Around the 2-minute mark in the above video, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton responds to a question of why he’s become such a point of contention among reporters and sports fans. Unabashed and fearless, Newton said what white America and football fans probably didn’t expect to hear.

“I’ve said this since day one. I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to,” fired back Newton. And with that statement, the looming specter of race landed squarely over Super Bowl 50.

Newton has endured a season-long string of criticism for his brash celebrations, the dabbbin’ dance (that got a white mother all in her feelings), his high-octane style of play, and handling it all with ease with a flash of his million-megawatt smile. Online racists cowering behind the glare of the computer screens gleefully dropped slurs and offensive names to describe Newton, knowing that they don’t possess the courage to step from behind the anonymity the Internet affords them.

“Johnny Manziel will never know what it’s like to be disliked because he’s Black and having a good time on the field.”

While folks online went just a step short of dropping the “N-Word” bomb and began referring to Newton as a “thug,” the race narrative had shifted into an ugly fifth gear by this point. Yet, it seems like people on all sides are taking certain liberties to swipe at Newton, calling him “corny” or “exaggerated” but never able to truly articulate why it is they don’t like him.

So how does this all tie in with race? It’s simple.

Football is the top sport in the United States and enjoys one of the most rabid fan bases outside of global soccer fans. This year’s Super Bowl is a face-off of the old and the new: the Denver Broncos, led by talented white veteran QB Peyton Manning vs his younger, Black rival in Newton. Manning, entering his twilight as an elite football player, has been a media darling and pitch man for varying products for years.

It has been well-documented that Newton is everything Manning is not, and that includes the product on the field as well. Newton is handsome, outspoken, jovial, uncontained. Along with being fleet of foot, he can sling the ball well and isn’t gifted with a corp of receivers that fans would consider top-level which also speaks to his talents.

The divide in what’s expected in the quarterback position and the historical racial context of those team leaders who have made it to the NFL championship stage is something that also can’t be ignored. Newton is just the sixth Black QB in 50 years of the big game to make it to this level. This might be signaling a shift that the Black quarterback who wins isn’t just a mere novelty, but actually a viable reality.

Newton hasn’t quite achieved the star power reach that Manning has, and it doesn’t appear companies are banging down his door yet either. With a 17-1 record, which includes playoffs, one would imagine that is merit enough for advertisers to start signing checks and put Newton in front of a camera. Coupled with the fact he’s ignited a post-touchdown dance craze that’s crossed over and hands out footballs to children at the games, what’s there to dislike?

Simple answer: He’s Black. It’s the gigantic pink elephant in the room everyone tries to look past.

If the beloved but troubled Johnny Manziel made it to the Super Bowl by some miracle, could you imagine the frenzy of reporters and news outlets fawning over that kid? On paper, he has a similar skill set to Newton but with twice the legal problems.

Manziel will never know what it’s like to be disliked simply because he’s Black and having a good time on the field. Instead, Manziel gets the benefit of white media outlets writing stories about how they feel sorry for him and his inability to get his stuff together.

Newton has kept free of scandal as a professional, is a self-professed Christian, and got his degree in sociology in 2015. Yes, there’s the infamous stolen laptop story but it isn’t like Newton avoids questions about it. In fact, he owned up to his stupidity as a young man and has been working on himself since. Yet, Newton can’t even blow his nose without people saying “There he goes again being annoying and extra!”

Retired Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher joined the chorus of naysayers, saying to USA Today that he isn’t a fan of the “dancing and stuff” and prefers Manning’s low key touchdown celebrations. To be fair, Urlacher was a great defensive star and went about his business in a similar workmanlike fashion but he’s definitely celebrated loudly after a big hit a few times.

Of course, Urlacher isn’t going to waste any time on facts and that the game is built on passion and energy. Instead, he’ll pretend like the rest of the world that Newton’s celebrations are extreme but would he have said the same if the Green Bay Packers and their hard-celebrating white quarterback Aaron Rodgers made it to the Super Bowl this year?

The media has placed the bull’s eye on Newton’s back after his podium comments this week, and best believe everything he says from this point will be dissected and broken down to the finest grain. But it’s a non-issue and an unfair focus path to take considering we in the media usually ridicule athletes for their typically canned answers during large events.

Newton spoke from an honest place, all while knowing how detrimental it could have been, and stood up for himself as he and his team prepare for the biggest game of their lives.

But what might be an even grander mission is a chance to show the world that NFL players, despite their race, deserve the same respect and the same right to exist on their terms afforded to anyone else.

Photo: Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini

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