We should listen to our mothers, right? Cam Newton, evidently, did not. Before his smile disappeared and all the dancing and dabbing stopped, before he exacerbated his lousy Super Bowl with an even lousier display of post-game sportsmanship, he received a text message from his mom that he placed on his Instagram feed Sunday morning.
Wrote Jackie Newton: “I want you to understand that hot and cold water comes out of different fountains. You are either hot or cold. You have a big platform. Which fountain are you? Don’t let the devil win over your words or speech. Represent the awesome God you serve thru your words. … Thru your language and actions, speak words to uplift. Don’t promote the Devils workshop. Death and life is in the power of the tongue.”
There was no evidence of a demonic intrusion Sunday night in the Levi’s Stadium bowels, but clearly, Newton chose the wrong fountain. If many acclaimed athletes have lost big games in their lives, few have reacted with the petulance of the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, who, in full pout mode, flipped a black hood over his head and responded to questions mostly with one- and two-word answers. Had he exhibited any sort of class — crediting the Denver Broncos with an all-time defensive performance, saluting Peyton Manning for going out as a champion — there may have been more empathy in how the Carolina quarterback was sacked six times, hit 15 times and blitzed 25 times in a cause-and-effect mauling that led to zero touchdowns, two lost fumbles, one interception and an 18-of-41 passing clunker in the Panthers’ 24-10 loss. Alas, Newton showed only that he was a poor loser, and somehow Tuesday, as he addressed reporters in Charlotte, he made matters worse by defending his right to be a poor loser.
“I’ve been on record to say I’m a sore loser. Who likes to lose? You show me a good loser, and I’m going to show you a loser,” said Newton, refusing to apologize after two days of national criticism. “It’s not a popularity contest. I’m here to win football games. If I offended anybody, that’s cool, but I know who I am and I’m not about to conform nor bend for anybody’s expectations because yours or anybody’s expectations would never exceed mine.”
Excuse me? Did he suggest that being a good sport would require him to conform to a societal expectation?
“The truth of the matter is, who are you to say that your way is right?” Newton rambled on. “That’s what I don’t understand. I have all of these people who are condemning and saying this, that and the third. What makes your way right?”
Oh, maybe because it’s disingenuous, if not phony, when a star who is quick to celebrate and give balls to kids after every touchdown becomes a baby when events turn against him. This isn’t about race, though Newton might see it that way after describing himself two weeks ago as “an African-American quarterback that scares people” with his unique run-and-pass skill set. Nor is this about a generation gap, millennialism or his being 26. Simply, the world respects athletes who know how to lose with dignity and shuns those who whine.
In that sense, Cam Newton cost himself dearly in the span of four hours in Santa Clara. Not only was his skill set solved and stuffed by Von Miller and the Broncos, his image suffered significant damage in the aftermath. Everyone loses in football, business, life. Newton can decide how he wants to respond to losing, but he also must live with the consequences as the face of the Carolina franchise — and one of the prominent figures in a league that has enough problems.
“I’ve got no more tears to cry,” Newton said. “At the end of the day, when you invest so much time and sacrifice so much and things don’t go as planned, the emotions take over. That’s what happens. As far as trying to be like this person, trying to be like that person … the truth of the matter is I’m not trying to be like this person. I said it since Day One: I am who I am, I know what I’m capable of and I know where I’m going. I don’t have to conform to anybody else’s wants for me to do. I’m not that guy.”
Among those not buying Newton’s act is Steve Young, who had to swallow hard and sit behind Joe Montana before winning a Super Bowl with the 49ers and becoming a Hall of Famer. “It’s just that you’re the MVP. You’re the guy that’s going to be the face of the franchise, you’re the face of the NFL going forward, you were the dabber,” said the ESPN analyst. “This is the moment to actually show that resilience on the other side. And so, stand in there, answer the questions. It’s three minutes. Even if you just spit the words out, take a deep breath, answer the questions.”
Another Hall of Famer, Deion Sanders, says Newton only invites race-related criticism by brooding. “I understand the emotions of losing, but you can’t do that. A Manning, a [Tom] Brady — all these guys that have been a prototypical type of quarterback in our game, they’re not going to do that ever,” Sanders said. “Would Drew Brees ever? You’re opening yourself for more criticism, because everybody is going to say you’re dabbing and smiling and smiling and styling. So this is how you go out when you lose?”
Even if you accept his short answers as heat-of-the-moment emotion, there is no defense for his bashfulness in not diving to recover his fourth-quarter fumble. On the replay, Newton visibly thinks about pursuing the ball before backing off and watching Denver safety T.J. Ward fall on it.
“I didn’t dive on [the] fumble because of the way my leg was [positioned],” Newton said. “It could have been contorted in a way. You say my effort? I didn’t dive down. I fumbled — that’s fine. That’s fine. We didn’t lose the game because of that fumble.”
But maybe the Panthers win the game if he entered the scrum and recovered the fumble. “You can condemn me and say, ‘Well, he gave up,’” Newton said. “It’s easy for a person to nitpick and say, ‘He gave up.’ That’s fine. I’m a grown man.”
The Broncos, who continued to chirp about Newton during their parade in Denver, contend he wanted no part of that loose ball. “If he would have touched that ball, I was gonna hit him right in his face, and I wasn’t the only one,” Ward told NFL.com. “We were hungry for that one. We saw that ball, and it was like hyenas on an antelope. And I don’t know — maybe he needed to stay healthy for next year.”
Knowing they have to carefully manage the emotions of a lightning rod, the Panthers were quick to defend Newton. “We love you, Cam,” several teammates said as he spoke to the media.
“I want players that hate to lose,” Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said. “I want players that I know when the game is over they are crawling into the locker room and they need help getting their gear off and they are going to need time getting into the shower. I want the buses to be late to the airport if we’re traveling. We all handle defeat differently.”
Said coach Ron Rivera: “That’s who he is. He hates to lose, that’s the bottom line. That is what you love in him. I would much rather have a guy who hates to lose than a guy who accepts it. The guy who accepts it, you might as well just push him out of your locker room because you don’t want him around. That is a beauty of a guy like that — he wants to win and his teammates know it. We don’t play this game for a participation trophy. We want to win.”
But Rivera also acknowledged that Newton, as an MVP and a dabber, has a higher responsibility. “There are young people looking at who we are, and we are role models for them,” he said. “Quite honestly, if he is going to take it hard, as a public service, we should avoid having him talk right away. Time is probably the best thing.”
Newton’s friend and texting buddy, Steph Curry, felt sorry for him. “Losing a game of that magnitude — especially at the quarterback position, where a lot of responsibility falls on your plate — it’s got to be a tough deal, for sure,” he said. “Anybody could probably say he could have handled the situation better, but having not been in his shoes, I can’t really tell you how I would respond in that moment.”
I can. He would have stuck around and answered every last question, with dignity. Because as someone who shimmies and dabs himself, Curry knows the rule that eluded his Carolina pal: When a dab is reduced to a crab, life ain’t fab.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.