Female sports journalists react to Cam Newton, share their own sexist experiences

PHOTO: Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton speaks to the media following an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers, Oct. 1, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass.PlaySteven Senne/AP
WATCH NFL star apologizes for comments to female reporter

Female sports reporters don't have an easy job.

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The hurdles they continue to face were brought into the spotlight this week after an interaction between Cam Newton and a female reporter.

During a press conference Wednesday, the Carolina Panthers quarterback laughed at a question posed by Jourdan Rodrigue. The Charlotte Observer sportswriter's question was a valid one -- she asked about the team's routes, which caused Newton to reply: "It's funny to hear a female talk about routes."

ESPN W contributor Shana Renee Stephenson told ABC News that what Rodrigue experienced was not unusual.

"If you talk to any woman beat writer, I’m sure they have stories for days about a similar interaction whether it be with an athlete or a team executive or something," she said "They’re a woman in a male-dominated industry."

But not only female sports reporters were offended, ESPN reporter Michele Steele said. "Some of my male colleagues ... thought this was offensive," she noted.

"If you watch the video," Steele went onto explain, "he paused for a laugh and I didn’t hear anybody laughing. This was something pretty universally condemned on my side."

Cam Newton has long had a prickly relationship with the media

It's not the first time the franchise quarterback has ruffled feathers at a sports press conference or even on the field.

From growing weary at responding to reporters' questions in the days leading up to the Super Bowl last year, to being oddly criticized for dabbing, Newton has seemingly grown accustomed to the attention.

"Cam Newton is an interesting person," Jane McManus, who's been a sportswriter for 17 years, told ABC News. "He is often genuine where other professional athletes can be very scripted. That’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you want to get authenticity ... but sometimes it can betray something that is less appealing."

She added that Newton's "offhand" comments "reflect a lack of awareness of women in this business and what they deal with -- and that attitude is part of what they deal with."

It's definitely not a comment that a franchise player should make -- one who's undergone media training, Stephenson said.

"Cam’s been in the league for seven seasons now. He's a former MVP. He’s been the face of the franchise ... since his rookie season as a franchise quarterback so he should know what’s appropriate to say and what’s not appropriate to say," she added.

"Cam Newton is someone who has said he wants to be a superstar in this league," Steele, who's been a sports reporter since 2009 and has covered the NFL since 2011, noted. "This was supposed to be a big comeback year for him after the 2016 season and this certainly is not superstar behavior."

Lack of diversity feeds the problem

Many female sports journalists point out that they are often the only, or one of few, women in the locker room. Their scarcity could lead to bias -- conscious or unconscious, blatant or subtle, some said.

"Because there a so few of us, especially in smaller markets, every woman has to re-blaze that trail," McManus, who spent years covering the New York Jets, said.

She added, "There is more acceptance. The laws are such that women are able to go everywhere ... Equal access, that’s fairly unquestioned. Occasionally you'll get a rogue security guard who thinks women don’t belong in locker rooms."

Stephenson, who also created AllSportsEverything.com, recalls a time when she faced similar challenges while applying for a sports reporter position, which she ultimately did not get.

"They were concerned about me being a woman in the locker room," she said. "That was often a question that was raised in the interview process about my comfortability level as a woman reporting for a professional male team and being the only woman or being one of few."

Stephenson added, "I would always say it wasn’t an issue for me because I felt more than qualified for the job that I was interviewing for and that I had a job to do and so I would be prepared and comfortable."

Still, Steele said she wants to "underline" that not all male athletes in locker rooms exhibit sexist behaviors.

"The vast majority of guys in locker rooms have been so respectful of me as a reporter and me as a woman," she said.

It's why Steele dismisses stereotypes about "locker room talk," a term recently dragged back into the zeitgeist after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump was caught on tape having a vulgar exchange with TV host Billy Bush.

Trump dismissed and downplayed the comments as "locker room banter."

"What I told people at the time was, 'Go to a locker room. The average age of athletes is somewhere in the 20s. These are guys who are used to women speaking up for themselves,'" she said. "They're more PC than the average office."

Is there a solution?

Stephenson isn't hopeful for any major changes in this dynamic soon, noting that many of the biases people have don't start at work.

"The way that people feel about women, or the way that people feel about someone’s differences, comes from a very personal place and that’s something they have to evolve on in their own time," she added.

Steele expressed optimism. She suggests employing more women in NFL franchises as a whole.

"We're never going to get more women on a football team, but you can include more women in the structure," she explained.

She suggests starting with the communications department, who often act as a liaison between the media and the football players.

"When the person who is the gateway ... is a woman, you're going to get more of an informed dialogue between the players and the media," Steele said. "Because they talk to players all the time and they're doing the media training."

McManus sees signs of hope from the NFL, which held a workshop last January for women who had played semi-professional football to possibly enter the NFL as scouts, lower-level coaches and officials.

Now teaching sports journalism as an adjunct professor with Columbia University's School of Journalism, McManus said the controversy over Newton's comments can hopefully "lead to dialogue that could be productive."

Her advice to her female students and other women starting in the business: "I say go into it and love it and do it and be the best you can be at it, with eyes open, knowing these are the challenges. Having an editor that has your back, communicating with your editor, having a good support system for anybody is super helpful."

"It’s super frustrating," she said about the sexism and other challenges women sports journalists face. "It can really feel like a very personal thing."

"Get into this business," she said, bottom line. "Don’t be afraid of any the challenges. Just be prepared to face them."