It’s difficult to think of a more brand-ready player in the National Football League than Cam Newton.
His billion-dollar smile beams through his face mask, even as he flips over would-be tacklers en route to the end zone. During post-game pressers, Newton’s charm and quick wits are as entertaining as his skills on the field.
So far, the business world has been capitalizing on the 26-year-old’s persona. In only his fifth season in the league, Newton has the second-largest portfolio as an advertising pitch man of any player in the game. Only Peyton Manning leads Newton in that category (according to the firm that represents him), but that will change fairly soon if he keeps winning games.
He’s led the Carolina Panthers to an undefeated record thus far and he’s considered a top MVP candidate along with Tom Brady of the New England Patriots.
The real question is this: if Newton continues to win, would the NFL follow the business world and brand him as the face of the league as it has Brady, Payton and other top quarterbacks?
It would arguably be the league's most important case study in how it brands a player who defies the cultural norms of the traditional NFL superstar quarterback. He plays, walks and talks with swag. He’s matured significantly since his rookie season, but he still has critics who refuse to recognize his growth and improved game.
In fact, Newton had to contend with critics using very suggestive racial undertones in their evaluations of him before his name hit the draft board back in 2011. ProFootballWeekly's Nolan Nawrocki wrote a very biting critique of his character, which, in part, argued that Newton is, "Very disingenuous — has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. Always knows where the cameras are and plays to them. Has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble and makes him believe he is above the law — does not command respect from teammates and always will struggle to win a locker room."
NFL great Warren Moon said at the time that much of the criticism directed at Newton was “blatant racism.”
Has much changed since 2011?
Newton is a flashy, pop culture-savvy guy. His style of celebrating after crossing the end zone has caused much consternation among NFL writers and opposing offenses. When he “dabbed” in the end zone during a game against the Tennessee Titans, several players took offense.
But Cam continued dabbing. Asked about it during a postgame interview, he shrugged it off, saying that if opposing defenses don’t like him dancing in the end zone, keep him out of it.
Skip Bayless, who is high on Cam Newton, said on First Take that he doesn’t care for his end zone dancing. The strongest critique of the dance came from Tennessee Titans fan Rosemary Plorin who wrote an open letter to the quarterback in the Charlotte Observer arguing that his dancing amounted to “egotism, arrogance and poor sportsmanship.”
Sounds familiar, right? Just like that notorious draft review from his rookie season.
As far as Bayless is concerned, I don’t think that’s the case at all. Like many football analysts, he is old school and tends not to like players doing anything beyond playing the game. The letter, however, carries a wider range of meanings. Five years into his career, the criticisms confronting Newton reflect a cultural schism that many observers in the league are struggling to reconcile.
The NFL is a very conservative league with a very white, traditional fan base. With new ethnic diversity comes new ways of playing the game and that can run in conflict with a league that has not embraced pop culture as warmly as its peers over at the National Basketball Association.
During the early 2000s, the NBA embraced hip hop culture, thanks in large part to Allen Iverson. So far, the NFL has not embraced it as quite much. Cam, however, personifies the culture and that may very well complicate how the league will use him as a brand for a fan base that may not appreciate a top-tier quarterback doing the dab on the gridiron.
Moreover, the quarterback position is the most prized and honored role in the game. It is a spot, regardless of performance, that teams look to for leadership on the field and in the locker room. Historically, the very top quarterbacks have been overwhelmingly white and never conducted themselves with Newton’s swag. In the NFL, however, the fan base may view Newton’s swag as arrogance.
To some degree, you have to consider that Newton is something of a cultural shock for people like Plorin and the NFL: he is a top tier quarterback, confident, carries a very hip, urban flair, doesn’t care what people think of him and he’s black. (Emphasis on Black)
That was what that open letter was about. It’s not about Newton being a role model. Newton doesn’t fit her definition of what a good, well-mannered young man ought to be. And, if we really want to be honest, many people likely share her views but aren’t bold enough to put them in print.
The controversy over Plorin’s letter about Newton being a role model has pretty much faded, but its sentiment likely still resonates.
If Newton continues his MVP-level performance and the Panthers make it to the Super Bowl, NFL executives will have to ask themselves if they agree with Plorin and conclude that Newton’s style and persona are not the right fit to represent the shield.
Or they can embrace his swag and make him the new face of a hipper, culturally evolving league that is cool with getting their collective “dab” on every now and then.