CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The last time Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton shared a stage, they sang Katy Perry’s “Roar” while surrounded by two dozen kids as they hosted Cartoon Network’s 2014 Hall of Game Awards show. Neither one can sing well, but Newton belted out the chorus to the hit song while a more reserved Kaepernick struggled to find the tune. A month earlier, Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers had beaten Newton’s Panthers to reach their second straight NFC Championship Game while Newton began his postseason career 0–1.
More than two years later, on Sunday, they’ll share the stage again. Newton, the reigning MVP and one of the faces of the NFL, will stand beside his head coach on the sideline at the 50 during the national anthem. Kaepernick will take a knee alongside teammate Eric Reid. Newton will start against the 49ers, and Kaepernick may not play.
Neither one will host an awards show like that again. Newton’s star is so bright now that his minimum threshold for show-hosting duties is something like the ESPYs. Kaepernick’s star has shifted so dramatically that an awards show with such levity wouldn’t be appropriate.
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In the past month, both men have gained and both men have lost. Kaepernick has estranged many—fans and non-fans, teammates and former players—for his stance on racial injustice and inequality. He’s been called unpatriotic. The n-word. Both.
He’s gained a newer, stronger base of support among people of all races, though, as evidenced by his jersey sales skyrocketing since his protest became international news. By kneeling, Kaepernick has driven the conversation about the inequities facing blacks, prompting many to consider their thoughts on the flag, the national anthem and how to donate money and time to the cause.
Eight months ago, when Newton said he was an “African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people,” he may have shunned a certain demographic. Now he’s endeared them. They say his recent rhetoric on race is doing more to unite us than others. But by saying in an interview to GQ in August that we, as a nation, are beyond racism, and further questioning (confusingly) how one-eighth of an inch of skin can cause so much disharmony, Newton has drawn great backlash from the black community. The criticisms have ranged from fair deconstruction of his comments to some of the ugliest things black people can say to one another.
Now, Kaepernick is the one belting out a roar, and Newton is the one trying to find the right notes.
I’ve been to just about every Cam Newton press conference since the start of the 2012 season, and I don’t believe I’ve asked him a question about race in three years. It hasn’t felt appropriate for me. If Cam wants to talk about race, he’ll bring it up like he did to GQ. And in the absence of that, I may use race and culture to contextualize Cam when he flaunts his blackness or is criticized because of it. But the idea of race relating to Newton has been simmering for years.
Here’s what I know Newton has said and done in recent years: He spoke out in favor of the Confederate flag coming down at the South Carolina statehouse in 2015, saying it was a “triumph” to see that “symbol that represented so much hatred come down.” He visited families of the victims of the Charleston shootings with no media attention. The Cam Newton Foundation has donated more than half a million dollars to schools and children athletic programs in the past five years, and is currently working on a cultural relevancy program that will bring children from different cultural backgrounds together for various experiences they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to. There can be no criticism of Newton not “going out into the communities” to try to help.
Though I’m not asking these questions of Newton, others are. During Super Bowl week he was asked about his comments and said he believed the stereotypes around black quarterbacks had been shattered long ago. It was clear Newton didn’t want to deal with the heavy topic of race leading up to the biggest week of his life, and few would blame him.
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His first lengthy interview following the Super Bowl, not accidentally, went to Ebony. He told the magazine in an article about the “Black(est) Panther” that he did not regret his pre-Super Bowl comments. “I’m not so egotistical that I can’t admit when I’ve made a mistake,” Newton said. “But what you’re not about to sit up here and make me do is apologize for saying what I felt.”
Race has played a role in some, if not most, of the criticism Newton has received over the years. He said it in January and he said it again to the nation’s most recognizable black publication. But since then, something has changed, and Newton has been operating under the politics of respectability and colorblindness.
Part of the shift has to do with GOP pollster and PR advisor Frank Luntz. Luntz has worked with the Panthers before—Deadspin outlined some of his work with them and Cam Newton in a piece from 2014, which included, as the article says, “a campaign to enhance the image of several players and the organization.” He was called in (by whom is unclear) this off-season to help Newton frame discussions on race among other topics, according to sources close to Newton. (Newton’s camp denies this.) Luntz, who declined comment on this story through a spokeswoman, is often credited with prompting the phrase “climate change” rather than global warming and helping Newt Gingrich with his 1990s “Contract With America.”
It’s also not hard to see where he stands on Kaepernick’s recent protests.
Newton clearly didn’t want to talk about race in that summer interview with GQ—the interviewer himself said as much. In an interview with ESPN before last Thursday’s opener in Denver, Newton seemed baffled as to why the color of one’s skin makes us so divided despite the mountains of evidence compiled over centuries of just why that has come to be.
Stephen A. Smith, in a polished 15-minute response, deconstructed Newton’s post-racial rhetoric. Regularly controversial, Smith did so while not necessarily blaming the quarterback for saying these things, but also posited that these comments could be a matter of protecting Newton’s brand.
Newton also did an interview with Charlotte TV station WCCB before the Denver game that got much less publicity than his other comments. Here he addressed police brutality.
“It’s not just police killing black people it’s…people make mistakes. People make mistakes often,” Newton told the station. “No matter the color, no matter the age, no matter the size or what have you. In my community, it’s people that’s killing people. And that’s all across America. So it’s not a point in time where I just don’t want to fingerpoint and hold this specific entity up to a standard that we’re all not living up to.
