NFL sexism: Who are the real culprits?

Amid the outrage over Cam Newton's sexist comment at a press conference, let's not forget the hypocrisy of the NFL and his corporate sponsors, writes Dana Blanchard.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newson speaks to reporters (Grant Baldwin | flickr)Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newson speaks to reporters (Grant Baldwin | flickr)

CAROLINA PANTHERS quarterback Cam Newton laughed at a question asked by Charlotte Observer reporter Jourdan Rodrigue on October 4, saying it was "funny to hear a female" talk about receiver routes.

Rodrigue has more knowledge than most about the inner workings of the team's offense. As one of two Observer reporters who regularly cover the Panthers, Rodrigue has been following the team for more than a year, and before that, she covered the sport at football-obsessed Penn State.

Her impressive knowledge was expressed in both the specificity and depth of her question about wide receiver Devin Funchess and his improved route-running abilities over the course of this season--so it shouldn't have been funny at all that Rodrigue is a knowledgeable professional. When she pushed back, she was absolutely correct that comments like Newton's make it hard for women like her to do their jobs.

I'm glad that this blew up into a major news story. Any time that someone experiences sexism on the job, we should stand up to it. Countless women like Rodrigue are treated as "less than," simply because of their gender--and not just on football fields that have traditionally been dominated by men.

A day after the press conference, Newton issued a video apology via Twitter to the public, his fans and women everywhere. To me, as a woman and a longtime sports fan, his words seemed heartfelt. Newton's reference to his daughters and also his recognition that others should "do better than him" hit the right notes, and hopefully educated millions about how sexism, no matter how casually phrased, can deeply affect people.

A day after Newton's apology, yet another new wrinkle in the drama unfolded: Twitter sleuths found racist tweets posted by Rodrigue several years ago, including one using the n-word. Many have concluded that her reaction to Newton is racially biased.

I would argue that Rodrigue's racist comments don't negate Newton's sexist comments, and that this conversation is much bigger than the particular ideas held two high-profile individuals.

This story is about a culture of racism and sexism in America, and in the National Football League (NFL) in particular--and how we can begin to change that culture through struggle and real conversations about oppression.

In her excellent take on the controversy, Katie Barnes, a reporter for ESPN-W, quotes James Baldwin and goes on for a good-faith effort to understand the pain that racism and sexism cause those who are oppressed every day. Barnes concludes that an "us vs. them" mentality between different oppressed groups only serves to benefit those at the top.

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IN STARK contrast to the regret expressed by Newton and Rodrigue, or Barnes' thoughtful reflections, the NFL and Newton's corporate sponsors such as Dannon Yogurt have seized the opportunity to take Newton to task and claim the moral high ground on the issue of sexism and misogyny.

This is truly the height of hypocrisy. The NFL's statement on Newton's remarks reads in part: "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."

Let's take a moment to reflect on "thinking of the league" with respect to women.

First, there's the NFL's handling, or mishandling, of domestic violence cases involving players.

To say that the record has been inconsistent is an understatement. The typical pattern that has emerged is that the NFL does nothing proactively to investigate cases of domestic abuse, then engages in spin and damage control when damning evidence goes public.

The case of New York Giants kicker Josh Brown is a prime example of how NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and team owner John K. Mara first tried to cover up the extent of domestic violence--and only addressed the ongoing abuse of Brown's wife when it became public.

Brown repeatedly beat his wife, keeping her as a virtual slave, while the powers that be in the Giants organization knew all about it. Despite this knowledge, Mara had no problem re-signing Brown for the 2016 season. Only after diaries detailing the abuse were leaked to the public did the NFL say it would reopen Brown's case.

This kind of conduct by the league certainly doesn't square with its self-congratulatory rhetoric about being a "champion of women's rights."

The NFL has also been in a protracted battle with its own female employees, as the league's cheerleaders continue their fight for living wages. In 2014, an Oakland Raiders cheerleader--who at the time was making just $5 an hour, almost half the state's minimum wage--filed the first of many lawsuits against the NFL.

The continued struggle of cheerleaders to demand fair pay and decent working conditions has not been met with support from the NFL, but rather silence and contempt. When asked about cheerleader pay in 2015, Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman at the time, said the league had nothing to do with cheerleader wages. "You would have to speak to the teams," he said.

That seems like a pretty lame response from the same group of people who are now posing as a force for fighting sexism in the workplace.

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IN ADDITION to the hypocritical comments from the NFL, Dannon, famous for its yogurt products, dropped Newton as a celebrity spokesperson.

One look at any recent Dannon commercial, however, shows that the company has no problem stereotyping women, nor publicly making fun of them or promoting sexist ideas. A recent batch of commercials featuring actor John Stamos--several of which ran during the Super Bowl last year--show women literally drooling over Stamos, and one particularly grotesque scene implies a woman might go so far as to give him a blowjob because she just can't control herself.

The idea that Dannon is suddenly a champion of women's rights is ridiculous. The company's motives have less to do with fighting sexism and more to do with sales revenue.

In the days and weeks to come, the furor over this incident will die down, and Newton's comments will become an afterthought.

However, the people at the top--the NFL commissioner and team owners, the corporate bosses like those at Dannon, and our very own misogynist-in-chief--will continue to peddle sexist ideas and, more importantly, create structural barriers to women being the equals of men.

It's important not to get lost in the details surrounding Newton and his individual actions while the system that has created space for these kinds of ideas and that benefits from keeping women down is let off the hook.

In order to meaningfully challenge sexism, we can't let the biggest culprits escape our criticism, and we must battle sexist ideas wherever they arise--in the press box, the locker room or the workplace. But in order to strengthen the fight against sexism, we must never forget the institutions and people at the top who will use their power and influence to target others while keep themselves safely out of the crosshairs.