I promise you this won’t be another opinion about whether the Carolina Panthers should draft Cam Newton.
Not that I don’t have an opinion. It’s just that The Great Cam Debate already has orbited out of control, dominating everything from local watering holes to office water coolers to talk-radio broadcasts. So I’ll spare you that perspective this week.
But that doesn’t mean this situation isn’t on the brink of turning into one of the most divisive issues in Charlotte sports history.
In the 75 years of the NFL Draft, has anyone ever been more of a catalyst for verbal sparring than Newton, the uniquely gifted Auburn University quarterback?
The only thing that comes close in recent history is 1998, when the nation was captivated by the question of whether the Indianapolis Colts should select Tennessee’s Peyton Manning or Washington State’s Ryan Leaf with the No. 1 pick. But even in Indy, the talk wasn’t “the Colts had better draft this guy” or “they better not choose this dude.” It genuinely was mostly about which guy was the best fit for the team.
The Great Cam Debate in Charlotte is waaaay different.
Around here, no one seems to be indifferent about whether the Panthers should choose Newton with the first overall pick when the 2011 draft begins April 28 in New York’s Radio City Music Hall; either you’re lobbying for it, or you’re vehemently against it. To heck with middle ground. Some fans even seem to be willing to base their future allegiance to the Panthers on whether or not the team selects Newton.
The unfortunate part is that the views haven’t been formed entirely on football factors such as Newton’s passing ability.
It’s become an all-out referendum on the 21-year-old’s character, work ethic, family background and overall intelligence. And that uncharted territory for a potential top draft pick has inspired some to loathe the idea of selecting Newton and offended others to the point that they sense racial overtones in the public’s evaluation of Newton as a quarterback.
The whole thing really has the makings of an ugly draft night in Charlotte, when it should be the opposite for a city whose team has the No. 1 overall pick.
Why does it seem the city has drawn the proverbial line in the sand when it comes to the reigning Heisman Trophy winner?
Brentson Buckner, who was a defensive lineman on the worst Panthers team (the 2001 squad that went 1-15) and the best Carolina team (the 2003 bunch that reached the Super Bowl) believes it’s because the gap between the fan base is widening after the Panthers went 2-14 last year.
“(The Newton debate) is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and I think it’s because the fan base is really split during what is a transitional time here,” Buckner said. “A lot of young people are growing up becoming business people that started coming to the (Panthers) games as more of a jet-setting-type crowd that likes the young flashiness and excitement that Cam Newton brings. And then the people who the Panthers were really brought here for – the older crowd, or the old money, as I like to call it – still like the traditional way.
“But if you look at this team, it was so horrible, and people are just grasping. The young crowd is like, ‘Give me some excitement at the games.’ Or you’ve got the old people who say, ‘Let me see the team built the right way, with a traditional quarterback, and hopefully we can get back.’”
There’s a segment of Panther nation that questions Newton’s ability to grasp an NFL offense because he played in a Spread-based scheme in college. There are people who simply don’t think he’s smart enough. Some folks don’t want Newton because they feel his past is too checkered – thanks to an arrest for possessing a stolen laptop (charges were later dropped), allegations that he faced expulsion from the University of Florida because of academic cheating, and the fact that his father attempted to have college teams pay to secure his son’s name on a National Letter of Intent.
The intelligence question doesn’t sit well with some African-Americans, including me, who believe it teeters dangerously on those old days when folks believed people of color didn’t have the mental aptitude to play quarterback or middle linebacker in the NFL. After all, have Auburn or Florida coaches intimated that Newton wasn’t smart enough to learn their playbooks? Have fans seen his SAT scores? Has he been academically ineligible?
No, not every African-American wants the Panthers to draft Newton. And there isn’t some grand scheme by all 445,250 white people in Mecklenburg County to keep Newton out of Bank of America Stadium. But it’s hard to believe that many folks haven’t paid particularly close attention to the fact that Newton could become just the third black quarterback to be taken No. 1 overall, joining JaMarcus Russell (2007) and Michael Vick (2001).
“(Newton’s) been more scrutinized than anybody I’ve ever seen at this position,” Buckner said. “I’ve seen his answers to questions get scrutinized in a different way from other quarterbacks, just because of who he is. I’m not going to say it’s because of the color of his skin, because I don’t think it’s racism. But I do think it’s blind prejudice.
“I saw (ESPN analyst) Jon Gruden ask him ‘How does it make you feel when you hear the critics?’ (Newton) said, ‘Well, it fuels me. It makes me just go out there and work harder.’ Good answer! Who doesn’t use fuel? Jerry Rice used that same fuel when he was coming out of Mississippi Valley State and people said, ‘You can’t play NFL football.’ Joe Montana used it when people said, ‘You’re too small. You can’t throw the ball 70 yards downfield.’
“But Cam Newton says it, and now we hear people on the radio saying, ‘Well, I don’t want anyone who just uses fuel, because you can’t play off emotion.’”
Sadly, The Great Cam Debate only seems to be worsening as draft night nears. And if the Panthers hold on to the No. 1 pick, no matter whom they select, there’s probably going to be a firestorm.
The ABCers – Anybody But Cam folks – will be ready to explode, be it in joy or outrage. The Cam or Bust contingent will be poised for a similar reaction. But the bigger issue is what happens with Panthers football.
Do Carolina supporters ultimately unite and embrace whomever the team selects? Or will this fester, further dividing an already-fractured fan base?
There’s a saying in sports: “Winning cures everything.” And after this draft night, the Panthers definitely will need to win sooner than later.