At the end of the 2015-2016 football season, Cam Newton could have run uncontested for president of the African Americans. Newton had just finished dominating the NFL regular season, in which he walked away with the MVP and almost dabbed his team to an undefeated season. In the Super Bowl, Superman turned back into Clark Kent. It happens. But he was still riding the high. He was speaking our language and doing our dance.
Then something happened.
Superman became Bizarro Superman. Like an altered version of himself, Cam “Black Lives Matter” Newton became Cam “All Lives Matter” Newton. Politically, Newton went from dabbing on his haters to country-line-dancing with these Bamas, and it wasn’t accidental.
The NFL had a few issues to confront, whether it wanted to or not, when the season ended. Unarmed black men, women and children were being gunned down across the country, and players began protesting their deaths. As BLM’s message grew, an opposing narrative was being pushed by the right; those who opposed black deaths were, by default, anti-police.
A clear line was being drawn on the field, and America’s sport began looking a lot like America: divided.
At the same time, Newton was becoming the face of the league. 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.
Enter Frank Luntz.
Luntz is 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.
Black bodies were still falling in the streets, but the protests hadn’t erupted at this time. A year later, Newton became the darling of the league and the NFL, and the Panthers couldn’t run the risk of alienating white fans. They couldn’t risk losing white dollars. Of course, Newton is being coached both on and off the field. And the language that Newton is spouting feels very Luntz-ian. Coming into this season, he’s a 27-year-old with a billion-dollar league on his shoulders. The NFL wasn’t going to risk that. Neither were the Panthers.
Great white quarterbacks don’t tackle race. In fact, they never have to tackle anything. That’s one of the privileges of whiteness in this country; they get the opportunity to be just a quarterback, since they never have to share reps with social responsibility.
It’s odd watching a flamboyantly dressed man who plays with reckless abandon become so docile when discussing the deaths of black people at the hands of police.
On Sept. 20, Keith Lamont Scott was shot and killed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., police. A day after the shooting, Newton had this to say: “I’m an African American. I am not happy how the justice has been kind of dealt with over the years. The state of oppression in our community. But we also, as black people, have to do right by ourselves. We can’t be hypocrites.”
The black-on-black-violence lie has become the mantra of the right and the linchpin of the “All lives matter” rhetoric that is cancerous to change, and Newton walked out and said it a day after another black body was dead in the street.
But Newton asked for this. He literally asked to be considered a superhero. Newton claims to be SuperCam. He’s the one who glides into the opponents’ end zone and acts as if he’s ripping off his uniform to unveil the “S” on his chest. But Superman is one of the few superheroes to be born a superhero; Clark Kent is actually the costume. And that’s how Superman sees us: awkward, tepid and unsure of ourselves.
Cam may be Superman on the field, but the league made him Clark Kent on issues of race, and the police killings of black men, women and children, off of it.
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is a senior editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.