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Matt Birk on Cam Newton: 'An African-American QB playing at a high level is nothing new'
2:41 | NFL
Matt Birk on Cam Newton: 'An African-American QB playing at a high level is nothing new'
Friday January 29th, 2016

The Super Bowl hype is not even in overdrive yet, but we have already heard a lot about people who are offended by Cam Newton. This is stupid. I don’t mean the people who are offended are stupid. I mean that I don’t think those people exist, at least not in any meaningful numbers.

If this is a real argument, where are the columns bashing Newton? Where are the droves of fans who think he celebrates too much, who are offended by his dab dance, and who are appalled that he hands footballs to kids?

I’ve never met anybody who felt that way. I’ve never heard anybody talk about it. I hear people criticizing his critics, but I don’t see the critics themselves.

Maybe I just live in a bubble, but I don’t think so. I think what’s happening is a trend you see a lot these days, especially on social media: Look for the least informed, least worldly person you can find, then bash them to make yourself feel superior.

As far as I can tell, this discussion started to take hold in the fall, when the Panthers kept winning, Newton played himself into the MVP conversation, and one mother in Tennessee wrote a letter to the editor bashing Newton for “the chest puffs … the pelvic thrusts … the arrogant struts …”

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I’ve seen a lot of letters to the editor. I’ve received thousands of e-mails from readers; most are reasonable, some are unreasonable, and some of them are off-the-charts crazy. This one wasn’t crazy—it was just a mother who doesn’t like when football players celebrate, and she noticed Newton because he was the most prominent player on the field. It really wasn’t a big deal.

But pretty soon this became a conversation topic. And it’s so contrived. If you watch the NFL at all—and judging from the TV ratings, most of you do—you see chest puffs, pelvic thrusts and arrogant struts whenever a player gets a touchdown, or a first down, or sacks a quarterback, or gets introduced by the PA announcer, or returns from the restroom. This is the NFL in 2016.

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Emmanuel Sanders of the Broncos can go strut for strut with Newton every day of the week and twice next Sunday, and nobody complains about him.

And yet: It’s Newton, the league’s likely MVP this year, and we know that what drives ratings and web-clicks these days is stars. And Newton once told my colleague Peter King that he sees himself as an entertainer (which he is) and an icon (I think these days this just means “famous person with a lot of endorsements,” which most athletes would like to be). Small seeds, but we happily help them grow headlines like this:

Charlotte Observer: “Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton: Being an African-American QB with this skill-set scares people.”

USA Today: “Super Bowl’s first black quarterback defends Cam Newton.”

Nothing needs defending. Almost all of us know this. But we’ve pumped up this balloon, and now we demand that Newton pump some more air into it, and we insist that former players pump more air into it, and it’s all so stupid.

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Sure, there are people who hate Cam Newton. There are people who hate Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, too. A lot of people didn’t like Brett Favre. Some people still don’t like LeBron James (who also said he wanted to be a “global icon” once). This is part of sports. Great players get some blowback.

Newton doesn’t really “scare” that many people. I’m sure he hears from the worst of us, angry racists and vitriolic “fans” who forget that the players on the field are real people. But this does not mean they have a point worth discussing, or that they represent a meaningful percentage of Americans.

And sure, there is a petition in Seattle to ban Newton from CenturyLink Field. So what? There are more than 1,600 signatures on a petition on whitehouse.gov right now demanding that President Obama “finally make history” by … appearing in the 2017 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game. Should we “debate” that, too?

If you don’t cheer for the Panthers, you might be irritated when Newton dabs, just as you get irritated when Brady begs a ref for a personal foul or when Rodgers does his championship-belt celebration. But irritated is not the same as offended. I mean, when he retired, gentlemanly Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer dabbed in the locker room. Frank Beamer! Let’s not pretend this is some kind of thug behavior, or that anybody really thinks it is.

And yet, the false “debate” goes on, and people “defend” Newton, and it’s all phony. But this is what you see so much these days, straw-man arguments that allow people to claim some dubious moral high ground.

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The formula is simple. Grab a small helping of idiocy and act like you want to throw up. Find a racist fraternity brother on the Internet and bash him. Grab a screenshot of a tweet from some drunk doofus who didn’t really mean to express his thoughts to the world, and chastise him. The fake outrage game is easy to win—you just need to find the easiest targets and go all-in.

For the sake of our own sanity, when it comes to these public debates, we should follow a 5% Rule: Unless 5% of the populace believes something, there is no need to respond. Sure, Cam Newton has his critics. We all have our critics. Let’s stop pretending he has more than he really does.

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