Flash back to last June 15, a little after 10 p.m. inside the visitors locker room at Chicago's United Center.
The Lightning had just lost the Stanley Cup, and captain Steven Stamkos was nearly in tears, talking about how the Lightning simply didn't do enough to beat the Blackhawks. Across the room, goaltender Ben Bishop, still wearing his pads, said, "It's kind of hard to talk about now. It's a terrible feeling. I don't know how to describe it. Listening to (the crowd celebrating) just makes me sick."
I was in that room that night. It felt like a morgue. It sounded like a funeral.
That's how we want our fallen athletes to act.
We want them to hurt. We want them to be upset. We want them to be angry. But we also want them to be gracious and humble. We want them to credit the other team for winning and accept blame for losing. Most of all, we want them to say something. Anything.
So what happens when they won't play along? What happens when they would rather not break down, in excruciating detail, the worst and most painful moment of their careers? What happens when they cannot — or will not — put their pain and humiliation into neat sound bites?
We blast them. We call them crybabies. We call them pouters. We talk about how much money they make and how they owe us. We question their manhood and their professionalism, even their upbringing.
In other words, we say all the things that have been said about Panthers quarterback Cam Newton the past three days.
Newton had become the most polarizing sports figure because of his knack for celebrating every positive moment, from little things like first downs to big things like playoff victories. He talked loud. He smiled wide. He bragged how we've never seen anything like him.
He stood on a mountain and dared anyone to knock him off. Then the Broncos knocked him off in the Super Bowl.
Now, even in defeat, he has become more polarizing. After the upset loss, he used 80 sulking words to sum up his thoughts.
He slumped in a chair. He mumbled "no'' a bunch of times. He gave one decent answer to explain why the Panthers lost. And that was pretty much it. He walked off and handed more ammunition to everyone who already didn't like him.
On Tuesday, he made no apologies for his postgame behavior.
"I've been on record to say I'm a sore loser,'' Newton told reporters. "Who likes to lose? You show me a good loser and I'm going to show you a loser. It's not a popularity contest. I'm here to win football games.''
Did he know that people were going to be bothered?
"That's cool,'' Newton said. "But I know who I am and I'm not about to conform nor bend for anybody's expectations because your or anybody else's expectations will never exceed mine.''
"It happened,'' he said. "I didn't want to talk to the media at the time. The truth of the matter is I really still don't want to talk to the media. But at the end of the day things have to happen. … I had a lot of time to go back and play everything back. I'm human. I never once said that I was perfect. I never proclaimed that I was perfect, but at the end of the day people pick and do things of that sort.''
Could he have handled Sunday differently? Perhaps. Maybe a coach or a PR person should have pulled Newton aside right before his news conference and said, "Cam, just know that how you handle the next 10 minutes will go a long way in determining how people will feel about you, maybe for the rest of your life.''
Then again, maybe Newton really doesn't care what you think about him. Why should he? Why should Newton care about those who already don't like him and never will? Were a few well-crafted postgame comments really going to convert critics into fans? As long as Newton realizes his postgame performance gives his detractors the right to hate him and takes away his right to complain about that, what's the issue?
Immediately after the game, he congratulated Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who called Newton "gracious.'' After that, what did we want from him?
Did you want him to say that the Broncos played better? Did you want him to say Denver made more plays? Did you want him to say that the Panthers blew their chances but that they dropped passes and turned over the ball and allowed too many sacks? Did you want him to say that he threw too many bad passes?
I've got news for you: He did say all of those things. He just didn't carry on and on about it.
Here's my theory: his critics wanted him to visibly hurt. They were glad that he lost and they wanted to see him face the media and open his veins for their entertainment. They wanted to see him humbled. They wanted to take joy in his pain.
But he didn't give them the satisfaction, and now they are ticked.
Maybe he was injured. Maybe he didn't want to throw his teammates, who gave him no help at all, under the bus. Maybe he didn't want to criticize his coaches who had a lousy game plan. Maybe he felt it was better to say nothing than something stupid.
Or, maybe, he just didn't feel like talking for the purpose of making everyone else feel better.
"The truth of the matter is, who are you to say your way is right?'' Newton said. "That's what I don't understand. We've got all these people condemning, and saying (I) shouldn't have done this, that and the third. What makes your way right?''
Newton had every right to act how he did after the game. You have every right to not like him because of it. But, ultimately, you get the feeling that Newton doesn't care what you think is right.
And there's nothing wrong with that.