With his chest-jutting Superman poses, his archery shots, his dance moves, his dabs — where he looks like he’s sneezing into his forearm — Cam Newton lets us know how much he enjoys playing football.
Whether or not we want to know.
To some, his little celebrations, following touchdowns and lesser achievements, are annoying. The Carolina Panthers’ quarterback is accused of gloating.
Indeed he has much to brag about. He passed, ran and danced the Panthers to a 15-1 record and two postseason victories. This week he will be announced as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. And on Sunday evening he and the Panthers will play the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 at Santa Clara, Calif.
Newton’s elephant gun, blurring legs and linebackerly size (6-5, 250 pounds) make him a megaforce like the sport has not seen before. But humility is not among his assets. His addiction to the spotlight leads to the celebrations that are not universally applauded.
Steve Beuerlein, retired NFL quarterback who’s now an outspoken studio voice for CBSSports, said: “I could do without the dancing. . . . I believe there are times when he goes a little too far.”
The celebrations bring attention to Newton, and the NFL is all about team over individual.
Wes Welker’s exit from the New England Patriots was said to be ordained when he celebrated a touchdown by flapping his arms and legs to etch a snow angel. Bill Belichick would have none of that.
Belichick, like most of his coaching brethren, does not want his players doing anything to motivate an opponent. Even if he’s turned a blind eye to Rob Gronkowski’s touchdown dancing. Strangely, the dancing became less annoying to Belichick the more Gronk did it. The concern, though, is that players on the other team will take celebration as an insult. In fact, the New Orleans Saints have accused Newton of “taunting.”
Perhaps the No Fun League has it right, that we prefer our heroes to be as grimly professional as Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. You’re supposed to act like a visit to the end zone is a routine thing. Which it surely is for Newton, who this season passed for 35 touchdowns and ran for 10.
So how much passion, how much emotion, and what kind, should an athlete reveal?
There’s no crying in baseball, and no dancing either. On the other hand, goals are celebrated in hockey, and nobody gets offended.
“I’m not trying to hurt somebody’s feelings,” Newton says. “I’m dancing because I’m happy.”
It’s not like dancing is new to football. Or that it’s only for African-Americans. The New York Jets’ Mark Gastineau in the 1980s enraged opponents with his sack dance. J.J. Watt gets away with his military salute because he’s careful to direct it to the crowd and not to the opposing team. Or he would be penalized for taunting.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said: “I think some people believe you should be stoic when you play this game. But a lot of people disagree, and I think you should have fun. . . . It’s a kid’s game.”
Rivera can see how the celebration carries to the fans, most of whom appreciate the bonus hip-hop entertainment. Children join the effervescence, lining up to receive a touchdown ball on a handoff from their favorite quarterback. If you don’t approve of Cam’s celebrations, you may be showing your age.
Or, Newton suggests, your bigotry: “I’m an African-American quarterback that scares people because they haven’t seen nothing they can compare me to.”
Actually, he’s just about the least scary of African-American males you could meet. There’s nothing menacing about him, only effusive confidence. The smile is almost incessant and it’s mesmerizing, white teeth gleaming in perfect rows. Manning predicts this will be the Face of the NFL for the next eight years. And that could be a good thing.
Social media provides running commentary on Newton’s charity work: long days providing guidance to youths. He’s kept a spotless image ever since his one stumble: stealing a laptop computer in junior college. He speaks to teens “who may have made a mistake that happened, but that doesn’t necessarily describe who they are as a person.”
My guess is there’s envy, more than racism, in the anti-Cam crowd, to which I once belonged. Here’s a tall, handsome, bright 26-year-old who won the Heisman Trophy and the national championship when he was at Auburn University. He was pro football’s No. 1 draft pick in 2011, when, by the way, Aaron Rodgers was doing a “belt dance” after his touchdowns, acting like he was holding a giant championship belt.
Anyway, here’s Cam the unstoppable earning $30 million this year. Maybe no one should have that much fun.
Not that he hasn’t had his troubles. He saw his life almost end in December 2014 when a car cut in front of his pickup and sent it reeling, skidding, tumbling.
He limped away from the airbags and shattered glass and crunched metal in what witnesses described as a state of shock, and with two fractures in his back. Everybody said he was lucky, but I say he’d have been a lot luckier if the Buick hadn’t bumped him.
Then again, the accident was an epiphany for Newton, made him more appreciative of his life and his career. And more committed than ever to celebrating.
Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman made the point, after losing to Carolina in the divisional playoffs, that Newton’s detractors enjoy celebratory moments that nobody outside their household or office can see. “Maybe you celebrate sometimes when you do something great, and nobody judges you.”
It’s not just football that Newton celebrates. After scoring a touchdown in a game in Atlanta, he stood in the end zone and rocked the football like it was a baby. He later tweeted that five days earlier his long-time girlfriend, Kim Proctor, had borne them a son.
In his early years in the NFL, Newton’s antics – pulling his hands across his chest to mimic Superman – seemed more for his own benefit than anyone else’s. He struck me as a selfish egomaniac, the kind of guy who’d select No. 1 for his jersey. The Panthers most of that time were mediocre. Newton wasn’t spreading much joy to his teammates.
There were camera shots of him with a towel over his head, conveying defeat before the game was over. The team’s best player, Steve Smith, criticized his lack of leadership.
Newton had to learn to hide his feelings when they were negative, while continuing to share them when positive. Sports are meant to be fun, it’s fun to win championships, and celebrations are a big part of it. Seems to me they should be.