFC’s defensive players.
One AFC player told Pete Prisco, “He was a total [expletive]. Who did he think he was? He acted like the big [expletive]. Here he was at his first game and he acted like he was the star. Guys didn’t like that.”
So what did he do? Several things happened which gave them this impression. One AFC player presented Cam Newton for an autograph for his children, who were fans. Cam Netwon flatly refused to do so.
Cam Newton Dissed Ray Lewis
Even worse, Newton is reported to have “dissed” Ray Lewis. When asked about what happened, Ray Lewis denied he was dissed or felt dissed. Several AFC players insisted to Pete Prisco that the diss happened.
An AFC Pro Bowler said of Ray Lewis, “That’s the godfather there,” and then the player added, “Can you believe he [Cam Newton] did that?”
NFC players noticed the same thing, and agreed with their AFC counterparts. Prisco spoke to one NFL offensive Pro Bowler about the pass rush. The player acknowledge his side was surprised at the level of heat which was brought against Cam Newton (but not other NFC quarterbacks). Yet that player sided with the AFC’s defensive players, suggesting Cam Newton brought it on himself.
One Pro Bowler: “He Better Change”
The NFC Pro Bowl player said, “He’s a young guy and learning, but he better change. They started rushing him. We were like, ‘what are they doing? This is the Pro Bowl.’ They didn’t attempt that with the other guys. They went after him. He better learn soon. You don’t want to go out there and get hurt at the Pro Bowl.
Another player suggested that Cam Newton gave off the impression to other players that he was all about himself — that he had no interest in the team or the NFL player community. That Pro Bowler said, “It didn’t matter who it was, he didn’t care about anybody but himself.”
At the time, Pete Prisco editorialized his own experiences with Cam Newton. He said he had interviewed Cam Newton several times. He said Newton seemed controlled and defensive in interviews, as if he expected people to dislike him.
NFL Player Reaction: Not Everything Is Racism
That might be the case, but it’s interesting to note that all three of the players mentioned in the above scenario were African-American. While it’s natural to wonder about the prejudices of any white critic of Cam Newton, it’s hard to accuse Von Miller or Antonio Smith of racism. Most of the Pro Bowl players Cam Newton was high-hatting were African-Americans.
I also have to say the Von Miller/Antonio Smith hazing of Cam Newton adds another level of intrigue to Super Bowl 50. Those players are now Cam Newton’s opponents in the most important game of all three of their lives. Cam Newton is no longer a rookie; he’s a master of his craft, at the top of his game. It will be interesting to see whether he goes out of his way to send a message, if he gets the chance. But then, if he gets the chance, no one will be entirely certain if any taunting behavior is a special twist, or if it’s the regular, run-of-the-mill Cam Newton Super Bowl celebration. Such is the nature of being a known showboat.
At the end of the day, there is a lot of evidence that Cam Newton is arrogant and entitled. He gives off the air that he thinks he’s special. But then, many athletes have that air. To attain the heights of stardom, world class athletes need a certain healthy confidence. And star athletes are given special treatment throughout their schools years — even more so when they become multi-million dollar pro athletes. Yet it is interesting to see that members of the NFL fraternity seem to think Cam Newton’s aura of confidence. Players at the top of the game felt he was disrespecting them. As a rookie, he big-timed the top NFL stars.
Of course, he was 22 years old, a year away from a BCS National Title, and a Pro Bowler as an NFL rookie. He had a lot of reasons to think he was one of the greats, the Chosen One.
Give Respect to Get Respect
Regarding all the Cam Newton hate, there seems to be this sense that he is arrogant and disrespectful. Most of the stories over the years seem to indicate he’s had an ego out of proportion with his accomplishments (to this point), and he wanted respect without giving respect in turn. Fans, defenders, and disinterested commentators might say that Cam Newton doesn’t owe his opponents respect, or that these people are being too thin-skinned.
People who behave disrespectfully should be called out on their behavior and I know from studying psychology that telling a person they’re being too sensitive is part of grooming people for abuse — it can be a form of gaslighting. That has to do with people who try to establish boundaries, though.
