You might have seen the photo. Or not. With Cam Newton, it's always what happens in the glare of the spotlight you see, and not what happens just beyond its blinding circle.
The photo is from last night, confetti cascading like bright shrapnel from the heavens, the Broncos' 24-10 victory in Super Bowl 50 just concluded. Peyton Manning and Cam Newton are together in the on-field crush. They are shaking hands. Newton is leaning in, smiling that glittering smile, clearly offering heartfelt congratulations in the midst of what was surely the most wrenching moment of his athletic life.
So, the man can display grace. And did. Against all the subsequent evidence.
That came later, on a podium, Newton back in the hot blinding spotlight, glowering into a thicket of microphones from beneath a dark hooded sweatshirt. This was the postgame, and he was in no mood for it. He answered a few questions, sort of. He answered a few more. Then, abruptly, he said he was finished and got up and left.
And, yes, that was graceless. Yes, that was not the way a newly-minted league MVP is supposed to handle these things, or even the way a grownup is supposed to handle these things.
And so the bashing began. And Newtonwas again a lightning rod for everything we think a professional athlete shouldn't be, especially one who so glories in his own promotion when things are going well.
Couple of things about that.
One, before Newton could congratulate Manning on what surely should be the sunset moment of an NFL legend, he had to wait until the legend finished hugging it out with one of his corporate sponsors. Speaking of promotion.
Two, as Cam sat there, the full weight of his failure pressing down, he was simultaneously hearing Chris Harris of the Broncos loudly gloating about shutting down the great Cam Newton. The NFL, in its great received wisdom, put the winning and losing players' podiums virtually cheek-by-jowl, with only a slender curtain to separate them. It's pretty obvious from watching the video -- here it is -- that's why Newton abruptly got up and walked out, not because the media kept asking him questions.
Now, then. Does that excuse it?
No, it does not. Part of the responsibility of being a megastar in this firmament is accepting with equanimity what happens when your star slips into eclipse. That doesn't mean you have to, or even should, fake contentment when the situation clearly doesn't call for it. I never saw Peyton Manning look anything but pissed when he lost. Both his demeanor and his responses were, in fact, different only in degree from Newton's.
And that was OK. More than OK. It spoke volumes about what a ferocious competitor he is.
The difference is, Manning never walked away from it. Then again, I don't ever recall hearing an opposing player loudly talking within earshot about how they intimidated him and how he was scared to get hit and on and on. So I can't say for sure how he would have reacted.
What I do know is this: He'd likely get much more the benefit of the doubt than Cam Newton's getting. For any number of reasons.
Some valid. Some not.