- With social activism taking hold across the NFL, many look at Cam Newton and wonder what, exactly, the league’s most prominent African-American quarterback is doing. We spent a day in his foundation’s new program—designed to develop future community leaders—to find out
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The third and final day of the Un1ted As 1 program fell on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was not a coincidence. Fifty-seven sixth- through eighth-graders brainstormed some of the problems they’ve observed at school or in their community and how they, as young leaders, can begin to fix them.
Some of what they wrote is what you’d expect: bullying, cyberbullying, cliques and racism. But then it seemed each table brought up a new societal ill, ones you and I would have never thought of at 13 or even at our current ages. Body-shaming, ageism, sexism, discriminatory dress codes, ableism. It’s a far more complicated world, and today’s kids understand that.
This program is the brainchild of Cam Newton, whose foundation has been working for more than a year to make this pilot program. Newton, at first understated as the wave of social activism took hold of the NFL, has been finding his voice and looking for ways to impact his communities in the past year and a half. Newton has long had a genuine soft spot for children and feels a responsibility to use his resources on them. The Un1ted As 1 program, which is stylized in Newton’s own unique way, aims to equip kids with the tools to work together and embrace diversity in hopes of alleviating “many of the societal problems we face today.” The MMQB was the only media allowed at the event, visiting on the third day, held at a youth learning center in uptown Charlotte. After some coercing, Newton finally consented to an interview.
“I just wanted to have a program implementing acceptance,” Newton says after finishing his nearly hour-long speech—one that had its ups and downs—to the group. “So much of what we see on TV is people judging, and that’s why I really didn’t want to talk. I was curious to see how a reporter would sum everything all up. I didn’t want my voice here. I want to make this better. I feel like this is important and needed.”
Newton’s foundation worked in connection with The Winters Group, a company focused on organizational change and human development, to assemble the program for a diverse group of Charlotte middle schoolers, who applied and were chosen by his or her school’s principal.
Day 1 focused on identity and celebrating uniqueness while finding similarities in each other. They heard from former Arizona Cardinals assistant coaching intern Jen Welter, the first female coach in the NFL, who was one of the group’s favorites. The next day looked at the impact of media and pop culture with guest speakers from the local media scene. There, the kids learned about the power of asking “why” when consuming media. The final day, MLK Jr. Day, was about putting it all together and working toward becoming agents of change in their own way.
Newton often recalls how he didn’t truly interact with white people until his freshman year at the University of Florida. Growing up in Atlanta, he lived in an all-black community, went to an all-black church and attended an all-black school. He was forced to meet people from other walks of life at Florida, then at Blinn College in southeast Texas, and finally at Auburn.
That’s at least partially where his philosophy on race relations derives. Newton believes we should celebrate our differences while understanding our similarities. More or less, he feels that, by all races working together to identify their commonalities, racial harmony can be found. That’s reflected in most of his discussions on race since his MVP-winning season in 2015, and represented thematically in this program.
Newton doesn’t shy from ills and evils in society. But he seems to worry less about those historic power structures in place that have limited or stunted upward mobility among minorities and focuses more on people of any color overcoming whatever unfair obstacle there may be.
On Day 1, the students made a banner that would go on to hang in the classroom for the rest of the weekend. There was Newton dabbing in his Panthers’ uniform with several phrases surrounding him, with the most prominent reading “in order to change things, you have to take action.”
Charlotte underwent a reckoning in September 2016 when police shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott. The shooting led to days of mostly peaceful protests, but also some riots. Ultimately, it was an uncovering of deep inequities facing black and brown people in a seemingly progressive, New South city.
Some of the speakers on Day 3 had ties to the protests. There was Vi Lyles, the first female African-American mayor in Charlotte’s history, who spoke to the students about local government. And there was Toussaint Romain, a public defender and adjunct professor at UNC-Charlotte, who rose to prominence during the protests as the white-shirt-and-tie-clad man attempting to hold a peaceful line between protestors and police on those nights.
Romain retold his stories of trying to keep the peace and answered difficult questions from the students, like whether he believes he did enough to prevent a night of protests from turning into a riot. Romain had the students stand when asking a question, a ritual they would unknowingly continue for the rest of the day.