The boundaries Cam Newton oversteps are those of a social and cultural nature. There are a lot of gray areas when you discuss whether touchdown and winning celebrations go over the line. Nothing I’ve seen indicates to me that Cam Newton is going beyond what’s comes before.
That being said, if his touchdown celebrations offend you, you have every right to complain. He and his fans might not care, but if they don’t care for the opinions of others, then they shouldn’t be surprised when a backlash happens — that a lot of people don’t like them. It is natural to be offended by people who don’t show respect to respectable people. Even the brutal Roman gladiators showed proper respect to honorable opponents in the arena.
If you don’t show respect to your competitors, then it’s unreasonable to demand respect later for yourself. Many of Cam Newton’s fans demand he be given proper respect, but there’s evidence he didn’t pay his dues in that area of the NFL culture. In short, Cam Newton has acted haughtily. Many people, including NFL peers, have picked up on his sense of entitlement.
Where people cross the line is when they attibute his haughtiness, arrogance, and sense of entitlement to race. As I said earlier, there’s more to Cam Newton than being a black quarterback. Look at any person and they are, by and large, a product of their upbringing. If he’s arrogant and entitled, then it’s because he was raised to have those attitudes. You can find plenty of African-American athletes who are humble and who have a sense of shared community. You can find plenty of white athletes who are arrogant, haughty, and have a sense of entitlement.
Race has very little to do with whatever personal flaws Cam Newton has. Certainly, family culture has a lot more to do with such behavior than ethnicity, cultural traits, or genetics. Childhood is a laboratory. Parents are the scientists. Culture, religion, local community, and even family traits might be the some of the chemicals mixed in the kitchen. But they aren’t the whole concoction, and they certainly are the chemist. There’s a lot more to people than race. To think otherwise is racist.
Super Bowl 50 Press Conference
Cam Newton certain did not make any fans with his behavior after Super Bowl 50. Here is a transcript of Cam Newton’s Super Bowl 50 post-game press conference.
What’s your message to Panthers fans?
"We'll be back."
Ron [Rivera] said Denver two years ago had a tough time and they bounced back. Do you take that to heart?
Can you put a finger on why Carolina didn’t play the way it normally plays?
Is there a reason why?
"Got outplayed, bro."
Was it pretty much what you had seen on film from Denver? Anything different they put in for this game?
Do we sometimes forget that defenses can still take apart the offenses in this game?
What did Ron Rivera say after the game?
"He told us a lot of things."
Anything in particular that was memorable?
Obviously you’re disappointed. On the biggest stage it’s difficult, I know.
[Cam nods his head.]
Did you see anything that you didn’t expect tonight?
"They just played better than us. I don't know what you want me to say. They made more plays than us, and that's what it comes down to. We had our opportunities. It wasn't nothing special that they did. We dropped balls, we turned the ball over, gave up sacks, threw errant passes. That's it. They scored more points than us."
Can you put into words the disappointment you feel right now?
Did Denver change anything defensively to take away your running lanes?
I know you’re disappointed not just for yourself, but for your teammates. It’s got to be real tough.
[Cam shakes his head.] "I'm done man."
[Cam walks out of the press conference.]
Given health, Cam Newton should be an NFL star for a long time to come. He’s a rare talent. He’s likely to have many accomplishments in his NFL career. Along the way, he’ll create many fans, just as he’ll have plenty of detractors. People who’ve judged him to this point should think back to their first 25 years and wonder if they would have come off so well at that age, if they were exposed to the national media then.
Give Cam Newton time to soak in the fame and adulation, to find his proper place in the NFL, and to learn to respect the league and its competitors a bit more. Age and experience cures a lot of arrogance. Wisdom sinks in when the perspective of time is added. At least it does with a lot of people. If Cam Newton is still dissing players at age 35, then I’ll agree that he’s a bad guy. But even if that turns out to be the case, you’ll never convince me he’s a bad guy because he’s black.