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Carolina Is The Most Unapologetically Black Team In NFL History

The culture of football is such that a league made up of mostly black men is supposed to comply with certain standards created and enforced by mostly white men. Ideally, the players would act subdued in public, celebrate their achievements quietly and speak in a manner that avoids the spotlight. 

The Carolina Panthers haven’t done any of that this season. On the way to a 15-1 regular season record and the team’s first Super Bowl appearance since 2004, the team has had fun and has been fun to watch.

They have talked loudly, danced loudly and celebrated loudly. But they’ve done something significant along the way, too: The Panthers have embraced, demonstrated and exuded aspects of their blackness in a way that few predominately black teams have done in the past.

They have been wonderfully, unapologetically, proudly black.

Cam Newton posing with rappers Young Jeezy & Future

That powerful display of blackness begins with the team’s leader, Cam Newton, a soon-to-be MVP with the intelligence, talent and charisma to become one of most unique quarterbacks in NFL history. 

There have been other great black quarterbacks before Newton. There have been legends like Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham. But anyone who has paid attention knows there is something different about Newton, and that starts with his willingness to speak his mind. 

I’m an African-American quarterback,” Newton recently said. “That might scare some people. Because my skill set isn’t like anybody else.”

ESPN’s Howard Bryant told The Huffington Post that he believes Newton stands out from other past black quarterbacks because he does not conform to preconceived notions of how a black quarterback is supposed to act.

“When I think about every black quarterback out there, every one of them seemed to have to win the approval of the public,” Bryant said over the phone. “They had to win the approval of their coaches, they had to win the approval of the league and say, ‘See? I’m legitimate.'”

But Newton did something different this year. 

“Cam’s saying, ‘Fuck it. You deal with me. I don’t care what you think, I am legit. I don’t have to prove anything at all,'” Bryant said. 

Throughout the year, Newton has faced criticism for being unapologetically himself, instead of falling in line with how people wanted him to act. A Tennessee mom complained about his touchdown celebrations in an editorial. Former Chicago Bears linebackerBrian Urlacher took a veiled shot last week when he said that fans “don’t see [Peyton Manning] dancing.” (For what it’s worth, Manning recently said he would celebrate if he were able to run for a touchdown).

But the Panthers quarterback has decided that he was not going to hide his charisma on the field or off of it in order to fit the mold of past black quarterbacks. The 26-year-old has decided that no one was going to dictate his happiness or how he expresses that joy after a first down or a touchdown.

Of course, Cam Newton is not “more black” than other black quarterbacks, past and present. But his unwillingness to conform to the subdued and polite stereotype of the past is an important step toward acceptable self-expression.

On Tuesday, Newton had little interest in engaging with the topic of the black quarterback stereotype. “We limit ourselves, by just labeling ourselves black, this, that and a third,” he said. But Newton added that he hopes to use his influence as a star athlete to break down stereotypes, to allow people to live without being categorized.

“It’s bigger than race,” Newton said. “It’s more so opening up a door for guys that don’t want to be labeled.”

There have been many, many other outspoken, highly intelligent black football players in the past. Anyone who knows names like Jim Brown and Richard Sherman knows that. But what makes the Panthers different is that they are unified in how they publicly celebrate their blackness. That is, they are themselves and not conforming to any other expectation of who they should be.

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Carolina Panthers celebrate from the bench during the second half of the NFL football NFC Championship game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016.

A lot of credit should be given to Panthers head coach Ron Rivera for empowering the players to be themselves. The only Latino coach in the league, Rivera knows what it means to stand out. But rather than trying to regulate these players, he has created an environment that makes players like Cam Newton and cornerback Josh Norman able to fully express themselves.

Keep your personality,” he has told his team.

Rivera has seen improvement in his team’s performance since he gave them full freedom to be themselves. It wasn’t always that way. Rivera admitted last year that at one point he tried to get Norman, in particular, to “fall in line too much.”

He lost that personality and the bravado as to who he is,” he said. 

When Rivera eventually let Norman be Norman, he began his ascent to becoming one of the top corners in the league. “They let me go,” Norman said. “They let me be free, and all this started.”

Nowadays, Norman’s enthusiasm and charisma is regularly viewable, as when he was interviewed by ESPN’s Ed Werder after the NFC Championship Game. If that occasionally annoys the opposing team, that’s fine with Rivera.

“There’s a great saying: Respect your opponent, but believe in yourself,” Rivera told ESPN. “If you start worrying too much about that side of things [respecting your opponent] and doing things completely the right way, you lose that little edge.” 

