On Wednesday, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was asked by Charlotte Observer reporter Jourdan Rodrigue about wide receiver Devin Funchess embracing the physicality of the routes he was running this year.
Newton smiled and said, “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes.” He then made another face, paused and repeated, “It’s funny.”
There wasn’t much gray area with the implication: Because Rodrigue is a woman — or a “female,” as Newton said — it was funny to Newton that she would ask such a question. As the video will tell you, it was far more than a “you never played the game” exchange. That was confirmed in a follow-up exchange between the two after the cameras stopped rolling, detailed from Rodrigue’s perspective here.
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
I saw the chatter about it Wednesday afternoon and was curious enough to see the video. It was … yeah, it was not good. So I tweeted about it: “Brutal, sexist answer from Cam Newton in response to good question from female reporter. And the body language was just as bad.”
It spread, as tweets sometimes do, picking up steam and gathering replies.
If you never read your mentions, you have no idea what other people — for better or worse — are thinking. I don’t think we should hide from those opinions.
Sometimes it helps you refine or sharpen your own thinking. Sometimes it makes you think, “hey, that person has a point.” (For instance, I intended “brutal” in the tweet in the same way I’d say “that was a brutal call,” like Newton got it 100 percent wrong, but it’s an imprecise word with broader implications as several people pointed out. The tweet would have been just fine, if not better, without that word).
Sometimes reading your mentions trashes your faith in humanity, but maybe that’s just the point in the journey we’re all on right now with a greater good ahead.
In any event, the whole thing kept me thinking about the subject and the responses for far longer than 140 characters could do it justice, so here are a few extra points:
1) There are people who don’t like Cam Newton already for a variety of complicated reasons. Some of them are racist and have a problem with any black quarterback. Some think he’s too demonstrative on the field, which could be coded language for racism. Some didn’t like the way he acted after the Panthers lost the Super Bowl a couple of years ago.
As a consequence, those who love Newton are quick to defend him because he’s dealt with a lot of unnecessary hate. And those who didn’t like Newton already for whatever reason had more fuel for their fire when this happened. (I haven’t written much about Newton in the past, but I defended the whole Super Bowl thing. And of course I think the entire black quarterback argument is gross and awful).
So this story becomes weird and complicated, with people piling on and pushing back from all sorts of weird angles.
Let’s just try this: The same ignorance that leads plenty of people to question or judge Newton because of his race was redistributed by Newton onto Rodrigue in the form of sexism. People question whether a black quarterback can succeed based on race. Newton made a judgment based on sex. Those aren’t the same exact things or experiences, of course, but they have similar ignorant roots.
Me? As a white male in the United States, I don’t know what it’s like to be marginalized in either of those ways. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t call it out when I think I see it. It does mean that I should try to understand it in the context of something other than my own white male privilege — to think, “What would it feel like to have this happen, to have my professional credentials questioned and called out based solely on being a man or being white?”
Otherwise you end up asking, “What’s the big deal?” or agreeing with Newton that it was funny to hear a woman ask a question about wide receiver routes.
2) Along those lines, a few of the Twitter responses that were at least a little more measured basically said this: Hey, there are a lot of really awful things happening in the world. Why not focus on those things instead of this, which is bad but less bad.
I understand that sentiment and don’t necessarily disagree with it, but let’s also not get in the business of normalizing sexist comments or allowing free passes by suggesting it was all just a joke. Our biggest problems and smallest problems often have the same root these days: a stunning lack of empathy mixed with intense polarization of opinions and a healthy portion of relaxed, selfish detachment.
3) Some have suggested the reporter’s question was not a very good one. I think it was at least — at least — a reasonable one. But in the end, it really doesn’t matter.
If a male reporter had asked the question, it would have been answered quickly. Or, presumably if Newton needed more clarification on the specific nature of the question, he would have asked for it. But Newton wasn’t questioning the question. He was questioning the asker because she’s a woman covering football. If Newton had asked Rodrigue to clarify the question, nobody would be talking about this right now.
It reminded me of something ESPN’s Doris Burke said when I interviewed her last week about her new role as a full-time NBA analyst: “What I tend to find increasingly is that criticism of me comes down to a stylistic preference. It is a noticeable shift to me that if there is an objection to me, it’s more that maybe someone just doesn’t like the way I do my job as opposed to objecting to my gender, and that is an amazing feeling. If you don’t like my style, I’m cool with that.”
4) Then there was the usual nonsense replies about liberals, triggers, snowflakes and such — cheap, moronic language that only thinly veils a fear of a real discussion that might force people to really think about why they hold certain beliefs.
Do things get overblown? Yes. Does Twitter have a way of distorting, twisting and piling on, insisting that we draw clear lines and reach a consensus about which person that day should be shamed? Sometimes, yes.
But if your instinct is to dismiss every grievance as some sort of sign of weakness in society, you only reveal yourself to be the one who is weak. And if you do that, it tells me you maybe fear a true meritocracy and the end of privilege you’ve taken for granted but certainly haven’t earned.
5) The NFL quickly released a statement that read, “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.” Newton, according to Rodrigue, didn’t apologize for the remarks when they talked after the news conference.
The inevitable next step is a scripted, sanitized apology from Newton since that’s the way these things work (and, you know, would be the right thing to do). It will fade away, as these things do, and the only residue will be anything we can learn from it — starting with Newton.
Nobody tells an NFL quarterback what to do. Newton, like all of us, is the sum of his experiences. Maybe this one will mean something to him before it disappears? One can only imagine Newton would hope for the same from those who try to marginalize him.