Cam Newton often makes splashes at press conferences for his unconventional fashion choices and entertaining flair. His enthusiasm for the game draws a large youth following, and his jersey is one of the top 25 best-selling jerseys in the NFL. Newton is viewed as a pioneering quarterback, a position once dominated by white pocket passers. In 2015, he won the league’s Most Valuable Player award and led his team to Super Bowl 50. Cam’s on-field success and off-the-field contributions to the community earned him a role model status in the community, making his recent actions disappointing.
The Panthers were fresh off a victory against the Patriots and Newton was being questioned during a press conference when Charlotte Observer reporter Jourdan Rodrigue asked him a question about the routes his receivers had been running. Newton answered, “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes. Like, it’s funny.”
The quote doesn’t do the incident justice, as his condescending smirk and demeanor to the reporter doesn’t translate well into writing. His comments didn’t simply insinuate women know less about football; he stated it outright. In a field where women are vastly outnumbered by men, and frequently not taken seriously, Newton’s comments reinforce negative perceptions about women in sports.
You might expect Newton to make a “sincere” apology and quickly save face, but it gets worse. Rodrigue approached him after the conference and explained the offensive nature of his remarks, and he stood by them. It wasn’t until one of his sponsors, Dannon Yogurt, ended their million-dollar deal with Newton that he felt obliged to apologize. While this incident received national news attention and widespread condemnation, it’s simply another example of the NFL’s war on women.
Over the past decade, NFL players have been abusive to women in various circumstances. In 2006, USC quarterback Mark Sanchez (who later played for the New York Jets) was arrested for sexual assault and released on $200,000 bail, although charges were never filed against him. Three years later, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger faced allegations over sexual assault, which he denied and then later settled in civil court. Quarterback Johnny Manziel was recently accused of striking his girlfriend in a hotel. While these examples resulted in settlements outside of court and minimal publicity, other examples earned headlines for weeks. Examples of these players include Ray McDonald, Ezekiel Elliott, and many others.
A particularly disgusting example of violence against women was Ravens running back Ray Rice’s brutality towards his girlfriend in a hotel elevator in early 2014. In the video, Rice is shown arguing with his girlfriend Janay Palmer. He proceeds to punch her in the face, a blow that knocks her out. The next security camera clip is Rice dragging her body out of the elevator. While the incident itself sickened many who viewed, the reaction of the NFL was equally weak. The commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, suspended Rice for a total of two games after viewing the video of him dragging Palmer out of the elevator. It wasn’t until massive public outrage over the assault, fueled by an additional video of the assault, that Rice lost his spot on the Ravens and faced a full-season suspension.
Advocates for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence hoped the NFL would get the message regarding women’s rights after the publicity the Rice cased received. But the years following the incident proved the status quo hasn’t changed. Goodell, in another instance, gave Panthers player Greg Hardy a 10-game suspension for grabbing his ex-girlfriend, throwing her into furniture, and threatening to kill her. And yet, after being cut by the Panthers for his conduct, the Dallas Cowboys signed Hardy to a deal worth $11 million because, as Cowboys owner so delicately put it: “Greg is a proven and experienced player…[and we gained] a solid understanding of what he is all about as a person and as a football player.”
In other words, because he’s good we don’t care that he beat his girlfriend. Don’t believe me and think he has proven himself a changed man? After earning a spot on the Cowboys, Hardy spoke of his excitement to face Tom Brady: “You seen his wife?” he asked. “I hope she comes to the game. I hope her sister comes to the game.”
The importance of changing this behavior towards women cannot be overstated. While experiencing declines in ratings by younger demographics, professional football is still America’s favorite sport. With this popularity comes children who idolize athletes like Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Odell Beckham Jr. When the league and league owners refuse to firmly condemn disrespect and violence towards women, they normalize a culture of sexism. Last I checked, most employers hesitate hiring someone who has a domestic assault charge on their record.
While the incident with Newton may superficially appear less significant than previous physical and verbal assaults throughout the past decade, it shows how much further reform efforts still need to go. Until the culture of hypermasculinity and misogyny is eliminated, the NFL will be the most publicized organization standing in opposition to women’s rights.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that charges against Sanchez were filed but dropped, but the charges were never filed. It also incorrectly stated that Sanchez currently plays for the New York Jets—he played for them from 2009 to 2014. He is now with the Chicago Bears.
Jack Leger is a member of the class of 2021. Jack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.