Cam Newton is one of the most incredibly gifted and successful NFL quarterbacks in modern history. He has been the NFL’s number one draft pick, secured the coveted Heisman Trophy, been named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, broke NFL all-time records for passing and rushing yards, became the first quarterback to throw 400 yards in a first game, been named NFL Offensive Player of the Year and NFL Most Valuable Player, and even made it to the NFL’s holy sanctum: the Super Bowl.
Amidst all this, he’s now made news for a less positive reason.
At a Wednesday press conference, a reporter named Jourdan Rodrigue asked him if he is excited about how his teammate uses ‘routes’ when going up against other players. “Routes” is a technical term in football. Newton responded, “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes…like…” followed by a huge smile and a look of shock.
Jourdan instantly took to Twitter to express her disdain:
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 followed up, rather quickly, with a statement to the Charlotte Observer, where she claimed to be “dismayed”, that his response belittled her and “countless other women” and that “he did not apologize for his comments” afterward. A landslide followed.
His head coach Ron Rivera said simply, “Cam made a mistake.” The Association for Women In Sports said they were “very discouraged” by his “disrespectful remarks” and they “demand fair treatment and positive workplace environments for women working in sports media”. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said Newton’s comments were “plain wrong and disrespectful to the exceptional female reporters” and “do not reflect the thinking of the league”. Dannon, who Newton worked with as a spokesperson for their Oikos yogurt brand, terminated their endorsement deal with him shortly thereafter.
Newton released a video statement on Thursday evening, saying “After careful thought, my word choice was extremely degrading and disrespectful to women”, that it was not his intention, and that he sincerely apologizes.
I believe his apology was unnecessary and the backlash was unfounded because what Newton said was not sexist nor is it indicative of his personal inclination toward sexist ideologies. In fact, it was far too vague to have any indication of sexism, and it was that vagueness which allowed his words to be so easily twisted as sexist. Newton was the victim of a prejudiced reporter with a very clear agenda.
His comment “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes…” does not automatically equate to sexism, because in modern vernacular, the phrase “it’s funny” has an added meaning of surprise, not humor, i.e. “it’s funny you should that because…” or “it’s funny to hear from him after all this time”. Here, funny is used to mean quaint, unusual, i.e. "this mayonnaise has a funny smell." Saying that the mayonnaise has a funny smell doesn't indicate that the smell is humorous or entertaining. It means unusual, surprising, shocking. It is important to consider vernacular when interpreting words. Moreover, he never said why he found it surprising nor did he suggest a sexist reason.
It never occurred to Ms. Rodrigue, or those supporting her assertion of sexism, that Mr. Newton’s words might have indicated surprise, and that his surprise might have been for a non-sinister reason. Perhaps Mr. Newton found it surprising because Ms. Rodrigue’s deep understanding of the game was indicative of the fact that women were beginning to powerfully impact the traditionally male-dominated sport of football. Perhaps he was pleasantly surprised to see her tearing down a wall and breaking a glass ceiling, and was acknowledging that she is charting new ground.
It’s impossible to ignore that the NFL is male-dominated and historically sexist. The NFL only allows male players. Though one could argue that this is because of the inherent physical differences between men and women, it’s still possible that major sports organizations can create female divisions for the sake of inclusion; consider the WNBA. In August, Katie Sowers made history as the NFL’s second full-time female assistant coach, which means, in the history of the NFL, there have been only two female assistant coaches. There are no female head coaches, and the four women who own NFL teams inherited them from their fathers or their husbands who passed; the direct route for female ownership is mired with sexism. Professional sports are so male dominated and sexist that there is actually an organization called Association for Women In Sports.
With this in mind, it’s not hard to understand why, in a sexist country, playing a sexist game, for a sexist organization, with a sexist environment, Cam Newton would be pleasantly surprised to hear a “female reporter” speak about deep techniques in the game. He could have meant “it’s funny to hear a female talk about routes because it’s not something I hear often”. The fact is he never said why he was surprised. That Newton never actually expressed why he found it “funny”, which I believe was modern vernacular for "surprised", leaves his comment open to many other meanings beside one that is inherently sexist. Cam Newton runs, throws balls, and slams into people for a living; he’s not an orator. In the public eye, word choice is important, and I believe Newton’s word choice or lack thereof was wrong, but certainly not directly indicative of sexism. It’s unfair to attach a meaning to it when it was vague and open-ended.
Ms. Rodrigue automatically assumed it was a sexist jab. She didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt that perhaps he was pleasantly surprised to see a woman holding her own in a field that was notoriously male-dominated, sexist, and devoid of women. She didn’t even think to push back; to question him on exactly what his vague, open-ended statement meant. She immediately assumed the worst, and attached to him the label of a dangerous woman-hating monster, and painted herself as the victim. This is something that often happens with Black men and White women in our country. One might suggest that I’m reaching here, however that suggestion ignores the proof that Ms. Rodrigue does indeed come from a place of prejudice as it pertains to race.
It has been revealed that Ms. Rodrigue has used racist language and even celebrated instances of racism in the past.
In one tweet, Ms. Rodrigue said “Dale Earnharts a b**ch ni**a (sic)”, displaying a surprising level of comfort with using a racial epithet which clearly has a sordid history.
In two other tweets, she said “my dad is being super racist as we pass through Navajo land…”. She followed by telling a friend “he’s the best. Racist jokes the whole drive home.”
Not only does she use racial epithets, but she celebrates and seemingly enjoys her father’s open racism.
It is, therefore, not hard to believe that Ms. Rodrigue comes from a space of race-specific prejudice and that her prejudice influenced her interpretation, thereby making Mr. Newton the black scapegoat for sports sexism. I say this because Ms. Rodrigue, a female reporter who must navigate the very sexist arena of professional sports, should be so well-versed with what sexism actually is that Mr. Newton’s vague, open-ended comment should not have been enough for her to orchestrate a lynch mob aimed at him on her behalf.
Moreover, It also seems a bit contrived that this comes on the heels of the National Anthem protest that is shaking the NFL. The sports media needs something to take the attention off Colin Kaepernick, Trump, and the protesting quarterbacks. Perhaps this was just right.
Many will disagree with me, but such is the nature of discourse. I will, however, maintain that the reaction to Mr. Newton was an overreaction and not indicative of sexism.