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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — As with just about everything in our country now, Cam Newton’s explanation for his raised fist was both simple and complex.
Yes, Newton bowed his head and raised his left arm, hand clenched, as a salute to black power after he scored a touchdown. Like the players who have knelt or raised their fists during the national anthem, the Carolina Panthers quarterback is concerned about the systemic racism that continues to plague the United States.
But he prefers to act as a magnet rather than a lightning rod.
“I did it to show black pride because I am an African American,” he said. “But more or less, I want all people just to see when I play, I want them to see the joy that I go out there and play with. Win, lose or draw, it was a great win for us today and I just hope that I — not I, we as a team, put a lot of smiles on the beautiful people of the Carolinas.”
Decades from now, the movement sparked by Colin Kaepernick will be recalled as either a turning point in our rough and winding march to equality or the rejection of the ideals and promise that we claim to hold so dear.
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After the turmoil of the last two weekends, it’s still not clear which direction we’ll go.
President Trump’s unrelenting criticism of NFL players who demonstrate during the anthem has roiled the league, forcing the owners to take something resembling a stand. But the pushback from fans who cannot — or will not — see the prejudices that are innate in our society has helped turn a call to action into a kumbaya.
Instead of confronting inequality directly, the league has settled on a vague notion of unity — whatever that means.
Several teams stood together Sunday, arms locked or hands on a teammate’s shoulder, while others kneeled before the anthem and then stood for it. As the original intent of the protests faded further into the background, many must have hoped that the furor would subside and the fans who have made the NFL a multi-billion-dollar industry would be placated.
But protests are not supposed to be easy. They’re meant to challenge one’s perceptions and provoke harsh introspection.
Newton doesn’t dispute that. Nor will he criticize how some players have chosen to express their disappointment and frustration with the shortcomings in American society.
“I stand for the national anthem and I don’t look down upon a person who doesn’t feel they want to,” he said. “You have to respect another man’s judgment for why they’re protesting.”
Pushing the issue isn’t Newton’s way, however. It never has been.
During his MVP season two years ago, he refused to entertain the idea that racism could be behind the heavy criticisms of his touchdown celebrations and brashness. As other prominent players have weighed in on the protests, he has stayed largely quiet — though last week he expressed his admiration of Kaepernick, who remains unsigned, for making “the ultimate sacrifice.”
But the simplicity of his demonstration Sunday was not without its own power. By raising his fist after he scored, he ensured his gesture would draw attention and spark conversation. Yet it was over in less time than it once took to “Tebow,” an effective counter to anyone who would claim he was a distraction.
“We cannot forget the fact that sports brings people together,” Newton said. “For the two hours, three hours, whatever a time that a sporting event is on or your team is playing … people from different shapes, colors, creeds, ethnicities and cultures come together. At that moment, they’re rooting for the same thing.
“I feel as if we all stick together, if we all come together and listen, hear, speak, we can better help the situation,” Newton added. “We get nowhere divided.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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