It wasn’t funny.
Cam Newton thought it was. The charismatic quarterback of the Carolina Panthers was responding to a perfectly acceptable sports question from a reporter for the Charlotte Observer.
The question was about a receiver and his pass routes.
The reporter was a woman.
“It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes,” Newton said, “like…” — he gave a long, exaggerated smile and chuckled to himself — “…it’s funny.”
As he would later admit, the joke was on him. Newton was properly lambasted by the press and social media, admonished by his own league, and dropped as a spokesperson for Dannon yogurt.
Some of this was for his comment and some for his lack of an immediate apology. The reporter, 25-year-old Jourdan Rodrigue, sought Newton out after the press conference and asked privately why he thought her question was funny. According to Rodrigue, Newton did not say he was sorry. He did question whether she (or other reporters) had the ability to recognize pass routes. At the end of their brief exchange, Rodrigue asked whether Newton even knew her name. She had introduced herself a year earlier and had been covering the team every day since.
He admitted he didn’t.
That’s less funny than his first comment.
It’s not funny. It’s not fair.
Here’s why this matters. Forty years ago this week, a female reporter for Sports Illustrated named Melissa Ludtke was denied access to the Yankees locker room during the 1977 World Series, because she was a woman. She sued Major League Baseball, claiming her 14th Amendment rights to equal protection had been violated.
She won the case. And sports journalism changed forever. Which does not mean it immediately improved. Women were continually harassed and demeaned, even by figures we hold in high esteem.
Red Smith of the New York Times wrote that Ludtke had “struck a note of low comedy” by contending in court that she could not cover the World Series unless she could “watch Reggie Jackson undress.”
In other words, like Newton, Smith found something funny that was actually insulting. And he was a sportswriter.
Things weren’t any better 13 years later, when a Boston Herald reporter named Lisa Olson was sexually harassed in the New England Patriots locker room, with players fondling their private parts and making lewd comments.
That same year, in the Tigers clubhouse, Jack Morris told a female Free Press writer that he didn’t to talk to women when he was naked “unless they’re on top of me or I’m on top of them.”
When the Free Press lodged a complaint, Bo Schembechler, then the Tigers president, blamed the newspaper for sending a woman, saying, “no female member of my family would be inside a men’s locker room regardless of their job description.”
By the way, these are all people I knew and admired. Smith was a legend. I covered Jack for years. Bo became a good friend.
That is even more reason why I need to stand up for Rodrigue and other female sports journalists — women like Helene St. James, our fine Red Wings writer, Jennifer Hammond from Fox 2, Christine Brennan from USA TODAY and many others — who have the exact same demands put on them as their male counterparts, but have to deal with so much more baggage.
It’s not funny. And it’s not fair.
Sports long has been a male kingdom
Ask those women how many times they get their credentials scrutinized (as if every female’s dream is to sneak into a sweaty locker room) or get their questions ignored, or get pelted with nasty sexist comments whenever they write something a male reader doesn’t agree with.
It’s a weekly if not daily occurrence. Sports has long been a male kingdom, where the starting point wasn’t even “Why are you women interested in reporting?” It was more like “Why aren’t you in a short skirt and pom-poms?”
That’s why it matters what Newton says. Ultimately he issued a video apology on his Twitter account. He said his choice of words was “extremely degrading” and “disrespectful to women.” He apologized and told young people, “Don’t be like me. Be better than me.”
That’s a fine mea culpa. And if we aspire to be forgiving, we should accept Newton at his word.
The only thing missing was the name Jourdan Rodrigue. Perhaps if Newton had learned it better, perhaps if all athletes learned the names of journalists who cover them the way the journalists learn theirs, these incidents wouldn’t happen, because first you learn a name, then you get to know someone, then you find out they know more than enough to analyze a pass route.
The 14th Amendment, invoked 40 years ago by a female reporter, is at the core of things NFL players are protesting right now. You must give respect if you expect to get it. And know the difference between funny and just plain sad.