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The humbling of Cam Newton

Will the former NFL MVP ever get the respect he deserves?


In August 2011, then-Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson appeared on the PBS program The Charlie Rose Show to discuss with the host his team’s No. 1 overall pick in that year’s NFL draft: Cam Newton.

Richardson told Rose that before the draft, he spoke with Newton and asked the former Auburn quarterback if he had any tattoos or piercings. Newton responded, “No, sir, I don’t have any,” according to Richardson. The Panthers owner then told Newton, “Good. We want to keep it that way.”

The Panthers selected Newton and later signed him to a four-year, $22 million contract.

What probably seemed like — to the majority of the country — an innocuous statement from a 75-year-old man about the general appearance of his newest employee was just the first of many times Newton has been asked to humble himself since entering the league nine years ago.

The 31-year-old Newton seemed to recognize that when, after signing with the New England Patriots last month, he posted a caption on an Instagram video that read: “Note to self: You are great, you are the best, you are a dog, you are a monster, you are the lion!! — My Conscious. Never let ‘THEM’ make YOU affect YOU.”

Speaking into the video, Newton added: “I’m getting tired of being humble now.”

The deal Newton signed with the Patriots — one year, $1.05 million with $550,000 guaranteed and another $6.45 million in incentives and bonuses — and the lack of offers he had from the rest of a pass-happy league demonstrates that Newton, and many other Black quarterbacks, is held to a different standard from white quarterbacks, right down to the dollars and cents.

Since free agency was first introduced to the NFL in 1993, just five former MVP-winning quarterbacks have joined a new team via free agency. Of those five, Newton, who won the award in 2015, was the sole quarterback to sign a contract worth less than $3 million per season.

In 2004, three years removed from his second MVP season, 33-year-old Kurt Warner made $3 million with the New York Giants to groom rookie Eli Manning. Five years later, 39-year-old Brett Favre, who threw 22 interceptions the previous season, was guaranteed $12 million in the first season of a two-year deal with the Minnesota Vikings. In 2012, Peyton Manning, who missed the prior season due to a neck surgery, commanded $18 million in his first of three seasons with the Denver Broncos, at age 35. In March, Tom Brady, 42, was awarded a fully guaranteed $50 million contract from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

By comparison, the $550,000 guaranteed portion of Newton’s $1.05 million base salary this season is not only the lowest guaranteed amount a former MVP quarterback has commanded since 2004 (Steve McNair), according to ESPN Stats & Information, but also ranks 56th among current quarterbacks heading into the 2020 season. Nathan Peterman, he of the infamous five-interception half, will make double ($2.13 million) the base salary of Newton as the Oakland Raiders’ third-string quarterback.

Lowest guaranteed money for a former MVP QB since 2000*

Year QB Name Lowest Guaranteed Money
2020 Cam Newton $550K
2004 Steve McNair $6.1M
2002 Rich Gannon $11M
2000 Kurt Warner $11.5M

*ESPN Stats & Information

In a nutshell, what’s happened to Newton and his contract is unprecedented in recent NFL history. And there’s no explanation for such a small contract for a once transcendent talent other than a league of mostly white executives viewing Newton as not worth the headache, a reputation Newton has not earned.

His former teammates endorse him (except maybe Josh Norman).

His former coach believes in him. “I would never bet against the young man, that’s for sure,” Ron Rivera recently told Chicago sports radio’s McNeil & Parkins Show.

And, thanks to his fans, Newton won first place in the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award charity challenge in January.

Regardless, since his breakout season at Auburn in 2010, Newton has been viewed as a problem in need of humility. He is too arrogant, his celebrations are too … celebratory, he pouts when he loses. Never mind that those same characteristics could describe any white quarterback, particularly the one Newton is replacing in New England.

But in the history of American sports, most notably football, Black athletes are expected to be absent of charisma or anger or hubris. Black wide receivers of the previous decade were “divas.” Every season there’s a new boisterous cornerback who elicits media attention and scrutiny: Richard Sherman to Norman to Jalen Ramsey. For Black quarterbacks, if they aren’t viewed as docile or bashful in the vein of Russell Wilson or Patrick Mahomes, they’re problematic. Michael Vick rubbed white America the wrong way long before Bad Newz Kennels.

Sociologists found a link between race/ethnicity and humility, which included the personality traits of “conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional awareness, the absence of narcissism, low self-esteem.” African Americans (and Arab Americans) showed more characteristics that lined up with humility than white Americans. In short, there’s an expectation for Black people to be humble, but not for white Americans.

Thirty teams not making a run at Newton (ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Cleveland Browns also expressed interest), and one team only offering him the veteran minimum feels like a league seeking to humble a guy because he used to dab and hit dem folks. Because if Newton’s paltry free-agency market and base salary are about his recent play, that too doesn’t pass the sniff test.

There’s reason to criticize the 2020 version of Newton compared with his breakout 2015 season where he won the MVP award and led the Panthers to the Super Bowl. Since the Panthers’ loss to the Broncos in that season’s Super Bowl, Newton has ranked near the bottom of the league in multiple passing categories, including completion percentage, total QBR and touchdown-to-interception ratio, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

But it hasn’t been that long ago since Newton was one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Through the first nine weeks of the 2018 season, Newton was completing 67.3% of his passes with 15 touchdowns against just four interceptions. That completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio both ranked within the top 10 of all quarterbacks at the time. But during a Week 10 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, edge rusher T.J. Watt drilled his helmet into the throwing arm of Newton as Newton was attempting a pass.

With his throwing ability zapped, after the Steelers game Newton threw eight interceptions against just seven touchdowns. In his final start in Week 15, Newton averaged an anemic 4.5 yards per pass attempt. The Panthers went from 6-2 to dropping the next six games Newton started.

Injuries are the sole reason to be skeptical of Newton. He underwent shoulder surgery after the Watt hit (his second such procedure) before an ankle surgery this past season to repair a Lisfranc injury he suffered in the 2019 preseason. But even those operations don’t hold up for such a mediocre contract offer.

In 2006, Drew Brees, who at that point had been selected to one Pro Bowl, signed a six-year, $60 million deal ($8 million signing bonus) with the New Orleans Saints two months after he had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Peyton Manning had three neck injuries in two years before signing with the Broncos in 2012. Those two signings seemed to have panned out.

Newton may not be the quarterback he once was, but as recently as 2017, the last time he played a full 16-game season, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was singing Newton’s praises.

“I think when you’re talking about mobile quarterbacks — guys that are tough to handle, can throw, run, make good decisions — I would put him at the top of the list,” Belichick told reporters before an early 2017 matchup against Newton and the Panthers. “Not saying there aren’t a lot of other good players that do that, but I would say of all the guys we played recently in the last couple of years, I think he’s the hardest guy to [defend].”

This season, the Patriots will essentially be paying more than $13 million to not play an arguably worse quarterback than Newton. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Newton had a higher completion percentage (66.1%) and lower off-target percentage (17.3%) than Brady (62.3% and 20.8%) the past two seasons. Not to mention, Newton knows how to, err, run.

In another Instagram post following his signing with the Patriots, Newton said this year isn’t about the size of his contract. “This is not about money for me, it’s about respect.”

Respect he’s been long due.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"