In Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, the Carolina Panthers were upset by the Denver Broncos, 24–10. It was a sloppy, ugly, mess of a game, and yet, somehow, the reactions after the game ended were even worse.
The Panthers offense, led by quarterback and NFL MVP Cam Newton, had a particularly poor showing in Santa Clara. Receivers dropped passes. The offensive line was destroyed. The running game was stagnant. And Newton, who caused everyone around him to overachieve during a magical run to the Super Bowl, saw his Superman powers evaporate into thin air. He overthrew open receivers. He held onto the ball for too long. He fumbled.
Yet, the criticism of Newton the day after hasn’t been about his footwork or decision-making. It’s been about two things: His fumble that he didn’t immediately dive after late in the game, and his post-loss press conference that he walked out of after just a few minutes of terse answers.
And all of this criticism is missing the context — both within the game itself, the season, and the history of the NFL.
Let’s start with the fumble. With four minutes in the game, Carolina had the ball and was only down 16–10. In a game where everything had gone wrong, the Panthers still had a shot to win. But Denver’s linebacker Von Miller, the eventual (and very deserving) Super Bowl MVP, ran over Panther offensive lineman Mike Remmers and stripped the ball out of Cam’s hands as he went back to throw.
There was then a scramble for the ball, and Newton ran for it and then hesitated when the ball was at his feet. He didn’t dive.
— Jason McIntyre (@jasonrmcintyre) February 8, 2016
It was, admittedly, not a good look for the quarterback, and he expectedly got creamed for it on social media.
“Cam made a business decision… At the super bowl?” Jemele Hill of ESPN tweeted. Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk said this moment “defined” his Super Bowl.
The implications that Newton either didn’t care or decided not to dive after the ball to protect himself both completely disregard everything we know about Newton. The former Auburn star works extremely hard at his craft and leaves his heart and soul out there on the football field. He’s also one of the toughest quarterbacks ever, a 6’5″, 245-pound tank who usually receives criticism for running into tackles instead of sliding to avoid them.
So how do you explain the fumble? Well, it could be as simple as a brain freeze in the moment. The ball didn’t bounce where Newton thought it would, and his instincts failed him in the heat of the moment. He could also have realized that with the ball at that position at his feet, a dive wouldn’t have done any good, as New York Giants offensive guard Geoff Schwartz pointed out.
@bomani_jones the ball was right under his feet when he would have dove. Had no chance to recover it. Hard to question someone's toughness
— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) February 8, 2016
Newton is also being raked over the coals for his post-match press conference. Still reeling from the embarrassing loss, the 26-year-old went out on to the podium to face the same reporters who have been asking him pointed questions for the past week.
He wore a hoodie instead of his usual flashy post-match attire, he answered a few questions tersely, and then he walked off the podium.
The way people talk, it sounds as if Newton went onto the stage cussing out his teammates and throwing punches at reporters. Rather, he refused to hide his disappointment and give overly-canned in-the-moment responses, and left the stage before he lost his cool entirely. And it’s certainly worth noting that while he was doing this, audio from Denver’s Chris Harris could be heard clearly from where Newton was sitting. Harris was bragging about how the defense shut down Newton.
THIS is why Cam walked out (listen to what's being said in the background). pic.twitter.com/6LdLFwv8tj
— br1àn (@bmweezy13) February 8, 2016
So why are writers so deeply offended by Newton’s actions? Well, Bill Romanowski, a former Denver Bronco, offered a clue: “You’ll never last in the NFL with that attitude. The world doesn’t revolve around you, boy! #CamNewton,” he tweeted and later deleted.
While others danced around the subject, Romanowski’s tweet was openly racist.
Newton is only the sixth black quarterback to ever start in a Super Bowl. Throughout the history of the NFL, black athletes were thought to be too unintelligent to play quarterback. Owners and coaches doubted whether a black man had the leadership skills to necessary to play the position. The few black quarterbacks who were allowed through the NFL door were forced to subdue their athleticism and personalities, out of fear that they would get moved to other positions or scare their teammates. With his dynamic game, emotional personality, and deep, unabashed connection to his culture, Newton has been smashing stereotypes his whole career.
He had an abysmal game on Sunday, there is no denying that, and could have handled things better from the fumble to the presser and everything in between. But the reaction to it all is proof that, as a black man and a quarterback, Newton is still held to a different standard than the rest.
Tom Brady has often been seen cussing out his receivers on the sidelines. Aaron Rodgers frequently looked shell-shocked and despondent on the field this year as his offense fell apart around him. Bill Belichick never speaks full sentences at his press conferences. Peyton Manning once left the Super Bowl field before the game was even over, not even shaking hands or congratulating his opponent, because he was so upset.
(For the record, this is how Newton congratulated Manning on Sunday:)
— Rodger Sherman (@rodger_sherman) February 8, 2016
None of the players or coaches mentioned above have had their character challenged for these actions the way that Newton has. It’s okay to not love how Newton handled the press conference, or to wish he had jumped on that fumble. It’s okay to question his actions. But it’s also crucial to look at the big picture.
Newton is not a boy; he is a 26-year-old man and father who was the best player in the NFL all season long. His leadership skills took an offense filled with no-name receivers and offensive linemen and transformed them into a powerhouse. He studies hard, doesn’t drink alcohol, does tons of charity work for the community, and invites his teammates over every Thursday afternoon to hang out.
Sunday was a bad day for Newton. But that doesn’t mean that he is a bad person or football player. In this case, context is everything.