Friday, February 12, 2016

Cam Newton and the Agony of Defeat

After an uncharacteristically lackluster showing in a loss to the Denver Broncos in last weekend’s Super Bowl, a morose Cam Newton, superstar quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, went all monosyllabic in a post-game press conference before abruptly walking out, leaving reporters hanging.

For this he was roundly criticized as a sore loser in the media, who do not like being snubbed. Even Andy Griffith, the moral voice of Mayberry, chimed in posthumously to give Cam some gentle advice about his behavior.

Newton’s attitude seemed especially inappropriate and childish considering that he is not an especially gracious winner, either. He has acquired a reputation for what one disgusted football fan called “arrogant struts and ‘in your face’ taunting.” His unrepentant ego is reminiscent, for those of us who have lived long enough to remember, of arrogant superstar Joe Namath of the New York Jets. Super Bowl winner Namath irked many with what at the time seemed unsportsmanlike behavior; now his cool self-confidence seems tame by comparison to today’s commonplace trash-talking and end-zone dance celebrations.
In any case, it’s certainly understandable that one wouldn’t be enthusiastic about fielding annoying questions about one’s poor performance mere minutes after an embarrassing loss in one of the most-watched events in television history. But rather than draw on that as an excuse and apologize, Newton disappointingly chose to double down on his attitude, declaring Tuesday that “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.” He added that if he offended anyone, “that's cool.”
But it’s not cool. Newton is wrong. A good loser is not the same thing as someone who takes losing lightly. Newton’s passion for winning isn’t uniquely intense, though he may like to think it is; no athlete anywhere at the professional level is not a fierce competitor driven to win. Fellow quarterback Tom Brady also is guilty of being, as he once put it, a terrible loser. But that’s not an excuse. As Newton said, “Who likes to lose?” No one. Being a good loser is about handling the agony of defeat like an adult rather than like a petulant child.
Newton also defiantly stated that his job is “not a popularity contest. I'm here to win football games.” It’s worth reminding him that while he may be paid the big bucks to win those games, in one respect it is most definitely a popularity contest as well: Newton is a very public figure and a role model, and popularity is a significant part of that larger responsibility. No matter how talented you are, arrogance and petulance are not the mark of a good man. They are not admirable traits or the qualities of a leader. And as the quarterback, Newton is the team leader.
Some argue that sports stars shouldn’t be role models for our children. Yes, ideally our children should be looking up to, and emulating, the good men and women in their lives: parents, teachers, religious leaders, etc. But there’s no denying that actors and athletes are the prominent faces of our celebrity-driven culture. Their seductive influence is vast and largely unavoidable. Whether Cam Newton likes it or not, as a pro NFL quarterback he is the ambassador for the team, and as the league’s 2015 Most Valuable Player, he is an ambassador for the sport itself, and will be for years to come since he is likely destined to rack up endorsements and Super Bowl rings. He is a role model whether he chooses to be or not; the only choice remaining to him is whether he will be a good one or a bad one.
Interestingly, on Super Bowl Sunday Cam did demonstrate the sort of good role model he could be and should aspire to. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said that immediately after the game, “Cam could not have been nicer to me. He was extremely humble. He congratulated me, wished me the best.” Good for him. That’s the Cam Newton our culture and our youth desperately need.
As for the subsequent press conference walkout, Newton’s coach Ron Rivera defended his player’s childish post-game behavior, saying that “he is still growing and maturing as a man in this world.” Fair enough. Cam Newton is young and immature and an extraordinarily blessed athlete who doesn’t yet know how to bear that gift with humility. But if I may paraphrase lines from Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” Newton needs to learn to meet with victory and defeat, and treat those two impostors just the same. Then he’ll be a man.
From Acculturated, 2/11/14