“Do I think it’s right? No. But I just think we all, as a whole, should be better. You know? And I don’t think skin color, I don’t think culture status, should kind of alienate certain people from others. That’s just not something that I believe in. I believe in treating everybody right.”
A black woman in Raleigh told me in July that her husband wouldn’t allow their son to wear Newton’s jersey anymore “because he turned his back on his people.” That was, comparatively, a mild reaction. Fans took to his Twitter and Instagram accounts to air their grievances with the blackest Panther. Some comments were along the lines of “don’t forget you’re black” while others were far nastier, as the Internet is wont to be.
Possibly inspired by this year’s O.J. Simpson TV series and ESPN documentary—“I’m not black, I’m O.J.”—observers linked Newton’s comments to the same colorblind rhetoric Simpson espoused when he got the endorsements few black men could during and after his career. He was called an Uncle Tom and a coon. Several people called him Ruckus or Uncle Ruckus, references to a character in the cartoon Boondocks who hates that he’s black.
“You just sold out for all the black people. Smh,” one commenter wrote. “Just say, I don’t want to f*** up my check, my contract, my career. Just say it!!!”
Newton sees some of these comments. He told WCCB that he doesn’t look at the comments every day, but eventually it’s something that he does. And yes, sometimes the comments hurt.
“I’m no different than anybody else,” Newton said. “You slap me, pinch me, hurt, me, it’s gonna hurt. Talk or say anything, it’s gonna hurt. I’m still human.”
The Panthers are now a game into the regular season and it’s all football for Newton. On Wednesday, the league MVP wasn’t lobbying for the league to protect his brain or for social change or for anything that wasn’t a Panthers’ victory on Sunday.
“I’m so focused about the 49ers,” said Newton, when asked about athletes speaking on social issues. “I understand that that’s a big issue that’s going on not only in sports and entertainment but also in America. Right now, my focus is on trying to get to 1–1.”
It’s fair to note the differences between Newton and Kaepernick’s geographic locations. Newton was born in Georgia, played college ball in Alabama and plays professionally in North Carolina, which has been a blue state just once in a presidential election since 1980. Employers, concerts and sporting events are leaving the state due to the discriminatory House Bill 2. In July, a federal appeals court struck down the state’s new voter ID law by saying it disproportionately targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” This is not the Bay Area, where Kaepernick protests and where Charlotte’s son Stephen Curry voices his support for Kap.
No fewer than 17 players have joined Kaepernick in his protest since it first appeared all over the news three weeks ago. Some players have knelt during the anthem like Kaepernick, while others have raised their fists during and after the anthem.
Both the Seahawks and Chiefs did a we-are-the-world-type unity showing, which is more of a kum ba ya protest, but still a protest of sorts. By linking arms to show unity, players on both teams are implicitly stating there is a lack of, and need for, unity.
There are people burning Kaepernick jerseys in what can only be seen as an attempt to garner more Facebook shares than the other people who filmed themselves burning a Kaepernick jersey. Speaking of his jersey, the 49ers sold more Kaepernick gear in one week following his protest than in the eight months before it, and he’s promised to put the proceeds of his jersey sales and $1 million of his salary “back into the communities.” San Francisco owner Jed York promised to match Kaepernick’s donation.
There have been missteps along the way. His Fidel Castro shirt was tasteless. The socks showing officers as pigs were bad, and made Kaepernick appear less informed than he is on the topic of police brutality. He was heckled in his home stadium Monday night for kneeling. There’s no doubt there will be resentment this week in Charlotte and in future weeks.
North Carolina is the third-most populous state when it comes to military members. The Panthers are the NFL’s first Purple Heart team. During a first-half timeout of every game, the stadium honors seven servicemen and women sitting in its Row of Honor while playing God Bless The USA.
This past weekend, just 45 minutes west of Charlotte in Shelby, N.C., a former policeman of the year was shot and killed, allegedly by a black man, when serving a warrant. Officer Tim Brackeen’s funeral is scheduled for Friday, hours before Kaepernick gets to Charlotte and two days before he kneels.
Kaepernick’s protest condemns police violence against people of color and the lack of justice after the fact, but it also decries this type of violence against officers. Outside of questions over a presidential candidate’s health or whether half of the other candidate’s supporters are deplorable, Kaepernick’s kneeling has been the biggest talking point in America.
But if Kaepernick’s lack of play on the field doesn’t lose him his job first, there’s little hope that he’ll be given another chance in a league run mostly by white, male, vocal patriots.
Back in June, Kaepernick had an odd interaction with a fan that didn’t have anything to do with race or his social activism. This was before he ever took a knee and before Newton’s comments on race would be published.
A clearly impaired fan stops just short of accosting Kaepernick at a Los Angeles hotel in a video sent to TMZ. He wants Kaepernick to reclaim the glory he had in 2013 and wants him to be the player Cam Newton has since become.
“I believe that you’re going to restore that power that you once exuded,” the fan says. “God was with you that year, right? Took you all the way, right? You’ve got that power again. And I need you to be disciplined.”
Kaepernick grits his teeth and smiles back. “I’ve always had that power.”
“You’re as great as Cam Newton, and Cam Newton is great,” the fan continued.
“You’re greater, bro,” voice from behind the camera shouts even louder.
Kaepernick, still indulging the fan, shakes his head softly.
“We ain’t the same person,” he said.
“You think you’re better than him?” the man continued.
“I didn’t say that,” Kaepernick said. “I said we’re not alike.”