Conventional Perception of Leadership Driving Negative Opinions of Cam Newton

The two week lead up to the Super Bowl typically gives enough time for those in the sports media to dwell on seemingly every possible angle before the big game. Usually one or maybe a couple of stories dominate the headlines and sports talk shows. Among those big stories this year seems to be the constant asking of why such a large portion of sports fans across the country hate Carolina Panther’s Quarterback Cam Newton. There appears to be no one clear answer, though several theories persist.

Newton is frequently seen in celebratory mode after scoring touchdowns. His dance routines following scores seem to be what rubs so many people the wrong way. Celebrating in this way is thought to be arrogant and unnecessary by those who criticize him. But if we dig deeper, we see that there are many more layers to Newton’s dislike than merely attributing it to his post-TD rituals.

Unsurprisingly, race has been tossed out by some as a reason for the abundance of Newton’s disfavor. According to this theory, many people don’t like the way Newton conducts himself in celebration because of certain stereotypes that still surround blacks in America. A somewhat related claim has also been made about the urban culture (which applies to some, but not all American blacks) that Newton represents and how it is something that the rest of America has difficulty relating to. But both of these claims fail to address why there isn’t similar disdain for wide receivers and running backs who often dance and express an abundance of emotion after scoring touchdowns. After all, not only is the NFL roughly 2/3 black, but the wide receiver and running back positions are dominated by blacks to an even greater degree. Why would race and culture fuel a resentment of Newton, but not other players who are so frequently of the same race and background?

Much of the answer to that question lies in the position in which Newton has had so much success. Quarterbacks are often referred to as “the face of their team” and even more often as the team’s “leader.” Different standards are applied to leaders than those they lead. Many people prefer leaders to be more reserved emotionally. This gives the perception of a more “grounded” leader who is thought to not let his emotions get the best of him. While others may be off dancing and celebrating, the leader is imagined to be calmer and more level headed in order to deal with the added pressures that come from his job. Thus, when these people see Newton showing the kind of emotion he shows, it flies in the face of what they perceive leadership to look like.

The image of a less emotional and more stoic leader doesn’t just persist in the sports world, but in Hollywood as well. In the climactic scene of the 1995 movie Apollo 13, when it first becomes apparent that the main characters have made it safely back to earth, seemingly everyone in the movie seems to be erupting with emotion by clapping, shouting, hugging, or doing a variety of all three. However, the NASA flight Director (played by Ed Harris) doesn’t do any of these things. He shows a bit of relief as he slumps down into his chair exhausted. This character’s lack of emotion is not by accident. The film’s director, Ron Howard, knew the way he wanted the character to act at the moment that those he led were celebrating. His subdued emotion exemplifies his status as a leader that much of the viewing audience could relate to. Many other movies also portray a leader with these near emotionless characteristics that remain even in times of celebration for other characters that they supervise.

All of this leads us back to Newton and why people are so uncomfortable with the way he celebrates success. Here we have a quarterback and leader of his team showing just as much if not even more emotion than that of the players he leads. Those who don’t like this characteristic of Newton will also find it unsettling that his team has been wildly successful this year despite his unconventional leadership style. If Carolina were a bad or mediocre team, then the narrative would be that Newton could have more success if he were less concerned with dancing and celebrating and more concerned with helping his team win. Well, despite all of that dancing and celebrating, Newton’s team has won more games than any other NFL team this season.

Thanks to Newton, the public may be forced to change the way it perceives NFL quarterbacks and the dynamics of leadership that they provide. Rather than being seen as a negative or a detriment to their team, celebrating in the way that Newton does tells us that leaders can show this kind of emotion and still be considered elite in their position. Future NFL quarterbacks displaying this kind of flair may be favorably compared to Newton rather than being maligned as unserious distractions. But it’s difficult to be among the first top tier quarterbacks to exhibit this kind of unconventionality. Those similar to Newton who come after him might have an easier go of it.