Let's Stop Emotion Shaming Cam Newton

In the wake of the Carolina Panthers Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos, Cam Newton, once again, finds himself on the receiving end of harsh criticism. Michael Powell of The New York Times called him "short on leadership" while countless others berated him on Twitter. The problem? Newton, shattered by his loss to the Broncos in Super Bowl 50, walked out of a press conference after giving cursory answers. 

As he has done all season, Newton showed the world how it feels to be Cam Newton. On Sunday, he showed us how it feels to lose a Super Bowl, just as he showed us how it feels to lead a team to a near-perfect season. After his loss, his ebullience and unadulterated joy was replaced by intense disappointment, shock and a sense of loss. The man was in no mood to talk, and he didn't hide it.

Newton has been called arrogant and immature for how he has expressed himself in both victory and loss. Steven A. Smith tweeted that Newton should man up. Apparently, it is not the mark of a grown man to express joy after victory, and devastating disappointment in the face of defeat.

Humans are capable of experiencing a full range of emotion, and the experience and expression of those emotions varies from individual to individual. If Newton dances when he is happy and sulks when he is sad, it is not a sign of immaturity or arrogance. Our emotional responses are what make us unique. The alternative is emotional inhibition, plasticity, and disingenuous stoicism. 

Newton's brand of emotional expression is kinetic -- dancing, gesticulating, smiling and yes, even sulking, grimacing and leaving a press conference. It is also authentic. Newton is filled with joy when he wins, and visibly distressed when he loses. His pattern of emotional expression has been consistent throughout his career, yet he has been called a fake in the media from the time he was considered a first-round prospect in the 2011 draft.

Cam Newton has become a scapegoat for our discomfort with the broad spectrum human emotion. He also is an easy target for those who like to judge, evaluate and label. Panthers cornerback Josh Norman responded to the Super Bowl loss with tears. Apparently, the vast majority of armchair analysts found his response to be acceptable, even endearing. Why was Norman's expression of grief accepted while Newton's irritability, dejection and self-protectiveness criticized?

In ancient Greek mythology, there was room for heroes to experience and display intense emotion. In book XVIII of the Iliad, Achilles was so distressed and his lamentations so loud after the death of Patroclus that sea-nymphs came to comfort him. In Apollonius of Rhodes' account of the Argonautica, Hercules becomes completely immobilized by grief when Hylas, his male love interest, is kidnapped by water nymphs. His expression of grief is so intense that he misses the boat, literally, and does not join the rest of the Argonauts on their journey. (Hence, we have Jason and the Argonauts, not Hercules and the Argonauts.) Likewise, after the death of Hephaestion, Alexander the Great was said to be despondent, flinging himself on the body of his closest companion, according to the ancient author Arrian of Nicodemia.

The legacies of Achilles, Hercules, and Alexander the Great were not at all tainted by their intense display of emotions (nor, in the case of Hercules, his sexuality). Both, millennia later, are still revered heroes, considered both brave and noble. 

In the intervening years, there have been innumerable examples of public displays of emotion. What is astounding about Cam Newton on Sunday is not his reaction to his team's loss. It is that everyone from NFL analysts to housewives on social media saw fit to evaluate Newton's reaction. Some provided harsh criticism, while others made excuses. Nearly everyone became an arbiter and judge of emotional propriety, debating and discussing it as if his disappointment were the most infamous play of Super Bowl XLIX, when the New England Patriots snatched victory from the jaws of defeat at the end of the game.

Newton is a multidimensional man. The same qualities that make Newton an exciting football player are the same qualities that have generated judgement and criticism. His competitiveness, passion for the game, impulsiveness and sense of invulnerability helped make him the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year for 2016. They are also the same characteristics that spawn his joy-driven celebrations when he wins, and taciturn suffering after a demoralizing loss. 

The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are inextricably linked to athletic contests. In fact, the very word "agony" is derived from agon, the ancient Greek word for contest. Hence, Newton's reaction to his team's defeat was not unusual or dysfunctional. Contests often involve agony.

There is no right way to react to a Super Bowl loss, just as there is no right way to react to a thrilling victory. Fans and the media should be more tolerant and accepting of Newton's feelings instead of judging and labeling him.

Emotions are neither "good" or "bad," they are simply part of the human condition. Let's save our evaluation of Cam Newton to his performance on the football field, not the way he experiences and expresses his emotions.

This post first appeared on Behind the Steel Curtain.