Last Saturday was not the first time Cam Newton had boarded the team bus without a tie. He had done it before and clearly didn’t think it a big deal.
But a team source told SI the Panthers and coach Ron Rivera had previously issued a warning to Newton for the breach in team rules, and on this occasion Rivera felt he had to put his foot down.
He called Newton, who was dressed in a coat and turtleneck that together probably cost more than most readers’ paycheck, off the bus for a one-on-one conversation that was captured on video—and, because it’s 2016, later sent to TMZ. At that moment, Rivera apparently informs Newton that he won’t be starting against Seattle, and while he’s clearly perturbed by the news, it’s unclear if Newton knew at the time just how humbling—or humiliating—the experience would be.
Rivera, though, knew what was coming.
“Oh absolutely I knew it was going to be a feeding frenzy,” Rivera said Monday. “As far as I’m concerned though I’ve addressed it, he’s addressed it and I’m treating everybody the same. And I will continue to do that.”
Of course, this situation leads back to questions about Newton’s leadership—the kinds of questions that have hounded the quarterback since he entered the league, partially because his style is different. He mopes on the sideline during games but never took a play, or day, off in practice. He dances during games and sighs during press conferences, but every player in the Panthers’ locker room swears by him. Newton went 15–1 last year, took the team to the Super Bowl and won the league MVP, but we still hear comparisons of his “leadership” to Peyton Manning, when it was clear from the time that he dapped up Roger Goodell on the NFL draft stage in 2011 that Peyton Manning he is not.
Newton has aspirations of being the best quarterback in the league, but he also desires to be more than just a football player. His love affair with clothes is well known even if most of us would never wear what he does even if we could afford it. And yes, there is irony that one of the most impeccably dressed players in professional sports was benched because of a dress code violation.
That wasn’t the most embarrassing part though, because we all make mistakes, even for something as simple as following a dress code. It’s that it was on national television, during a losing season, against the Panthers’ rival, versus a quarterback who, in some respects, is the antithesis of Newton.
Rivera planned to keep with his tradition of sitting the starter for the first series for violating a team rule. It just so happened that the first series was only one play—an interception by backup Derek Anderson that was quickly turned into three points by the Seahawks, who blew out the Panthers 40–7 and effectively ended any playoff hopes for the first time since 2012.
“I’m very comfortable with [the decision] because the truth of the matter is I have to treat everyone the same. I really do. That’s all that was,” Rivera said. “There is no underlying message, there’s no feud, because I’ve done this before. It’s just unfortunate that the guys I did it with before weren’t the quarterback. And I think that’s why it’s such a big deal, and quite honestly why it’s being made a bit bigger than it really is. All I did was treat a player like I would any other player.”
Rivera wanted to keep the issue in-house, which only led to confusion. He didn’t tell NBC (which pulled in miserable ratings for the game, by the way) and left media, fans in the stands and those watching dumbfounded as to why a healthy Newton wasn’t starting. Had it been addressed and explained before the game, and had the Panthers simply gone three-and-out on that series, it’s likely this article wouldn’t be written and radio hosts would have to look for different fodder. Not addressing the situation head-on was Rivera’s misstep.
But think what you will of the rule, it’s still a rule that Newton broke. Rivera can’t rightly stand up in front of the team on Monday and harp on accountability when he’s not holding his star player accountable. Stars get preferential treatment, but this would make Rivera look like a hypocrite. What then happens when some of the younger players who take their cues from Newton stop wearing ties when the team travels?
Rules are important to Rivera, who grew up in a military family. His father served two Army tours in Vietnam, and the coach lived on military bases in Panama, Washington, D.C., Germany and Maryland before the family settled in California. He volunteers with the USO and reads biographies on Patton and Churchill. He regularly brings in retired military members to speak to the team, and he consulted with the architect of the Osama bin Laden raid for advice on how to deal with his team after the Super Bowl 50 loss.
There must be structure, and Rivera has had those parameters in place since Newton joined the team. Newton can dab in end zones, crumple up 12th Man flags, tear down a Packers’ fan’s banner, get into a training camp scuffle with a teammate and walk out of a post-game press conference.
Just wear a tie.