“One-hundred percent of my students graduated high school, while 90% of my clients dropped out of high school,” Romain said. “One-hundred percent of my students will end up in corporate America, while 90% of my clients will end up in corporate prisons.”
From that week rose Braxton Winston, who has transformed from a shirtless, dreadlocked protestor photographed raising in fist in front of heavily armored police to a dreadlocked city councilman. He spoke—for quite some time—about the week of protests from his perspective and his ascension to the political realm in Charlotte. “Don’t let anyone tell you your voice doesn’t matter,” he told the students.
An impromptu panel broke out with Winston, Ron Killings—the WWE wrestler and Charlotte native who goes by R. Truth—and Under Armour representative Kendall Ogle. As they fielded questions, Newton reached for his notebook to read off questions of his own.
“When racial turbulence happens in the country—the president making statements, police brutality or every day life—how does that affect your professional life?” Newton asked the men. “Like … when you see a black man get killed or President Trump making statements, how does that affect you in the workplace?”
A topical question, no doubt, but it was also a difficult question for two of the men to answer. Trump is in the WWE Hall of Fame and a close friend of WWE owner Vince McMahon. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank was part of Trump’s advisory board of CEOs before finally leaving after facing months of backlash from consumers and sponsored athletes.
But Winston was able to speak freely about his dislike of Trump’s policies. He went on to describe a law enforcement policy that he said is “a racist program that attacks black and brown bodies.” Winston looked around the room and then to the back at Newton and asked, “Did that answer your question?”
“Yeah,” Newton said softly. “I just wanted them to hear it.”
What did you expect? What have you learned? Those were Newton’s first two questions to the students as he took the floor for what would be a nearly hour-long dialogue that, for many, would be the highlight of the weekend.
“I didn’t know I could learn this much in only three days but I learned a lot of things,” a blonde girl said. “I’ve seen lots of things from different perspectives when I first came I thought it was a really diverse group and I though the point was to be all different and unique. But then all the activities we did I learned we’re all connected in some type of way. And the fact that we’re all different makes us the same.”
The answer pleased Newton, who said, “That’s what’s up,” and asked for a round of applause. He called on a young man to ask what he expected.
“Oh … that we were just going to be learning and talking about you,” the boy said to laughs.
There was next to no learning about Newton here. No slideshows of his athletic feats or reading from his Wikipedia. Even when he walked in the room that Monday morning he wasn’t acknowledged. This program was about addressing problems in our world and aiming to fix them, and that’s what Newton geared his talk to. And because he invited a critique of the program from this reporter, I’ll give it.
Newton is not known for his public speaking, which has gotten him into trouble (as recently as last fall when he said it was “funny to hear a female talk about routes,” directing the comment at a female reporter at his weekly press conference). What I’ve come to believe in seven years of covering Newton is that he almost never speaks out of a place of malice (recall him calling Ndamukong Suh “Donkey Kong Suh”), but even his well-meaning messages are sometimes poorly delivered.
At least two exchanges on this day brought palpable tension to the room. He asked two students what they would think if one of the boys was gay. Would they still be friends with him? Would they speak to him at lunch? Of course, the respondents answered “yes.”
“So this is just me personally, growing up, in some type of sense I didn’t hate them,” Newton said. “I didn’t hate a person who was gay. I didn’t hate a lesbian. I just didn’t know how to identify, how to go up to them. But in my professional world, it has forced me to accept it. Now I’m like, listen man, ain’t nothing different.”
The delivery was clunky and uncomfortable. His use of “forced” here—and again later—made me cringe. But he continued by looking back at his old behavior, correctly identifying it as toxic masculinity and understanding there’s no need for such antics as he’s grown and evolved.
“Growing up it was, you gotta be hard and tough,” Newton said before deepening his voice. “Yeah I want my cornbread and my French fries. Man you just stepped on my shoes what’s up with you dog?
“Nowadays I’m like love. Love is cool. Love ain’t weakness. I don’t know you from her or her from her, but I still got love for you. So when we talk about lesbians or people who identify as the opposite sex, all of these things are something we live with on a daily basis. All the program is designed to do is make you, force you, to accept it.”
