Reflecting on NFL morality

Where is the value in critiquing the minutiae of an apology?

On Oct. 4, Jourdan Rodrigue, an experienced sports reporter currently working for the Charlotte Observer, asked Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton a question about the running routes of breakout wide receiver Devin Funchess. Newton’s initial reaction was one of amusement, chuckling while stating, “it’s funny to hear a female talking about routes. It’s funny.” He laughed, shaking his head in apparent disbelief, before finally responding to her question.

Naturally, people were outraged by Newton’s sexist remark, with Rodrigue taking to Twitter in response, stating “I don’t think it’s ‘funny’ to be a female and talk about routes. I think it’s my job.” Newton originally attempted to deflect, defending himself by explaining that his statement was “sarcasm trying to give someone a compliment” before issuing a genuine humbled apology, citing his close and supportive relationship with his two daughters while lamenting his lost fans and sponsorships. Newton even wore a Rosie the Riveter pin on his hat on his way to the Panthers’ Detroit game on Oct. 7. 

“I hope that you learn something from this as well,” Newton said in specific reference to his younger followers. “Don’t be like me. Be better than me.

Still, is it enough?

It goes without saying that Newton’s initial comment felt like it came out of 1917 rather than 2017. The journalists who have been covering this story emphasize how crucial it is that audiences who may not always seek to engage with problems of sexism remain exposed to them, trying to grasp a moral from the incident.

The problem is that an apology from a public figure with a vested interest in appealing to fans and sponsors from all walks of life is never going to feel genuine. People who are deeply invested in combatting sexism will always want more from apologies like these, some proof that the apology stems from their hearts instead of their wallets. Those who are not interested in these issues can still easily skim over the headlines looking for the latest scores.

Newton’s comment is old news at this point, in both the worlds of football and feminism. By the time this article is published, the Carolina Panthers will have played the Chicago Bears, surely with little to no discussion of Newton’s apology. All of the people – mostly women, but some men and nonbinary people – coming out with their #MeToos in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s years of sexual harassment and assault, have the momentum to eclipse this other moment of ordinary sexism. 

Because, unfortunately, that’s what this all is – ordinary sexism. Time and again, public figures prove they cannot be bastions of morality, that they know little beyond their areas of expertise. There is a definite gulf between Newton’s thoughtless remark and Weinstein’s decades-long career of harassment, but both instances prove that one cannot expect their entertainers to eloquently and perfectly champion social justice causes. Professional athletes like Newton fit under this umbrella – they are entertainers for a national audience, after all.

Colin Kaepernick, the initiator of the take-a-knee  protests during the national anthem at NFL games, is a rare exception to this rule within the professional football landscape – the NFL is freezing him out for it, as Kaepernick continues to remain unsigned. From his story, it becomes increasingly obvious that the NFL and its associates will briefly address momentary instances of bigotry to throw a bone to its more liberal fans, but will soon continue as if nothing happened, making their money as scheduled with minimal regard to issues of social justice and equality.

If we really want to hold individuals accountable for their actions, we must attack the institutions that prop this bread and circus version of slacktivism. Yes, Newton deserves some of the blame for thinking that a remark so clearly rooted in sexism was acceptable, but it is far more crucial we raze the grounds where it was allowed to flourish: the locker room, the field and the NFL executive conference room.