Last weekend saw the culmination of the American NFL season with the Denver Broncos, lead by veteran Peyton Manning, getting the victory over the Carolina Panthers, lead by 26 year old Cam Newton. A lot of the attention since the game has been on Cam Newton’s post game press conference. Cam is a bombastic character. Energetic on the field and talkative off it. The news? He didn’t say much during the press conference then walked out.
There have been a lot of discussion about the press conference in the mainstream and social media. Should Cam Newton have fulfilled his obligation to face the media, asked The Seattle Times? Is he a hypocrite for being vocal when winning and silent in defeat, asked NFL.com? Is the criticism he received an example of racial inequity, asked NY Daily News? CBC.ca labelled him a sore loser. I’m not going to try to justify or exonerate his behavior, because what’s going on here is much more complicated than a simple label.
The Panthers were one of the best teams in the NFL this season. They only lost once, and won most of their games by more than 10 points. They played entertaining and dynamic football. Cam Newton was slippery and evasive, often turning running back to run touchdowns. Everything they tried seemed to go their way. The bookies had them as favorites prior to the game. It was reasonable to expect them to win.
Cam is a professional sportsman. He never expects to win when he gets onto the field. But in this case, given the season, given the opposition, I think he believed he was going to win. I think he expected to play the same sort of football they had played all season. And if he didn’t win, it would be a tight game. In reality, the Panthers played badly, Cam threw several interceptions and they were well beaten. When I Cam dejected in front of the press, I see someone who is struggling to to process the reality of the situation he’s in versus his expectations. This doesn’t make him a good or bad person. He’s reacting in the same way many of us do when the world doesn’t meet our expectations. You didn’t get the promotion you thought you deserved. Customers don’t use a product the way we designed it. People don’t get behind your new initiative or project.
In the online discourse around this situation, the conversation then turns to “but he’s a professional sportsman, it’s his job to face the press, win or lose”. This is the second thing Cam teaches us about the danger of expectations, and the lesson is about our own expectations. We expect because he is well paid, because he’s a role model, because his contract says he has to face the press, because he’s in the public eye that he should be able to conjure up the grace to handle the press in that situation. Our reaction to Cam, good, bad or indifferent comes from the difference between his behavior and our expectations for his behavior. We’re not so different to Cam in that respect. There’s a way we think a sportsman should behave, and the way they actually do.
It’s the reaction to a situation like this that teaches you about your expectations. Cam strayed too far toward believing he would win the game and ended up disappointed. Your reaction to Cam’s press conference tells you about your expectations of sports stars. Likewise, your frustrations with a co-worker tells you about your expectations of that co-worker. Getting angry in a meeting (on the inside or the outside) tells you about your expectations for that meeting. Having expectations isn’t a problem. The problem comes when we have a hard time letting them go.