Later, Newton is going to go around the room to prove a point that anyone can experience discrimination, regardless of their race. But he’s missing the distinction between racism and prejudice, and he asks a young black girl if she believes a white person can experience racism. She says not really, and Newton is surprised. So he asks Travis Jones, one of the group leaders who is white (and the clear favorite among the students), to stand up.
“Have you ever experienced racism?,” Newton asks.
“No,” Jones replied.
“On you? Or just … ” Newton continued. “So you’ve walked into every situation and been, Oh, they’re good people. Or have you ever walked into, say, a Pakistani place and they looked at you like, what the hell are you doing here?”
“I feel like I’ve been judged more on class than race,” Jones said. “Like if I was around rich people and I was awkward and out of place like, these aren’t my people. But no one’s ever looked at my skin and made assumptions about my group of people. And if they did, it was like ‘cracker’ or ‘honkey,’ but that doesn’t really sting because there’s no history of those words having some real power.”
Newton digressed, group leaders reminded students of the difference between racism and prejudice and the speech went on. Where Newton excelled in his talk was sharing his personal experiences. He remembered seeing the hurt in his mother’s eyes when he was released from jail following his arrest at the University of Florida for possession of a stolen laptop, and he derided a culture that glorifies having been locked up. Newton was strong telling tales of skipping school to hang out with the guys who smoked weed but never did it himself.
And perhaps his best moment came when an eighth grader told Newton of his dreams to have an 11-year NFL career. The quarterback didn’t try to break down the long odds of the young man having such a career as many speakers would and sometimes (annoyingly) do. In fact, Newton said he believed the young man could do it. But what happens if he got the girl across the room pregnant when they were 19?
The group laughed, and Newton begged them to be more mature. He was making a point. What happens to these best laid plans when real life hits? An hour of many laughs and attempted bridge-building and some awkwardness led Newton to his strongest point of the day.
“Things happen. People you meet. They come in your life and they’re going to go in your life,” Newton said. “I’m doggone sure not saying that you’re not going to make it. But if something like that happens to you, do you still have a plan? And you better have a plan. Because when real life situations happen, not only to my man here but anybody else, what you gonna do?”
Newton wound down by asking the students for feedback, and the majority told him that they want to talk more and be lectured to less.
“I like the way you’re talking to us because you’re more relatable and we’re not really taking out the pencils and writing [things] down,” one girl told Newton. “I’ve been here three days and I don’t want to go from here to school feeling like I was at school.”
This would be typical of smart middle schoolers, all wanting their voices to be heard. Newton takes the feedback seriously and plans to adjust the schedule when this pilot program takes the next step. Next time, there will just be seventh and eighth graders, because the group found sixth graders were too young for this. Newton is hopeful the next program will be with kids from both Atlanta and Charlotte, and that they would meet somewhere between the cities for a weekend retreat. Eventually, the hope is this program will be nationwide.
Newton’s sweet spot in the program was talking about his experiences and relating them to the kids. He’s done that for years at his charity events and 7-on-7 football tournaments, and it shined through on this day. But Newton clearly lacked some foundational knowledge in conveying thoughts on LBGTQ issues and the differences between racism and prejudice, the latter of which was a fundamental aspect of the program. It’s not that he should stick to what he’s strongest at but rather, should this program grow as he wants it, so too should his ability to speak on the matters more cogently and with greater authority because of the power he wields over the younger generation.
After his talk, one of the group leaders realized the students had been seated for an extended period of time. She told them to stand up and move around the room for a few minutes to stretch their legs and talk among their new friends. Newton had other ideas.
“Hold up, hold up,” Newton shouted. “Tell y’all what … y’all have three minutes to go anywhere in this building. Anywhere. But you have to be back in those three minutes.”
Everyone in the room over the age of 14 knew this was a bad idea. This was a 102,000-square foot facility built to entertain and educate children. They had been trapped in a room for going on two hours. The kids essentially ran out the door. No way this was going to work. But within 2 minutes and 50 seconds, all 57 kids were back in the room, by their respective tables and accounted for.
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