Women who cover sports no longer have to contend with the overt hostility they faced some 40 years ago, but a condescending comment this week by an NFL quarterback to a female reporter is a sign that sexism is still a problem in the industry, says a Concordia University journalism professor who broke the gender barrier in the 1970s.
Linda Kay, who was the first female sports reporter at the San Diego Evening Tribune, says conditions have improved significantly for women in sports media since she cut her teeth, which is why she was surprised to hear Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers mock a female reporter when she asked a question about the routes taken by receiver Devin Funchess.
"It's funny to hear a female talk about...routes," Newton said during a news conference Wednesday. "It's funny."
Reporter Jourdan Rodrigue said in a statement she was "dismayed by his response, which not only belittled me but countless other women before me and beside me who work in similar jobs."
"It's always one step forward, two steps back," Kay said in a phone interview Thursday. "I started in the late 70s, early 80s, and that's the kind of reaction I got then."
Kay said the culture of sports reporting can be less welcoming to women than other fields.
"When I was a general assignment reporter, I was very well accepted by everyone in the newsroom," she said. "But when I went into sports, there were men who would not speak to me."
She recalled the paper's sports department as a hostile and antagonistic environment where she had little or no support from her colleagues.
"The first few years when women entered the field ... it was almost a sabotage situation," she said. "They didn't want you to succeed."
In the 1980s, Kay moved to the Chicago Tribune, where she was also the first woman in the newsroom to cover sports. Her colleagues there were much more supportive, she said, but that attitude didn't always extend to the athletes she covered.
"The male athletes, at the beginning, were like Cam Newton," she said of the dismissive attitudes she often encountered at work. "They felt that you were a groupie who had found a professional outlet."
Jane O'Hara, who became the first female sports editor at major Canadian daily when she took the helm at the Ottawa Sun, said she was encouraged by the fact that no one laughed along with Newton at Wednesday's news conference.
"(Newton's) sly little comment was meant to demean Jourdan, as though the word, the concept, the understanding of 'routes' was so far above her, so above what women could possibly understand it was amusing to him," O'Hara said via email. "What a fool."
The behaviour of its players does reflect on the team and the NFL, said Laurel Walzak, assistant professor of Sport Media at Ryerson University. She would like to see Newton make a public apology — which he did on Thursday night in a video posted to his Twitter account after losing a major sponsor, who called the comments "sexist and disparaging."
But Walzak also said both the Panthers and the NFL bear some responsibility for allowing a culture where his attitude is tolerated.
The NFL did call Newton's comments "just plain wrong and disrespectful to the exceptional female reporters and all journalists who cover our league," adding that they don't reflect the thinking of the league.
The Panthers, who retweeted Newton's video, have been less emphatic in their response, with coach Ron Rivera addressing the situation briefly during his press conference Thursday, saying he thought Newton "made a mistake." A team spokesman said Wednesday that the Panthers "strive as a department to make the environment for media comfortable for everyone covering the team."
Walzak also expressed frustration over reports that categorize Newton's comments as immature, pointing out that it took maturity for him to join fellow NFL players in protesting racial injustice during Sunday's games.
"Those that are saying, 'Oh, he's just being immature' are grossly understating it," Walzak said. "I would argue that it's less about maturity than it is about a systemic discrimination that females face in sport."
Mike O'Shea, head coach of the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers, called Newton's comments "baffling."
"Obviously, we don't agree with his comments," he said. "There's no place for that in sport anymore."
Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols agreed.
"My wife (Ali) knows probably more about football than most men do and she critiques me all the time, and so that's not something that would even pop in my head to question, especially with the amount of women that are in sports these days," he said.
Kay says what she wanted most when she was a sports reporter was the freedom to do her job without constant reminders of her gender.
"It got boring after a while, being singled out as a female sports writer," she said. "You just wanted to be a sports writer."
— With files from Judy Owen in Winnipeg
Maija Kappler, The Canadian Press