Achilles in San Francisco: Cam Newton and the art of the gracious loser

Cam Newton. Photograph by Keith Allison.

Cam Newton. Photograph by Keith Allison.

So as the world knows by now – or at least the world that cares about American football knows by now – the Denver Broncos’ D got inside Cam Newton’s head at the Super Bowl Sunday night, frustrating the Carolina Panthers’ QB, who sulked on the sidelines and then through the postgame press conference he walked out on.

Outrage was swift among the Twitterati, who admittedly have their share of anti-Cam fans for a variety of reasons.

Roger Federer once observed that the athletic loss is doubly painful: You lose and then you have to discuss it immediately with the press. It’s enough to disturb anyone’s equilibrium. Newton can be forgiven his disappointment, of course. No one likes to lose or see his team – a surrogate for the self – lose. But losing with grace, like winning with grace, is a necessary part of the athlete’s arsenal. A sore loser just gives his opponents and detractors ammunition.

“Hey, when things don’t go his way, we see the body language — it’s obvious,” Broncos’ safety T.J. Ward said of Newton. “That’s what we wanted to do. That was our intent: to come in this game and get the body language going. We didn’t want the happy, fun-spirited, dabbing Cam. No, we want the sulking, upset, talking to my linemen, my running backs, ‘I don’t know what’s going on’ Cam Newton — and that’s what we got.”

Worse, a sore loser destabilizes his teammates and turns the dispassionate into critics just when you might need an objective ally most.

Losing well has to be one of the most difficult things. It goes against the animal in our nature. Survival of the fittest and all that. But animals are capable of acts of what can only be called altruism. So how can we, the rational animal, learn to be better losers?

It helps if it is ingrained in you. Tennis No. 1 Novak Djokovic is a gracious winner and loser – calling attention to his opponents’ accomplishments, acknowledging his mistakes, accepting responsibility for his actions and using victory and defeat to fuel a higher plane of achievement. It was drummed into him by a father who said that he would not accept sore losing on the part of his son.

One of the most poignant moments of loss for Nole came when Stan Wawrinka upset him in the French Open final last year. Nole sat there at the end devastated. But when it came time to speak, he acknowledged not only the depths of a hunger unfulfilled but the brilliance of his opponent. “I respect you, Stan,” he said. As the Paris crowd rose in a standing ovation, Nole wept.

Back to Newton, who sulked like Achilles in his tent at Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco and who should’ve taken a page from his coach Ron Rivera’s playbook. Rivera told CBS after the game that while his team failed to execute, he reminded his players that the Broncos lost two years ago in the Super Bowl and were now champs. That could be the Panthers in the future, he said. Bravo.

That is the way to lose gracefully.

Focus on the accomplishments of others, particularly your opponent.

Acknowledge your shortcomings.

Use that awareness as a springboard for future triumphs.

And finally, show a little gratitude. You may not have won but hey, you made the finals. Or the top 10. Or whatever. How many wish they were in that position. How many people, I once heard a Holocaust survivor say, wish for the peace of an ordinary day.

Be grateful for what you have and remember: Achilles was the Greeks’ greatest warrior but he died young.

Live to fight another day.