Cam Newton and Stephen Curry are very similar athletes in terms of demeanor both on the field/court and off. In the game, both players are very loud and confident. When Newton scores a touchdown he dances and dabs before finding a fan in the crowd to hand the ball to. When Curry hits a 35 foot three he runs down the court dancing and holding three fingers up into the sky.
Away from game competition, the two MVP’s behave quite different from their in-game personas. They stay out of drama, do a lot of charity work, and always talk up their role as team members rather than individual superstars. Both are in committed relationships with young children.
So why do we treat Cam and Steph so differently?
Despite Steph Curry’s antics on the floor, from staring opposing players down after a made shot to holding up 7 fingers to the Oklahoma City Thunder crowd at the end of the Warriors improbable game 6 win, the fans adore him. Steph’s popularity still hasn’t surpassed that of players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, but his approval ratings have. Steph Curry is the most universally adored player since Michael Jordan.
Cam Newton’s popularity, on the other hand, comes with controversy. While many love Cam’s revolution of the quarterback position and on field persona, others are turned off by his perceived cockiness. Many label Newton as “arrogant” and some even go as far as calling him a “thug,” a title that is never mentioned when fans and the media discuss Stephen Curry. Newton’s popularity is notably split among racial lines. 81 percent of non-white fans approve of Cam Newton, while only 46 percent of white fans do, according to a study conducted by Public Policy Polling.
Both Newton and Curry were embroiled in controversy during their respective 2016 championship runs. Curry lost his cool in game 6 after fouling out in the waning stages of the game. Curry took his mouth guard out and threw it while screaming at an official, hitting a courtside fan and earning Curry a technical foul. A visibly upset Cam Newton cut his post-game press conference short and walked out after losing in the Super Bowl to Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos.
The media and public reactions to the two incidents were noticeably different. Curry was commonly portrayed as simply showing his competitive fire. Questionable calls had been going against him all night, and his competitive spirit got the best of him. The message in the media fell along one central theme: We all make mistakes.
Cam Newton didn’t get the same benefit of the doubt in the eye of the media and public after he walked out of the press conference. Cam Newton was depicted as a diva who was acting unprofessionally. He should’ve stepped up and been a man, not a cry baby. The central message in the media was quite different: Grow up and act like you’ve been there before.
But Cam hasn’t been there before. He’s been to the playoffs three times with the Panthers, and the 2015-2016 was his first trip to the Super Bowl. The Panthers were the best team in the NFL, and one of the best in history, finishing the season with a record of 15-1. After being the best player on one of the best teams in history, Newton fell to Peyton Manning and the Broncos 24-10. Cam was defeated on the biggest stage, a stage he had never reached before. It’s unsurprising he wasn’t ultra-composed in the manner that a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning would have been.
Steph has been there before. He won the MVP in the 2015 season and his team beat the Cavaliers in six games in the finals. He understands the pressure of the NBA’s biggest stage, yet he still lost his cool. Furthermore, Steph’s offense was much worse. Cam was bombarded with questions from the press and after two minutes he left, unable to handle the situation. Steph fouled out of a game that was already decided, took the mouth guard out of his mouth, and hit a fan with it. He proceeded to continue yelling at the officials while his teammates dragged him to the sidelines.
It seems like the response from the media and public should have been the opposite. We should’ve been saying that Cam’s emotions just got the best of him, and that Steph should have acted like he’s been there before. But that wasn’t the narrative. NBA fans almost universally approve of and respect Steph despite his behavior on the court, while Cam comes with an incredible amount of controversy.
The reasoning behind our difference in reactions to Cam and Steph likely lies in their background. Cam Newton grew up in College Park, Georgia, a rough neighborhood with the highest crime rate in the state. His skin is dark, he talks with a traditionally black southern accent, and he wears hoodies and backwards hats.
Steph Curry’s background is quite different. The son of a former NBA star, Curry grew up in suburban Charlotte, North Carolina. Steph attended a private Christian high school and never had to struggle for money. His skin is light, he’s “well-spoken,” and he has a beautiful smiling wife and cute kids. In other words, he’s palatable to white America.
As a result, when Steph Curry hits a three and then runs down the court dancing and staring down the opposing team’s bench, we as a country see it as endearing. He’s a competitive athlete showing the world how talented he is. The mistakes he makes are just that, and he can be easily be forgiven. When Cam Newton dives into the endzone and stands up to dance and dab, we see him as an arrogant jerk. The mistakes he makes are part of who he is as a person, and that can never change.
But it’s not just Steph and Cam, these racial divides go back a long time. Athletes like Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, Michael Vick, and Carmelo Anthony were given the unshakable label of “thug” before their careers even began. The NFL has always elevated white players to be the face of the league, from Tom Brady to Clay Matthews to JJ Watt. Even today, after Cam taking a team to 18-1 and winning the MVP, JJ Watt is still the guy getting all the late show and advertisement gigs. Tom Brady is the NFL’s ‘classy competitor’ while Cam Newton is the exciting player that is ‘unapologetically black.’
Although America claims to love a good rags to riches story we elevate players like Stephen Curry and Peyton Manning, who have always been part of the one percent, over players like LeBron James who came from a dirt poor single parent household and worked hard to become the world’s most dominant athlete. Sports are a very small component of the racial divide in America, but they tell us a lot about who we are as a country.