Are we too sensitive about sexism in pro sports?

First of all, was Cam Newton’s response to Jourdan Rodrigue, a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, sexist?

She asked him about the team’s routes, and he replied with a slight chuckle, “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes.”

It is funny—the same way it might be funny to hear a male talk about giving birth. Any female who talks about routes in the NFL is talking about something she doesn’t do.

Still, was it appropriate for Newton to make that comment to Jourdan Rodrigue, a qualified reporter who actually did know a thing or two about routes (even if she didn’t run them)? Absolutely not.

There’s also nothing wrong with laughing about the strangeness of females dealing in the commodities of an industry so necessarily defined by men. In the right context—not during a press conference—the sharp contrast of male and female could have yielded pleasant repartee. This might be a fun conversation in a mixed crowd during Monday night football. Minus Newton’s smirk and assumption that women could not possibly have anything meaningful to say about men’s business.

But Rodrigue is a studied, qualified professional. Newton’s comment, whether he intended it to be or not, was sexist, because substitute any other word for “female” and the comment would not have made sense. (“It’s funny to hear a Starbucks barista talk about routes.”)

So the next question is, Does Newton’s sexist comment matter as much as the media thinks it does?

It’s probably difficult for most people to imagine what it feels like to be somebody like Cam Newton—a person who has lived a legacy of success, whom everyone wishes to speak with, a person constantly pestered by reporters. In an absurd way, society has made much of routes and so little of many other meaningful aspects of life—like those assisting in hurricane relief, for instance. So it is possible for someone like Cam Newton to feel invincible, to feel like he can say whatever he wants to say, publicly or privately, because our media, the NFL, and its fans have rendered him that power.

Cam Newton responding to Jourdan Rodrigue courtesy of YouTube and NFL

Newton did apologize via YouTube video a day after making his comment to Rodrigue, but it is difficult to know whether he truly felt like a fool for speaking his mind. He had lost a yogurt sponsorship. He had gotten heat from the NFL. It’s easy just to say you were wrong if you want to quickly put out some fires you never intended to start.

The larger issue—even larger than sexism—is that it is important for us to speak respectfully to one another, even when we feel someone’s question is pointless. What we say and do in private should be consistent with what we say or do in public. And when we apologize, it should be with sincerity—hopefully the sort of sincerity that Cam Newton expressed when he said, “The joke is really on me.”