Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton took up residence in a barrel of his own construction last week. Responding to a postgame question from a female Charlotte Observer reporter about passing routes, Newton responded, “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes. It’s funny.”
It was the sort of response you’d get from a 12-year-old boy who’d just been told that a frog won’t jump out of boiling water until it’s too late. Juvenile. Puerile. Unaware.
Boiling water is appropriate because Newton took a double gainer into a steaming cauldron with his flippant remark. Why? Athletes are always dissing reporters, although mostly in private. Generally they see the press as a species on a par with the frog. They make little attempt to hide their contempt.
But Newton had made the error of dissing a female reporter, Jourdan Rodrigue, who for the past year has been one of two Observer beat writers assigned to cover the Panthers.
Suddenly the deafening silence that usually greets such athlete/reporter spats became a roaring hurricane of debate. Even by today’s standards where everything is politicized, Newton’s brushoff of the female reporter took on epic proportions. Sexism doesn’t begin to describe the blowback.
And it produced a number of the more unfortunate offshoots of contemporary media culture. Every reporter who could find the send button or plug in his mic leapt onto Newton, who’s long had a target on his back for his mercurial public persona.
The New York Times thundered: “Jessica Mendoza is analyzing Major League Baseball games on ESPN, Beth Mowins is calling NFL games for CBS, and Doris Burke is part of the broadcast team for NBA games on ESPN. But to Cam Newton, the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, a female reporter getting into the nitty-gritty of a football game is apparently still surprising.”
The league was mortified. “The comments are just plain wrong and disrespectful to the exceptional female reporters and all journalists who cover our league,” said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. “They do not reflect the thinking of the league.”
Newton rushed out a contrite apology on Wednesday but it was too late. Within 48 hours, Newton had lost a major sponsor, Danone, a dairy company with a very strong female target audience.
Predictably, the Black Lives Matter crowd tried to defend Newton, suggesting the vitriol was more connected to his sudden attachment to their grievance agenda and that no white athlete would be treated this way. (Just ask Lance Armstrong or Ben Roethlisberger or Ryan Braun how being white worked for them.)
Not to defend Newton, but there is something to be said for proportionality in this story. In a time of unbridled hysterias, Newton’s rudeness is suddenly on a level of seriousness with sexual assault. Newton’s immaturity reflects on him, not on vast societal issues. This isn’t Roethlisberger manhandling a woman or Bill Clinton corrupting interns.
But it sure felt like it. And it was so easy. In the gotcha or “whataboutism” that runs the daily agenda now, not taking a woman seriously was too good not to conflate into another media sensation.
The other product of the Newton diss was turning Rodrigue into a global rights warrior. “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,” she opined.
Yes, that’s all true. But it’s not for Rodrigue to say. As a reporter, you have a privileges to go behind the curtain to report. You check your identity at the dressing-room door and represent your readers/ listeners. Part of that is that you are can’t be the hero of your own story. That’s for colleagues and contemporaries to make.
Years ago, I was accused of domestic abuse by Alan Eagleson, but it was not for me to be the focus of the story. Others could and did make the point. Rodrigue should have observed that standard, but she had to reach for a star turn – for which she’s now a feminist icon on social media.
Fittingly, the Association for Women in Sports Media jumped in on her behalf. It called Newton’s behaviour “disrespectful” and demanded “fair treatment” for women in the industry. Good for them. Ironically, the Rodrigue incident inadvertently confirmed the point of how accepted women are in the dressing room these days. She was treated like almost all reporters are treated by most athletes. With disdain.
In the to-and-fro of the dressing room, that’s equality.
As for Newton, he was so upset by last week that he threw for 355 yards and three TDs in a win against Detroit. Go print that.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.