On Wednesday, Carolina Panthers quarterback and former league MVP Cam Newton held his weekly press conference. A local beat reporter, Jourdan Rodrigue, asked a benign question and referred to the route running of wide receiver Devin Funchess. Upon hearing the word “routes” come out of the female reporter’s mouth, Newton flashed a Cheshire cat grin and responded thusly, “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes,” emphasizing that word.
Seriously? Funny? It’s no fun to be a young reporter in a job where you constantly feel you have to prove yourself due to your gender. I know from experience.
For me, it harkened back to (it hurts to mention the year!) 1983, when I was in my first job as sports editor of the largest weekly newspaper in Pennsylvania. I was writing a story on the Philadelphia Eagles best player, wide receiver Mike Quick, who had just made his first Pro Bowl.
In those days, women were not allowed in the locker room on non-game days and since this was the Monday after the regular season ended, I had to get special dispensation to go in there for my one-on-one interview. Quick and I sat in adjacent lockers and before I turned on my recorder, we were just talking ball. After a few minutes, he stops and looks at me and says, “Wow, you really know what you’re talking about.” I gave him a sideways look and replied, “Well yeah, why else would I be here?”
But the player wasn’t insulting me, he was actually complimenting me and we developed a great working relationship that continues to this day.
I have always felt that knowledge is the armor for the peculiar species known as the female sports reporter, but please do not mock us about it. Any notion that one needs to have played the game to know the game is nonsense, regardless of your gender. Men have not been endowed with a genetic predisposition to love sports and be knowledgeable about them. However, and alas, we must always be prepared to be tested on that notion.
I have spent hundreds of hours watching film, talking to coaches and learning about the intricacies of the game — as have many of my peers, male and female. But I fully admit it, I am a geek. I tell young reporters all the time, if you don’t know something, ask. Never fake your way through it. Football, in particular, has a language all its own. One must really understand it to use it properly. But that goes for women and men.
Men have not been endowed with a genetic predisposition to love sports and be knowledgeable about them.
What really disturbed me about Newton’s comment was, how many athletes actually think like this — but just might not be imprudent enough to verbalize it? Is this really how far women have come in sports reporting in 2017?
Unfortunately, Newton has sauntered down this path before. In 2012, he called a female sportswriter “sweetheart.” Now that might be a nice appellation for his significant other, but not for a professional woman trying to do her job.
Within 24 hours of his comments, Newton lost a major sponsorship deal. And because this is the frenzied social media world we live in, he was trending on twitter for all the wrong reasons. Finally, in what felt like, better late than never, Newton posted a video apology/explanation which implored young people who watched to “learn something from this as well. Don’t be like me. Be better than me.” But he never apologized directly to the reporter in question.
He did take a page, though, from fellow quarterback Jameis Winston. Earlier this year, in speaking to a group of fifth graders, Winston called on the boys to stand up and be strong. But for the ladies to sit down because “they’re supposed to be silent, polite, gentle.” After his assault on stereotypes, Winston later said, he “used a poor word choice.”
The first line in Newton’s apology: “I understand my word choice was extremely degrading and disrespectful.”
Is this the new playbook for misogynistic comments?
So, what do women need to do in 2017 to earn the respect of the male athletes they cover?
Don’t back down, that’s for sure, and remember one of the oldest adages of all, actions speak louder than words. Let our knowledge shine through our writing, reporting and commentating. And don’t do our jobs with blinders on and earplugs in.
And a word of advice to athletes: sexists jabs miss their targets and boomerang back on the speaker.