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Hey, Cam Newton, It’s Not That Hard to Talk About Football

Cam Newton avoided answering a good football question on Wednesday and instead responded to a female reporter with a sexist jab. How will the Carolina Panthers react to their quarterback’s lack of professionalism?

Devin Funchess had seven catches last Sunday in Foxborough. Two of them went for touchdowns against a Patriots defense that, last year at least, surrendered the fewest points in the NFL. Cam Newton could have picked any of these plays to highlight at his press conference on Wednesday afternoon, when he was asked a good question by Charlotte Observer reporter Jourdan Rodrigue:

Cam, I know you take a lot of pride in seeing your receivers play well. Devin Funchess has seemed to really embrace the physicality of his routes and getting those extra yards. Does that give you a little bit of enjoyment to see him kind of truck-sticking people out there?

There were so many examples to choose from. What about Funchess’s first catch of the day? The 6-foot-4, 225-pound receiver was matched up against Malcolm Butler, who is about six inches shorter and 35 pounds lighter. Funchess used this mismatch to his advantage. Running a slant route—a pattern in which the receiver breaks in toward the middle of the field at a 45-degree angle—is the perfect assignment on which to make use of his size. You know what else Funchess did well there? He used a stem in his route—a hard step to the outside with his right foot—that widened Butler, and then he used his hands to cross Butler’s face and get inside. By the time Newton delivered the ball, it was impossible for Butler to defend. Gain of 14 yards.

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Or how about that third-and-8 catch right before halftime? Funchess was the outside receiver in a bunch formation, a schematic wrinkle used to create confusion for the defense as to who covers whom. Funchess ran a pivot route, which entailed taking a few steps to sell the crossing route, before pivoting back outside. Eric Rowe made first contact with Funchess three yards beyond the line of scrimmage, but Funchess lowered his shoulder and spun off Rowe to pick up the first down. The Panthers went on to score a touchdown that drive, a 10-yard throw to Funchess, who was wide open yet again out of that bunch formation.

Newton also could have highlighted what might have been Funchess’s best route of the day. Matched up against Butler, the former Super Bowl hero, Funchess again got open by stemming his route. At the line of scrimmage, the Panthers set up what looked like a power play with the left guard pulling, but after the play-action fake Newton looked downfield. Running up the seam, Funchess had taken that hard plant to the outside, getting Butler to hesitate just enough so he had space as he worked back into the void in the middle of the field. The throw was slightly behind Funchess, but he made a nice adjustment to pull down the ball before Butler got there, and crossed the goal line for a 16-yard score.

See, it’s not that hard to talk about football.

And that’s exactly what the Observer reporter was doing. And that’s all she was asking Newton to do: Answer a question about football.

Her gender had nothing to do with the question, and it shouldn’t have had anything to do with the answer. Except, the second Rodrigue said the word “routes,” Newton started to smirk, as if it was a dirty word. When he began his reply, it was clear he thought Rodrigue was out of her element for simply doing her job.

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“It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes, like…” Newton said. “It’s funny.”

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Nothing about the exchange was funny. The truth is that most women who work in this field—scratch that, most women in any profession—can share their own stories like this. Once, when I asked a question about how two injuries on the left side of the offensive line would affect the calls in the running game, a veteran back told me, “You’re such a woman when it comes to this.” A columnist, who was standing nearby at the player’s locker, laughed along with him. But it wasn’t a franchise quarterback speaking at a press conference that thousands will see.

A Panthers spokesperson said Newton and Rodrigue had a conversation after the press conference in which Cam expressed regret for referencing gender in his response. Observer columnist Scott Fowler quoted Rodrigue as saying that Newton did not apologize, and Rodrigue wrote on her Twitter account, “I spoke with him after and it was worse. I chose not to share, because I have an actual job to do today and one he will not keep me from.” Asked how the organization would address the incident, the spokesperson said that was up to head coach Ron Rivera and interim general manager Marty Hurney, and that he did not want to speak for them. Rivera is married to a former WNBA assistant coach and is the father of a college softball pitcher; Hurney began his career as a journalist asking questions about football things such as routes.

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There’s only one way to properly address it, and that’s by refusing to excuse sexism. Newton is the face of the franchise, and unless they require him to issue a public apology, the Carolina Panthers will appear to condone a role model in his community demeaning women. After Newton’s pouty press conference following the Super Bowl 50 loss, Rivera came to his defense by saying this is a different generation of athletes. Well, let’s hold him to that same standard here. He is part of a different generation—supposedly one that’s more enlightened, more inclusive and more invested in equality for all.

Newton meandered his way to an answer about Funchess being excited to play his hometown Lions this weekend, and having a different preparation level this season, but never really answered Rodrigue’s original question. It was a missed opportunity to praise his teammate after a breakout performance, or to give kudos to his coaches for their game plan that schemed receivers open against the best-prepared team in the NFL. Heck, he could have even used the question to needle the media a bit, as he often does, by making the point that Funchess proved he can run the routes that plenty of pundits have said he couldn’t run.

Shoddy route-runner, eh? How do you like him now?

Instead, Newton took a football question and turned it into a sexist jab. There was only one professional in that exchange, and it wasn’t the $100 million quarterback.

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