Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is an enigma wrapped in a flamboyant leprechaun outfit. Win or lose, Newton is gon’ make the news for his on-the-field play, his wardrobe or both.
On Sunday he led the Panthers to a 33-30 victory over the New England Patriots. The Panthers are now 3-1 for the season, but what might be more important than that is, after a touchdown throw, Newton bowed his head and raised his fist. Is this a sign that Newton is firmly back in the Movement for Black Lives camp?
It would appear that way. When asked why he raised his fist, Newton said simply, “I did it to show black pride because I am an African American,” according to the Charlotte Observer.
That’s a very different Newton from the one I wrote about in 2016. In 2016 the NFL was dealing with the country being torn down the racial seams as black bodies were falling in the streets at the ends of police gun barrels, and politics was working its way anew into sports. Newton was becoming the face of the league. He won the NFL’s MVP and almost led his team to an undefeated season.
In that piece I wrote this:
This tall, black, unapologetic figure with the infectious smile was everywhere. And he was brash. Once, he was asked how he felt about players who were mad at him for dabbing after he scored.
His answer: Keep me out of your end zone.
Not to mention, Newton dressed like a flamboyant leprechaun. The point is, Newton wasn’t toning down the volume. His dress, style of play and position were all on high, and the Good Ol’ Boy League of owners realized they had a huge problem. As black bodies were dropping at the end of police gun barrels and black folks were saying, “Enough is enough,” the Carolina Panthers and the NFL had a scary image in front of them: an outspoken black man whose position might not be on message.
It was an image that even old Cam Newton tried to explain when asked why he had so many haters.
“I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing they can compare me to,” he said.
And. He. Was. The. Face. Of. The. League.
I even wrote about Newton’s unique blackness here.
Then something happened.
The offseason hit, black bodies keep falling and Newton took a hard right turn. He moved to a center aisle seat and started spouting a “We’re beyond race as a nation” message.
Newton’s position, I would learn, was not accidental:
Enter Frank Luntz.
Luntz was a GOP pollster who’s made his living crafting the Republican Party’s mission statements into more palatable bites. Think of him as a used-car salesman who teaches other used-car salesmen how to reframe the conversation so that the focus isn’t on the car’s outrageous price.
He’s probably most famous in Republican circles for shifting the language from “global warming” to “climate change.” He’s arguably the best at what he does. And what he’s done is help Newton craft a universal “All lives matter” and “We’re beyond race as a nation” message. Although Newton’s camp denies Luntz’s involvement with his newfound stance on race relations, several sources have confirmed to Deadspin that Luntz has had an intimate relationship with the NFL and the Panthers. In fact, in 2014, Luntz’s company, Luntz Global, worked with the Panthers on how to enhance Newton’s image.
“With the right language, he can help cement his place in the NFL as one of the great franchise quarterbacks, like Brady, Rodgers, Favre, etc.,” Luntz Global’s 2014 pitch package read.
Luntz was pushing then that if Newton could stop being so unapologetically black, he could be in the conversation with the great white quarterbacks. If Newton could just start changing his language from “me” to “we,” he had a chance.
So it’s interesting to see that Newton is back here now, raising his fist as the president continues to pound away at professional athletes who kneel during the national anthem. There is a belief that those who protest social injustice against people of color are disrespecting the flag, but as one Twitter user noted: Mahatma Gandhi’s protest wasn’t against food, and Rosa Parks’ protest wasn’t against public transportation.
Newton is choosing to join the fight at a time when the fight probably needs him the most. He’s still one of the elite players in the league, and he’s joining a group that is led by other high-profile players, such as Michael Bennett and Marshawn Lynch. Let’s be clear—and this can’t be overstated—the NFL will respond to two things: high-profile players protesting, and/or players protesting en masse.
I’m just happy that this Newton is back, and I hope that he stays because I’ve seen the way the NFL can try to twist your image. I mean, hell, the beloved San Francisco Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice once posed wearing a chicken-drumstick helmet.
Read more at the Charlotte Observer.