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Cam Newton polarization: The truth about race at quarterback

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One of the most important lessons Cam Newton learned about the NFL came long before he ever became the lightning rod of Super Bowl 50.

It was back in 2011, when the recent Heisman Trophy winner was training for the NFL Scouting Combine and Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon was one of his advisers. Newton once asked Moon about his biggest regret during a career that ended with Moon being the first black quarterback inducted into the Hall. It was simple, Moon told him: He wished he could've had more fun playing the game.

That story is brought up today because we're still a week removed from trying to make sense of why Newton is considered such a polarizing athlete. The Carolina Panthers quarterback attacked the subject last week by going with the easiest explanation -- he said being a black quarterback "may scare a lot people" before telling ESPN later that he "didn't mean it to come off as a race thing" -- but there is more to it. Newton is a black quarterback who is playing the game on his own terms. That is the part of this conversation that requires more attention, largely because Newton is showing us the next challenge facing black quarterbacks.

Moon believed he had to fit into a popular notion of what a quarterback was supposed to be in his days. That meant being serious, stoic and always aware of how everyone else was viewing him. Newton, on the other hand, gets to be gregarious, goofy and intensely committed to making everyone respond to him. It's freedom we're talking about here, the kind that every minority longs to feel in a world where assimilation is too often the only route to the top.

As Moon pointed out, Newton represents evolution.

"First, we had to prove we could play the position," Moon said. "Then we had to face questions about our leadership abilities. Even when you look at the guys who played the position in my time -- myself, Doug Williams, even a Randall Cunningham -- we were all laid back. Now it's more of a 'me' generation and you can show more of your personality. It used to be that you had to be more like a politician than a football player to be a black quarterback. Cam plays the game with his personality."

It's also important to point out that Newton is now winning while he's doing that. If he were merely enjoying himself on a mediocre Panthers team -- as was the case a few years back -- he wouldn't be such a subject of interest. His critics would bash him for all his flaws and then complain that he cared too much about style over substance. They'd also be counting the days until he flopped in the same manner as Washington Redskins QB Robert Griffin III.

See, nobody cares if Antonio Brown shimmies after a touchdown reception or Von Miller shakes his butt following a sack. Those guys can do whatever they want because they're viewed as supporting characters. When Newton starts dancing or taking victory laps or dabbing incessantly, it makes his attackers wonder if he really does understand everything that comes with being a leader. It makes them feel as if he's defacing a position that is easily the most sanctified in sport.

Those people don't see how Newton has grown from a quarterback who never even called a play in college to somebody who operates an offense that led the league in scoring this season. They don't give him credit for enjoying an MVP year with an underwhelming set of wide receivers after his top target, Kelvin Benjamin, sustained a season-ending knee injury in training camp. Let's also not forget about the impact off the field. Newton has to lead the league in making little children light up every time he reaches the end zone.

Last year at this time, we were talking about deflated footballs. A couple weeks ago, one network aired a story that united all the kids Newton had given footballs to after scoring touchdowns this year.

"He's far from what his critics] actually believe or the conclusion they draw from seeing him doing those things," [Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. "He's a guy that genuinely cares about his teammates. He cares about his community, with all the work he's been able to do here in Charlotte working with kids ... That really speaks for itself and speaks to who he really is as person."

The reality is that we should be looking at Newton in the same way people loved Magic Johnson when he came into the NBA. They have the same flair, the same passion and the same unbridled joy for the game. Magic helped make the NBA must-see TV with the way he operated every night. He also was a freakish anomaly at the time, a 6-foot-9 point guard who did things that amazed everyone who saw him play.

The only difference is that Magic played in a league dominated by African-Americans, one that was struggling to connect with mainstream audiences when he entered the NBA in 1979. Larry Bird helped that cause by emerging as a white superstar on a rival team, but don't miss the larger point here: Magic made mainstream America feel at ease with his big smile and his enduring effervescence. He was an inviting image in an environment that wasn't so easy for White America to embrace.

Newton isn't dealing with that dynamic as his own star grows brighter. He is facing a world where some people don't want to hear him talk about race because the numbers alone tell a story of progress. We now have a black quarterback in the Hall of Fame, two more with Super Bowl victories (Doug Williams and Seattle's Russell Wilson), four that were taken first overall in the NFL draft and many others who have played in the Pro Bowl. This year alone marks the fourth straight season that one of the starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl will be of African-American descent.

It's harder to quantify how many of those black quarterbacks have felt free enough to show us their true personalities. Wilson already has faced heavy criticism for being too generic, unwilling to say anything that might upset people and even enduring a backlash from unidentified teammates who tagged him as not being "black enough."RGIII became a victim of his own success, as he was first hailed as a one-man revolution in D.C., then castigated on ESPN's "First Take" as a "cornball brother" and finally benched as an egocentric headache who was reportedly too cozy with Redskins owner Dan Snyder.

This should give Newton's critics some idea of how hard it is to be free at the position. One wrong move and your own people will kneecap you. Get too big and you might be expected to be a beacon of hope for African-Americans all over the country. And if you try to do what Newton has done, then you run the risk of being perceived as too cavalier, too cocky, too concerned with things that really shouldn't matter.

The hard truth is that it takes courage for Newton to be so true to himself. It also means plenty that he has the support of Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and head coach Ron Rivera to do so. Keep in mind that Richardson once admitted during an interview with PBS's Charlie Rose that he was very candid with Newton about how a quarterback should look. When Newton reassured the owner that he didn't have any tattoos or piercings prior to the 2011 draft, Richardson said, "We want to keep it that way."

The message was that the face of a franchise has to adhere to certain expectations. That stance seems to have softened.

"It's about focusing on what you have to do," Rivera said. "Then once you accomplish it, there's no reason you can't celebrate. There's no reason you can't appreciate it. I've got the biggest kid in the NFL in our quarterback. He's a tremendous athlete, a tremendous football player, but more important, he's a heck of a young man, and he's just enjoying himself. And he's been like this for five seasons."

Rivera understands the value of letting Newton be himself because he played with just such a quarterback in Chicago, the infamous Jim McMahon. The NFL also is filled with tales about other colorful signal callers who preferred to live by their own rules. Joe Namath is revered as a cultural icon. The late Ken Stabler used to boast about how his late-night partying never hurt him on game days. Brett Favre also wasn't shy about enjoying himself on or off the field.

It's a safe bet that some of the same people who blast Newton glorify those quarterbacks. They do it because that's an unspoken privilege of being white in America. If those players wanted to challenge an institution, they were sanctified as rebels with a cause. If a young, black athlete like Newton wants to push the boundaries of acceptability, then it's something that attracts haters on social media and motivates self-righteous parents to deliver sermons on proper decorum.

The beautiful part for Newton is that he gets it. The key for him is to keep winning -- because that is the only way you validate yourself in this game. It's the same reason why there are plenty of people who can't stand Denver's Peyton Manning or New England's Tom Brady. As Moon said, "Those players don't follow Cam because of the celebrations. They follow him because he puts in the work."

Newton surely will still have his own critics regardless of the outcome of Super Bowl 50. That's just the way it works when you play that position at the highest level. What shouldn't be lost, however, is the impact Newton is having on the game and those who will come after him.

If people thought the issue of black quarterbacks in the NFL had long since ended, Cam's reminding us of how far we still have to go.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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