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For women in sports media, Cam Newton’s sexist comment hits too close to home

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On Wednesday afternoon, Charlotte Observer Carolina Panthers beat reporter Jourdan Rodrigue asked Panthers quarterback Cam Newton a question about the way wide receiver Devin Funchess was running his routes on game days this year.

Instead of immediately answering the question — or pivoting away from it, as athletes often do — Newton laughed.

“It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes,” he said with his trademark grin, as he looked around the room seemingly confused why others weren’t laughing too. “It’s funny,” he added again for emphasis. 

I’ve been a die-hard fan of the Carolina Panthers since I was in fifth grade, which also happened to be the second year of the team’s existence. The only Panthers jersey I’ve ever owned in that 21-year timespan? Cam Newton’s. I’ve ardently defended Newton, publicly, privately, and professionally, through every controversy he’s been immersed in throughout the years. 

But there’s no defending him right now.

As a female sports reporter, his comments this week simply hit too close to home. Most women in sports media haven’t been turned into a headline on the ESPN scroll or a Twitter moment because a former NFL MVP laughed at the fact that they were a “female” asking an a question at a televised press conference. But all women and gender-nonconforming people in sports media have been demeaned in some way, shape, or form on the job — made to feel like they aren’t welcome or capable because they aren’t men.

The writer in her Cam Newton jersey.

What Newton said hurts so much because it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened in a world where women and non-binary people are still fighting for respect on a day in, day out basis — across many fields, yes, but particularly in sports media.

This is about so much more than just one question about a receiver’s routes. It’s about the fact that just two years ago, female journalists were stopped on their way into the Indianapolis Colts locker room to get post-game interviews because the usher was unsure if they were allowed into the locker room to do their job.

It’s about being denied on-camera opportunities unless you’re pretty and skinny enough; and then, if you are pretty and skinny enough, being dismissed and discredited because of your appearance. It’s about making it to the top of your profession and still being criticized for your “nagging” voice or your wardrobe choices.

It’s about being told your gender means you can’t understand the game, and then walking into a press conference at the NCAA women’s Sweet 16 and realizing you’re the only female reporter in the packed press room.

It’s about telling a new person you meet that you are a sports reporter, and bracing yourself to receive the incredulous, “Really?” Or, even worse, the inexplicable, “Do you like sports?”

It’s about not being invited out for drinks with the guys after a late night game ends, and losing out on a great job opportunity because of it. It’s about a coach choosing to direct his answer to your male colleague, even though you were the one who asked the question, because he assumes he’ll understand better. It’s about the fact that, when he does address you to your face, he calls you “sweetie.”

It’s about the fact that the fastest-growing sports media company in the country has been build on the back of sexism; and that the Top 100 on the iTunes Sports Podcast charts only include six podcasts that feature a regular female contributor. It’s about the stories I hear on a regular basis from my female and non-binary peers throughout the sports media industry of the sexist microaggressions — or even worse, outright sexual harassment — they encounter on the job. It’s about the fact that most of these people know that they would be the only ones punished if they came forward with these allegations.

It’s about the non-stop, humiliating, sometimes debilitating abuse that women in sports encounter on social media; the pit in the bottom of your stomach when you realize the only person left in the late-night press box with you is the veteran reporter who stands too close to you in media scrums and peppers you with compliments that border on inappropriate. It’s being unsure which threats or worries to take seriously, because if you take them all seriously, you wouldn’t ever be able to do your job.

It’s about the fact that the 2014 Associated Press Sports Editors Racial & Gender Report Card found that men accounted for 90.1 percent of sports editors, 90.2 percent of assistant sports editors, 87.6 percent of sports columnists, 87.4 percent of sports reporters, and 80.8 percents of sports copy editors/designers.

It’s about the sobering fact that all of these problems are compounded exponentially for women of color in the industry. And it’s about the fact that, despite this reality, the current situation for anyone in sports media who isn’t a man is still much better now than it used to be.

Cam Newton’s demeaning smile and chuckle was about so much more than just one dismissal of one question; it was about putting women in sports in their place.

It would be horrific to hear a comment like Newton’s from anyone, but it’s especially painful coming from an athlete who has meant so much to me, who I have stuck by through thick and thin. I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do with my Cam Newton jersey. Fandom doesn’t evaporate in an instant. I’ve been so invested in rooting for the Panthers for so many years that it’s hard to imagine turning my back on them now.

The only thing I do know? I’m not laughing.

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