Richard Crepeau, a University of Central Florida professor who focuses on U.S. sports history,believes that Riverahas been able to pull more out of his players exactly because he is aware of the way NFL teams have historically tried to keep players in line. 

“He knows what the restrictions have been and he knows how the athletic establishment seeks to mold people in a highly acceptable sort of way,” Crepeau said. “And, of course, the NFL is among the most powerful in that respect. They don’t call it the ‘No Fun League’ for nothing.”

With their approval from their head coach and with Cam Newton taking the lead, the Panthers have decided that they were not going to allow themselves to be molded. They have proudly and publicly embraced who they are as black men and proudly demonstrated that blackness time and time again. 

On Sunday, the Panthers have a chance to do something historic. If they win the Super Bowl, they will be only the second team ever to go 18-1 and go all the way. But no matter what the outcome, they have already made history, for no team has ever been as proudly black as the 2015 Carolina Panthers.

Amazing Photos From The 2015 NFL Season

Amazing Photos From The 2015 NFL Season

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Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton (1) is introduced before an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Nov. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

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Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton (1) is introduced before an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Nov. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
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Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy is flipped and brought down by Denver Broncos linebacker DeMarcus Ware during the first quarter on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver. (Mark Reis/Colorado Springs Gazette/TNS via Getty Images)
Colorado Springs Gazette via Getty Images
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New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham scores on a touchdown pass from quarterback Eli Manning against the Philadelphia Eagles during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Oct. 19, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson (15) dives but can’t make the catch as he is defended by Houston Texans defensive back Andre Hal (29) during the second half of an NFL football game in Jacksonville, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015.(AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
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Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton (1) dives over Houston Texans’ Jared Crick (93) for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
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Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, top, tries to leap over St. Louis Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson after catching a pass during the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Billy Hurst)
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Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, top, flies through the air past St. Louis Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree, left, and free safety Rodney McLeod, right, after catching a pass during the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Billy Hurst)
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CLEVELAND, OH – SEPTEMBER 20: Johnny Manziel #2 of the Cleveland Browns throws a second quarter pass behind the defense of Brian Orakpo #98 of the Tennessee Titans at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 20, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus via Getty Images
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Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib (21) and Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) vie for a pass, which fell incomplete during the first half of an NFL football game in Detroit on Sept. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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CLEVELAND, OH – SEPTEMBER 20: Quarterback Johnny Manziel #2 of the Cleveland Browns scrambles from cornerback Coty Sensabaugh #24 of the Tennessee Titans during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 20, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller via Getty Images
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FOXBORO, MA – SEPTEMBER 10: Fans stand with a sign stating ‘Hey Mr. Trump Tom Brady for V.P.’ before the game between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium on September 10, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash via Getty Images
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Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, top, is stopped by St. Louis Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins after catching a pass for a gain during the first quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)
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HOUSTON, TX – SEPTEMBER 13: J.J. Watt #99 of the Houston Texans is introduced before playing against the Kansas City Chiefs in a NFL game on September 13, 2015 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, NC – SEPTEMBER 20: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers dives for a touchdown against the Houston Texans during their game at Bank of America Stadium on September 20, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka via Getty Images
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CHESTNUT HILL, MA – SEPTEMBER 18: A Boston College Eagles fan holds a sign protesting NFL Comissioner Roger Goodell during the game between the Boston College Eagles and the Florida State Seminoles at Alumni Stadium on September 18, 2015 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer via Getty Images
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FILE – In this Sept. 27, 2015 file photo, Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib (21) and Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) vie for a pass, which fell incomplete during the first half of an NFL football game in Detroit. The Lions are winless after three games and there is not much hope in sight with games at Seattle and against Arizona coming up. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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CHARLOTTE, NC – SEPTEMBER 20: Garrett Graham #88 of the Houston Texans makes a touchdown catch over A.J. Klein #56 of the Carolina Panthers in the third quarter during their game at Bank of America Stadium on September 20, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka via Getty Images
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TAMPA, FL – SEPTEMBER 13: Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers takes the field prior to his first regular season game against the Tennessee Titans at Raymond James Stadium on September 13, 2015 in Tampa, Florida. The Titans defeated the Bucs 42-14. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins via Getty Images
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ORCHARD PARK, NY – SEPTEMBER 20: Buffalo Bills fans in the stands with “Deflategate” signs as the Patriots came onto the field. The New England Patriots take on the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, Sept. 20, 2015. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Boston Globe via Getty Images
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Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson runs out during player introductions for the Lions’ NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
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