Even if you're not a football fan, there's plenty of reason to tune into the Super Bowl on Sunday. Lady Gaga's singing the national anthem, Coldplay and Beyoncé will be at the halftime show, and it's the league's 50th anniversary of the big game, which means that it's pulling out all the stops to celebrate.
And there's also this little fact: The on-field match-up between Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos and Cam Newton's Carolina Panthers is a referendum on how the league, and its fans, deal with race.
In the lead up to the Super Bowl, Newton has spoken frankly about how discussions of race have colored perceptions of his play. "I'm an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people," Newton said after winning the NFC Championship game. "[B]ecause they haven't seen nothing that they can compare me to."
Who they can compare him to are icons like Manning, who's often described as stoic and studious.
It's an age-old comparison: White players are praised for their intellect, while black players are known for their athleticism.
The truth is, you need a good balance of both to be a player of any significance. Manning has endured an unreal level of physicality, including four neck surgeries, to continue playing the game. Newton, like any player at his level, has to rely on more than his physical gifts to steer his team past 15 opposing defenses. Black quarterbacks are just as capable as white ones at mastering the physical and intellectual rigor of football at its highest level.
Manning is football royalty. He is an 18-year league veteran whose trophy case already boasts one Super Bowl MVP and virtually every other accolade available to an NFL quarterback. His father, Archie, was a star quarterback with the New Orleans Saints in the 1970s; his brother, Eli, has quarterbacked the New York Giants to two Super Bowls in 10 years. Each summer, they host the famed Manning Passing Academy, which brings together the nation's top high school quarterback prospects, according to its website, to help "players fully realize their potential on and off of the football field."
That's certainly something Newton has done this season. He's playing in his first Super Bowl after quarterbacking his team to the league's best overall record, 15-1. He's also had a blast doing it. His signature on-field celebration became so popular that it made its way to people's T-shirts:
This showmanship has also garnered criticism. One white mother from Tennessee wrote him an open letter to complain about watching Newton at a game with her daughter. "You have amazing talent and an incredible platform to be a role model for them," she told Newton. "Unfortunately, what you modeled for them today was egotism, arrogance and poor sportsmanship."
That letter went viral, in part because it typified the type of scorn that's shadowed Newton's career. He came into the league in 2011 after a successful, but controversial, college career. A middle-class kid from the suburbs of Atlanta, Newton was originally a backup for the University of Florida until he was accused of stealing another student's laptop. He left, played one year in junior college in Texas and transferred to Auburn University, where he led the Tigers amid a scandal in which his father allegedly solicited tens of thousands of dollars from schools that wanted to sign his son.
Throughout it all, Newton smiled, he danced and, most importantly, he won. He won a national championship, a Heisman trophy for college's best player, and he was selected first overall in the NFL Draft.
It's because of his on-field dominance that everything he does off of it has been so scrutinized. When he announced that he and his longtime girlfriend had a son, some critics blasted him for having a child out of wedlock. One person, a man who only identified himself as Thomas, wrote in to the Charlotte Observer to complain. "Cam is a role model to many of our young males, both white and black," Thomas wrote. "The least that he and his longtime girlfriend could have done is to get married prior to giving birth to show his followers that not only is he a superstar, but also a person with high morals."
A black woman named Jade Boudwin eventually spoke up in the comments. "Why are black athletes crucified for every damn thing they do or don't do? No one has posed this question to or condemned Tom Brady for the same thing."
Meanwhile, Seattle Seahawks fans drew up a petition to ban Newton from their home stadium because they thought he's too arrogant. In November, a Tennessee mother's open letter was littered with racially coded language. "The chest puffs. The pelvic thrusts. The arrogant struts and the 'in your face' taunting of both the Titans' players and fans. We saw it all," she wrote about watching a game against the Titans with her daughter. "I refuse to believe you don't realize you are a role model."
But it doesn't faze Newton. He's been having too much fun playing a position that has never been hospitable to black men. The black quarterbacks who have played before him have, by and large, done so without much emotion. Sure, there are plenty who've had recent success, like the Seahawks' Russell Wilson winning a Super Bowl in 2014, or Robert Griffin III's incredible rookie season in 2012. Tony Dungy, Manning's longtime coach with his former team, the Indianapolis Colts, is known for being one of the most successful black coaches in the league. But when he tried to enter it as a player in the late 1970s as a quarterback, he was swiftly moved to the defense.
"For so many guys in my era, that was just how it went," Dungy later said. "[Teams] would say, 'Hey, you can play in the NFL but it's going to be a position change. Or you can go to Canada and play quarterback because the style of the game kind of fits what you do.' And that's what happened in the '70s and '80s."
Warren Moon starred as a quarterback in the 1980s for the Houston Oilers. He has gone to extreme lengths to try to explain the double standard that's used to judge black quarterbacks versus their white counterparts.
"How come they just can't let it go?" Moon said about Newton's critics. "If he hasn't done anything [recently] that's been against the law or anything that would cause negative publicity, isn't out in the world doing something wrong except for just dancing after a touchdown, I mean what is the big deal?"
The big deal is that he's having fun shattering people's expectations of what's possible and inviting us to have fun while we watch.