Cam Newton was the NFL's best and most distinctive quarterback this year. People got mad about it. With the Super Bowl looming, we've all entered the meta stage.
Illustration by J.O. Applegate
The great American worry has a thousand different angles and anxieties, but amounts to this—the fear that someone, somewhere, is getting something he doesn't deserve at a price below retail. This anxiety is sprawling enough to include both the estate tax and "Obamaphones," as well as the expected injustices relating to who gets to have sex and money and luck. It is both petty and vicious enough to enfold the belief that there are people that don't, strictly speaking, deserve comfort or shelter. Squint and stretch and this is about fairness, but also that's not quite it.
Worry comes from worry, and fundamentally this is less about wanting fairness for everyone than it is the sense that someone else, who invariably deserves it less, is getting something that is rightfully intended for you. You who work hard for what you have and deserve it, as opposed to the many, many other people who deserve it less. This is childish, obviously, and in its broader application is corrosive and dangerous and bad. It's also pretty unfair to Cam Newton, mostly because he is himself so unfair.
It's not that there's anything undeserved or unearned about how great Cam Newton has been this season. It's the greatness itself that's unfair, and the confluence of blessings that created that greatness. Newton throws the ball as fast and far as Aaron Rodgers and as accurately as Tom Brady, and has several inches of height and about 40 pounds of muscle on both of them. He is more or less the same size as Rob Gronkowski, and faster. Newton passed and ran for 45 touchdowns during the regular season, which is more than 21 teams—including the one he'll face in the Super Bowl—tallied all season long.
All of which is awesome on its face, but admittedly not that illuminating. There is no comparison that is really fair, here. There are non-football comparisons that work a little better—in terms of how much bigger and more multiply gifted he is than his peers, Newton is maybe the only comparison that makes sense for LeBron James; in terms of how much he has done to scramble longstanding expectations of what a single player can and can't do, Newton is the only living human in the same delirious universe as Stephen Curry. These comparisons don't quite work, either, but you are probably seeing the point. It's not that there isn't a fair comparison. It's that there isn't really one that even makes sense.
Play-by-play, and also for entire games, Cam Newton just absolutely trucks the NFL's most treasured pretenses and perceived best practices. The NFL has a very strong and very strange idea of what this league and this game are—war as a TV show, basically, pitched at the same level of doofily tumid purpose as a political campaign ad. Newton is playing a game that is both lighter and simpler than that. He is winning football games in a way that is more direct and forceful and altogether simpler than is supposed to be possible, and he is transparently enjoying the hell out of it and more or less insane with totally justified self-confidence. There is not a template for any of this, really. The only part of it that really feels familiar is how what Newton does winds up being about us, and the things we worry about.
The fantasy that the NFL sells is not being as strong or fast or handsome as Cam Newton but something darker, smaller, and considerably more anxious. The fantasy that the NFL sells is being Cam Newton's boss; it is about power, in the crudest you're-fired sense, much more than it is about strength. It would take a dedicated power-fetishist to get into the idea of being Jerry Richardson, the reactionary Sour Patch Billionaire that owns the Carolina Panthers, but the NFL's power fantasy expresses itself in other ways. This is usually a performance of dour and daddish disapproval at Newton's impertinence, or a steadfast unwillingness to forgive some perceived offense or other against the treasured clichés and cosmetic gentilities that Newton laughingly lays to waste in every game. Always, always, it comes back to the word "no," spoken sternly to an empty room or typed in furious little taps into some text box somewhere on the internet.
There is no polite or appropriate way to burn something down, of course, and as that's what Newton is about, there are necessarily going to be some people upset about it. This carping is absolutely racialized, in ways that are unconscious and unconscionable and just awe-inspiringly idiotic—the people so keen on telling Newton "no" have traditionally been a lot less so where equally brash non-black quarterbacks have been concerned. These people really exist, and they really are stupid, although surely it is telling (and pretty encouraging!) that they are so much harder to find than they used to be.
Nolan Nawrocki's hilariously negative scouting report on Newton, a masterpiece of dead-certain wrongness composed entirely in broad racial semaphore, appeared in Pro Football Weekly; Peter King regularly subjected him to Not Angry Just Disappointed concern-trolling in Sports Illustrated during Newton's early career. Now, the examples that do turn up are transparently the result of a thorough and determined search: a prissy letter to the editor, the echo-of-an-echo bleat from some eighth-tier radio mope, creatively punctuated tough talk in the Facebook comments. If this counter-performance—seeking out someone who has a bad opinion or is Mad On Line and then making sure that everyone knows you do not agree—is undeniably more admirable than the alternative, it's still a performance, and a silly one. There's nothing inherently recuperative about announcing how not-offended you are, just as scolding someone doesn't mean you're right.
But more to the point, what a waste. There is nothing that compels anyone to have an opinion beyond Cam Newton beyond Dude Sure Is Good At Football, and lord knows there is no rule that our conversations about football have to be held in the NFL's thumbheaded militaristic patois. It is definitely possible to have an uncomplicated experience of watching Cam Newton play football. There is nothing inherently polarizing about him, at least beyond the way in which all new things tend to make people nervous. And I think, although I can't know for sure, that most people that enjoy Cam Newton enjoy him are able to enjoy him in this way—as an amazing and outsized performer, and as a joyous virtuoso in a sport that tends strongly towards a humorless and self-serious lite authoritarianism. There is no need to bend this back towards bias, or to moralize a game that has never had anything to do with morality. This is the most uncomplicated way to watch Cam Newton play, but also the best. Let him set the game on fire, and then watch it burn. It doesn't have to be about anything but that.
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