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Cam Newton and the perils of being a sore loser

After his Carolina Panthers lost the Super Bowl on Sunday, NFL MVP Cam Newton pouted through the postgame news conference, giving petulant answers and walking out of the interview early. Two days later, he doubled down, channeling his inner Donald Trump by saying, "Who likes to lose? You show me a good loser and I'm going to show you a loser."

It was a particularly revealing episode about Newton's character. Especially because before the Super Bowl, Newton and some sportswriters raised the issue of whether racism motivated criticism that the star black quarterback has received. Last week, Newton was quoted on the cover of the New York Daily News, "I know why you hate me. I am an African-American quarterback that scares people because they haven't seen nothing that they can compare me to."

There may be a modicum of truth to Newton's claim of racism in fans who don't like him; unfortunately there will always be such small-minded people. But after what happened this week, perhaps a more important reason Cam Newton doesn't get respect is his lack of sportsmanship and character.

It was nothing to be ashamed of that he didn't play well against the formidable Denver Broncos defense; that defense, led by Super Bowl MVP Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, also humbled great quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady this season.

But it was a little more unsettling when Newton didn't fight for a fumble late in the game with the Panthers down less than a touchdown. In the regular season, this might be overlooked — but not in the Super Bowl. On this point, his reputation will eventually rest with his fellow players, some of whom weighed in immediately. Seattle Seahawks defender Frank Clark tweeted, "Respected this man's game until then" and "Crunch time he want grapes, I'm eating mud." Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin mocked Newton by claiming Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson would have gone for the football. Of note: Clark, Irvin and Wilson are all African-American.

But it was after the game that Newton left himself open to the most serious charge — of being a poor winner and a worse loser. All season long, while the Panthers were winning, Newton preened on the field. There are many other players who do that, and while some people may object, a certain amount of braggadocio and celebration enhances the enjoyment of the game.

Newton, however, took this a step further than most. After victories on the road, he would disrespect losing opponents by tearing their banners down in their home stadiums. He rationalized this breach of football etiquette by saying if teams didn't like it, they could stop it by keeping him out of the end zone.

And that is exactly what the Broncos, Ware and Miller did in the Super Bowl.

Yet when confronting reporters after the game, Newton failed to give the opposition much credit for doing so. No one required he look happy in defeat, but the situation demanded at least some grace.

No less than Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders (also African-American), and no shrinking violet on the field himself during his playing days, pointed out the obvious, "You're opening yourself for more criticism, because everybody is going to say you're dabbing and smiling and smiling and styling. So this is how you go out when you lose?"

Last year Russell Wilson threw an ill-advised pass in the last minute that cost the Seahawks the Super Bowl. Afterward, he sat through the postgame interview patiently answering every question, giving credit to the victorious Patriots. Win gracefully, lose graciously.

Contrast Newton's attitude also with that of Von Miller. Granted, Miller's team won, but the star linebacker (also African-American) was particularly magnanimous in his postgame comments. "We have been working for two years. Me and my teammates and all my guys. This is what you work for. I am so proud of my buddies. I am so proud of my teammates and coaches. It just shows what type of team we have. It is not about the offense, defense or special teams. ... We have a lot of love for each other, and that is where the success comes from."

For most of his career, Cam Newton has been the brightest star in the firmament, especially when he had the best team. In college his Auburn team was dominant, and he won the Heisman trophy. This year his Carolina team won 17 of 18 games before they ran up against the Broncos. And anybody can be cool winning. But the danger in winning all the time is that you gradually lose respect for your opponents. And because no one wins all the time, everyone must eventually learn to lose. When Newton, with his Superman cape and gold shoes, was bested by Ware and Miller, players as good as he was, Newton advertised to the world that he did not know how to lose.

The great sportswriter Heywood Hale Broun once said, "Sports do not build character; they reveal it." Newton was almost certainly the best player on the field in every game he played in grade school, high school and college. But apparently while his coaches and mentors were teaching him to read defenses and find receivers, they neglected the lesson about character. And it took the Super Bowl to reveal it.

Cory Franklin is a Wilmette physician and the author of "Cook County ICU: 30 Years of Unforgettable Patients and Odd Cases."

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