Cam Newton deserves time to find his voice on social, political issues

Cam NewtonThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Cam Newton arrived Monday night with a Super Bowl towel wrapped and knotted around his head, conspicuous as ever. While spending his first news conference end zone-dancing around comments he made last week about life as an African-American quarterback, he sat a mile and a half from the place that gave life to one of the most powerful social statements in American sports.

In 1967, a teacher named Harry Edwards and a grad student named Ken Noel sat on a bench on the campus of San Jose State University and started the process of launching the Olympic Project For Human Rights. The group would threaten an African-American boycott of the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, demand the removal of apartheid-ruled South Africa and Rhodesia from the competition, and inspire sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos to give their iconic black-gloved power salute from the 200-meter medal stand as their national anthem played.

In a different time and place in his country, surrounded on Media Day-turned-Night by reporters hunting for a story, Newton wasn't about to advance the conversation he started last week when he described himself as "an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven't seen nothing they can compare me to."

The Carolina Panthers star more or less repeated what he said in an ESPN interview on Sunday, that he never intended his comments to stir a debate on black and white in the NFL and beyond.

"I'm just trying to give hope for people that may be a step outside the box from being labeled this player, that player," Newton said. "For me, I've always kind of viewed things differently, played differently, not in the prototypical way. So for that athletic quarterback that's coming up, for that person that may have made a mistake in their life, they can look at me and say, 'Well Cam did it, so I can still have hope to do it.'"

Before Newton cut against his own grain, Edwards, a 72-year-old sociologist who has spent three decades consulting the San Francisco 49ers, said by phone he was glad the likely league MVP said what he said, "because at least Cam was saying to [his critics], 'I know what you're trying to do, because I watched you do it to others before me.'

"It told the black community that he gets it, and that's he's strong enough to deal with it. It said he's in a long line of African-American warriors going back to Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Curt Flood, Arthur Ashe, Tommie Smith and John Carlos who stood up, took it and performed at the highest level."

Yet after Newton maintained he was talking about his unique size and skill set last week, about underdogs and flawed prospects (but not race), Edwards didn't rebuke him.

"Most of today's athletes aren't ready for the backlash, and they forget they don't control that, especially in this age of 24-hour social media," Edwards said. "This isn't the athlete revolt of 1967, when you were talking about a telephone and a single reporter at a major newspaper and then somebody else picking up the story. Today you hit 'send' and you have an instant worldwide audience.

"This was going to be an issue for Cam and his team at every Super Bowl press conference, and I think somebody in the Carolina organization got to him the same way I would have with the 49ers. I would never try to talk Cam out of saying it, but I'd get him to understand the cost of saying it during Super Bowl week. But now that Cam's saying, 'You know what guys, I didn't mean it,' people have two questions: One, what did you mean when you said it; and two, why are you taking it back?"

Edwards sighed over the phone Monday, then expressed hope that these last six days would serve as a seminal teaching moment.

"Cam found out this stuff not only has legs in an age of 140-character communication, it has legs with Shaq-sized shoes," Edwards said. "He needs time to figure this out."

And that's the overriding message to be taken from this he-said, he-said-he-didn't-say episode. Cam Newton needs time to determine what, if any, voice he wants to have in social and political arenas. He deserves that time. He's only 26 years old, and he's just now emerging as a full-fledged NFL megastar.

Newton's got ridiculous talent, leading-man looks, the coolest celebratory dance moves and the most thoughtful gift-giving idea in sports -- a touchdown ball for a lucky boy or girl in the crowd. But the other thing he has on his side is time. Give Newton three, four, five years to get comfortable on the elevated platform he has reached, and then let him decide if he wants to adopt the Michael Jordan approach (neutral and corporate friendly) or the  LeBron James approach (mature and firm commentary developed over the years).

Newton deserves at least that much. Like many African-American celebrities, he's asked to take positions and field questions his white peers never have to take or field. In an ideal, colorblind society that doesn't exist, Newton would face the same spotlight (no brighter) that's turned toward Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Newton's Sunday opponent, Peyton Manning.

But that letter writer to The Charlotte Observer wasn't alone in her criticism of his harmless and entertaining Dab-ing, just as another letter writer to the same newspaper wasn't alone in her criticism of Newton's fathering an out-of-wedlock child. (You might want to do a little Google search on Mr. Brady, ma'am.) Let's face it: Just as there are legions of fans around the country perfectly fine with Newton's style of play and celebration, there are still some who, subconsciously or otherwise, prefer their quarterbacks planted in the pocket, relatively joyless and white.

Edwards pointed out that Newton's presence makes this the fourth consecutive Super Bowl with a black starter at the game's signature position ( Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson back-to-back). "And the black quarterback is still under attack," Edwards said, "not because he's rare, and not because he's unsung or unseen, but because he's black. That's not going to change.

"You're not going to get Joe Lunch Bucket or Jack Six-Pack or Tammy Talk Show to change their perspectives on this. We're talking about a strain of racism so deeply rooted and pervasive that ... they can't hear Cam. If anything, his original statement pisses off the racists even more."

The sociologist rejects any notion that Newton and Richard Sherman (during the Super Bowl lead-up two years back) did anything to enhance the public discourse on race. In fact, Edwards points to the alarming rates of African-American incarceration and infant mortality, the shooting deaths of African-Americans in encounters with police, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the rise of athlete and campus activism as striking parallels to what he experienced during the turbulent 1960s.

Back on the San Jose State campus in 1967, Edwards and Noel were among the voices railing against housing segregation and the dearth of black administrators and coaches. They spoke with enough force of a game-day demonstration to come that university officials canceled the football team's opener against the University of Texas-El Paso -- against Gov. Ronald Reagan's wishes.

When he wasn't teaching and pursuing his doctorate, Edwards joined with Noel in forming the United Black Students for Action, as well as the Olympic Project for Human Rights group that compelled the gold medal-winning Smith and bronze-medal winning Carlos to take the stand in Mexico City with a gloved fist and a button bearing the group's name, also worn by a silver medalist with a conscience, Australia's Peter Norman.

"To see it was astounding," Noel recalled Monday by phone. Smith and Carlos were suddenly pariahs in two countries. Noel said neither he nor Edwards traveled to Mexico City to witness the event live out of fear they might disappear and never return.

A San Jose State teacher who left the university to run a startup, Noel recalled the day he sat with Edwards on that bench as bright and sunny and fortuitous. He has seen positive change over the decades, just not enough of it.

"A lot of things are being thrown at Cam Newton and LeBron James and others today," Noel said. "They're being pulled in different directions. They're businessmen, they're black, they're standing on the shoulders of their ancestors and they have to protect the futures of their children and grandchildren. It's a lot for them to have to process.

"But they're not getting any pressure from us to do anything. Maybe they feel pressure from their current circumstances, and it's just a continuation of the process we were a part of. Hopefully, they're aware of what happened."

In case Cam Newton isn't, the San Jose State campus is graced by a 23-foot statue of Smith and Carlos -- in their famously triumphant, defiant pose -- right near that fateful bench, a medium-range throw from where the quarterback addressed the media on Monday night in a hockey arena. As fate would have it, the Panthers are staying this week in San Jose.

"Tell Cam he should go over to the statue," Noel said through a laugh, "and take a picture with it."

Newton will make all such decisions on his own terms, in his own time. Meanwhile, he already stands as a franchise player who has never embarrassed his franchise and an MVP-to-be who has won 17 of 18 games; and he has made a whole lot of kids happy along the way. Chances are, Newton will figure out what role, if any, he wants to play on issues shaded in black and white.

Give him some breathing room between now and then.