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.
That powerful display of blackness begins with the team's leader, Cam Newton, a newly-minted 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 linebacker Brian 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.
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."
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 Rivera has 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 third 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.
CORRECTION: An earlier version said the Panthers would be the second team to go 18-1 and go all the way if they win the Super Bowl. They would be the third.
Update -- February 7, 1:00 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect that Cam Newton has been awarded the 2015 NFL MVP.