For women who cover the NFL, like myself, it was a typical Wednesday: a man telling one of us that she is not qualified to do her job simply because of her gender. Only it wasn't typical this time, because the man in question was Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and the comments he made, to Charlotte Observer Panthers beat reporter Jourdan Rodrigue, were done publicly, at a press conference, in front of Rodrigue's colleagues and for all the world to see.
Rodrigue asked Newton about receiver Devin Funchess and the physical and sharp routes he ran in the team's Week 4 win over the New England Patriots. Funchess had his best performance of the season in the game, catching seven passes on nine targets for 70 yards and two scores. Rodrigue simply wanted Newton to expand on Funchess' successes. But no, Rodrigue had to go and use the word "route," somehow triggering Newton to chuckle and instead of answering the question remarked, "It's funny to hear a female talk about routes. It's funny."
Here's the video of Cam Newton saying "it's funny to hear a female talk about routes" pic.twitter.com/hd9Kg4CCeu- Carlin & Reese (@CarlinReeseWIP) October 4, 2017
Rodrigue confronted Newton after the press conference and, per her statement, he did not apologize. Initially, the Panthers released an official statement noting that Newton "expressed regret." And on Thursday night, Newton finally issued a lengthy and actual apology of his own:
The statement seems sincere and well thought out (if perhaps a day too late), and it's likely that in the churn of another NFL news cycle, people will eventually move onto another controversy. But Newton's initial instinct and choice of words are the real issue, one that lingers in the minds of too many players, fans and NFL authorities: that women have no place covering this sport, this man's-man of all the sports. Newton flippantly expressed it, even if he now regrets it. And that core belief won't go away so easily.
In fact, this is nothing new for Newton -- he called another female reporter "sweetheart," in 2012. And it's nothing new for professionals in the NFL. Another quarterback, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Jameis Winston, spoke to a fifth-grade class in February and said to the assembled crowd that women are "supposed to be silent, polite, gentle," versus boys, who are "supposed to be strong" (something he later apologized for and tried to clarify). There are the statements from current and former players, every year, who claim only those who have played know enough to understand or comment on the game, thus implying that women are automatically excluded from being truly knowledgeable about football without ever saying the word "women." And of course, there is the endless barrage of tweets, emails and in-person interactions with men who believe that no woman belongs in the sport, aside from maybe as eye-candy sideline reporters or cheerleaders.
And those are typically the same people who come out of the woodwork when something like what happened on Wednesday inevitably occurs, telling us we're taking this all too seriously (and that sandwiches, apparently, need making). But these aren't just attacks on women, or us as individuals -- it's an attack on our employment, at something we've worked hard to attain, at something that was already a struggle to achieve to begin with. And that's serious stuff: to want us to lose our employment and to just go away already.
Routes, and route trees, in the NFL are not hard to understand, even if the person talking about it hasn't ran one, if you've studied the game for a good amount of time. That's what Rodrigue did, as detailed in a profile by her Observer colleague Scott Fowler, leading her to the Panthers' beat. It's what I've done and what every person who makes their living covering this game has done and continues to do, every day. Indeed, one of the best takedowns of Newton's comments came via MMQB's Jenny Vrentas (SI.com), who before repudiating Newton, gave a detailed breakdown of the Funchess routes Rodrigue asked about. Had Newton simply done the same, this would have prevented his latest disappointment.
And that's what it is: a disappointment. It's not shocking, because it is nothing new. The NFL is a boys' club first and foremost and it takes a certain amount of steeliness, battles-picking and extra hard work for women to elbow their way in. It's a shame that Newton is among those who do not understand this, a shame that he is among the many men who think female identity is enough to disqualify someone from having anything of substance to say, think or write. But, again, it's not a surprise. It happens far too often.
There have been consequences of this latest, public slight. Dannon has dropped Newton as the spokesperson for their Oikos yogurt and, as he said, he's lost the respect of some fans. But when the dust settles and we all start to forget about Newton's comments, we'll still be left in the same place we started from, with women like myself continuing to prove we belong in this profession, covering this sport. Because nothing, really, has changed.