During Cam Newton’s press session on Wednesday, the Carolina Panthers quarterback fielded a question from Charlotte Observer Panthers beat reporter Jourdan Rodrigue. “I know you take a lot of pride in seeing your receivers play well,” she began. “Devin Funchess has seemed to really embrace the physicality of his routes and getting those extra yards. Does that give you a little bit of enjoyment to see him kind of truck-sticking people out there?”
By the time Rodrigue hit the word “routes,” Newton was smirking. “It’s funny to hear a female talk about ‘routes,’” he said. “It’s funny.”
According to Rodrigue’s Observer colleague who wrote a first-person account of the incident, “There was dead silence when Newton proclaimed ‘It’s funny’ — because actually it wasn’t funny at all.”
A few minutes later, Rodrigue sought out Newton after he left the locker room, but according to her account, she didn’t get any more explanation of what he had found funny, nor did she get an apology — though the team says he gave her one. She didn’t let much time pass before she responded to his remarks on social media: “I don’t think it’s ‘funny’ to be a female and talk about routes. I think it’s my job,” she tweeted.
I don’t think it’s “funny” to be a female and talk about routes. I think it’s my job.
— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) October 4, 2017
She also wrote, “I was dismayed by his response, which not only belittled me but countless other women before me and beside me who work in similar jobs.” The NFL’s Ian Rapoport shared her statement on social media.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) October 4, 2017
While to many Newton’s words may seem inconsequential — he’s a quarterback, not a gender studies expert — they’re being taken very seriously by others. As they should.
Sexism in sports is nothing new, and sexism faced by female sports journalists (as well as nonbinary reporters and reporters of color) is some of the most vitriolic out there. Even while women comprise 45 percent of NFL fans, their devotion and knowledge is more often than not just not taken seriously.
In a video that went viral in 2016, sports reporters Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro had mean comments that had been written about them read aloud to their faces. They used the hashtag #MoreThanMean to show the level of harassment faced by women in sports. The comments ranged from “I hope your boyfriend beats you” to “This is why we don’t hire any females unless we need our d***s sucked or our food cooked.” While the men reading them aloud were flabbergasted, the point being made was that harassment like this is sadly commonplace for a woman covering sports.
Newton’s comment was not on that level, but the message was arguably the same: This is a man’s world. Get out.
The NFL was quick to denounce Newton’s words. As the NFL’s vice president of communications, Brian McCarthy, tells Yahoo Lifestyle in an email, “The comments are just plain wrong and disrespectful to the exceptional female reporters and all journalists who cover our league. They do not reflect the thinking of the league.”
The people hit hardest by this incident, though, are the women who have dedicated their professional lives to sports and sports journalism. “This was a rude reminder that the playing field is still not level,” Paola Boivin, professor of sports journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I faced a fair dose of sexism early in my career,” she adds. “Some of it was blatant: I had a jockstrap thrown at me in a baseball clubhouse, followed by a player asking if I was there to look at a bunch of guys’ d***s. Some was more subtle: A basketball coach was talking to a group of reporters about the pick-and-roll and then looked right at me to explain what it was.”
It wasn’t until 1978 that female sports reporters were even allowed to interview players in locker rooms before and after games, which, needless to say, put their male colleagues at the advantage for getting the story. As recently as 2015, female journalists were stopped from entering the Jaguars’ locker room after a Jaguars-Colts game, because the usher was not sure if they were allowed.
Women who are sports reporters are now allowed in the locker rooms but still find themselves at a nearly constant disadvantage, with sexism being the number one reason. Things such as the 50 Hottest Female Sports Broadcasters list are not unheard of, and Spain and DiCaro’s video proves that being a woman in the business can feel downright dangerous.
“When I first heard his comments, all the air sort of went out of me and I felt so deflated,” DiCaro tells Yahoo Lifestyle of the Newton incident. “The insanity of the whole thing is that there are probably many guys in that room who never played organized football. But being a male allows them the assumption of competence, while being a woman leads to an assumption of ignorance.”
Of course, not all female sports journalists are in perfect agreement on the issue. Former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry tells Yahoo Lifestyle that while she found Newton’s comments “flippant and unnecessary,” she finds the backlash to be “PC culture at its worst.”
“As a woman in sports media and now political commentary as well, the last thing I want to do is use a crutch for myself,” she says. “We’re all looking to advance as women in the media industry. [We] should be supportive of that, but also not be offended by any and every perceived slight.”
In addition to the league’s speaking out against his remarks, Newton is getting hit where it really hurts: his wallet. Since the press conference, Newton has lost his endorsement deal from Dannon Yogurt. Michael Neuwirth, the senior director of external communication at Dannon, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the company severed ties with the QB after the remarks, which they “perceive as sexist and disparaging to all women.” He adds, “It is entirely inconsistent with our commitment to fostering equality and inclusion in every workplace. It’s simply not OK to belittle anyone based on gender. We have shared our concerns with Cam and will no longer work with him.”
Katie Sowers is an assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers and only the second woman to hold a coaching position in the NFL, and she knows a great deal about what it’s like to be a woman not only in sports but in the NFL specifically. She tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “My immediate reaction was truly of disappointment.
“I take it upon myself to do exactly what Jourdan [Rodrigue] decided to do: continue to do my job. By doing something as simple as just getting to work, we are all making an impact, because we are creating a future for all young girls.”
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