RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There's very little that's understated about Carolina Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton. At 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, he has the athleticism of both a quarterback and a linebacker. He's known for his elaborate celebration dances and his wild fashion off the field. And he has good reason to be confident. He's a top contender to be this season's most valuable player. On Sunday, he will be one of only a handful of African-American quarterbacks to start in a Super Bowl. Yet his flashiness has been met with criticism. He's been called arrogant, a bad role model and it's led some to wonder whether the harsh reaction is actually about his race. At a press conference Wednesday, Newton touched on the subject.
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CAM NEWTON: You know, I'm an African-American quarterback. That may scare a lot of people because they - they haven't seen nothing that they can compare me to.
MONTAGNE: We've got Washington Post sports columnist Kevin Blackistone on the line to talk with us. Welcome.
KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Thank you very much.
MONTAGNE: Now, how true is that that we have never seen anything like Cam Newton?
BLACKISTONE: Well, I don't think we've ever seen anything like Cam Newton in the sense of this time and era, a black athlete who is not fearful of talking about race and how he believes he's been perceived. You know, he kind of represents I think the urban black male almost that you see in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. You look at the commercial that he has now in which he has a rap song by the rapper 2 Chainz in the background, and he's flexing. So I think in that sense he's right. And there may be some people - and we know there are some people - who've been uncomfortable with his style of histrionics on the field. But there's been a long history of I think misinterpreting the actions of black athletes on the field in a way that no other athletes have to suffer.
MONTAGNE: Of course, no other athletes, but you have to add into this the quarterback because there has...
MONTAGNE: ...Been historically a stereotype of a quarterback. Just briefly, what would that be that he is not perhaps to some people?
BLACKISTONE: Well, I think that, you know, there's been a suggestion over the years that because the quarterback position is the leadership role, the CEO role on the field for football teams that they have to look and perform in a certain way. And in fact, a former colleague of mine wrote about this a few years ago when he was dismayed at how Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the 49ers looked with all of his - all of his tattoos. That image we thought we had imploded over the years by the success of black quarterbacks over time but apparently it hasn't. And so you see what happened to Cam Newton just this year, where a white mother from Tennessee who was at one of his games publicly criticized his histrionics and called him egotistical and a poor role model. And then even later this year, when Cam Newton that he and his longtime girlfriend had had a baby, there were letters to the editor in Charlotte which criticized his birth for being out of wedlock and for somehow suggesting that he was a poor role model in America that was leading to its decay.
MONTAGNE: Well, Kevin, we're going to have to leave it at that. And more to talk about on this one, but Washington Post sports columnist Kevin Blackistone, thank you.
BLACKISTONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.