Those in the business of protecting Cam Newton have often found doing so to be a Herculean task. On the field, Newton himself is of great help—elusive, tactful, and deliberate in his play. But the Panthers quarterback is altogether different before microphones from how he is before middle linebackers, and the tale of Cam Newton is one of someone who—before the world’s gaze—seems painfully unsure of the man he wishes to be.
His wavering stances on race in America anger both those who loathe his sheepish approach to injustice as well as those who urge him not to weigh in on race, as he did in response to police shooting a black man in Charlotte last September.
The boundaries of his views are in constant question, and on Wednesday, Newton’s seeming confusion about this was on full display as he mocked a female reporter during his press conference.
The Charlotte Observer’s Jourdan Rodrigue questioned the quarterback about his interpretation of wide receiver Devin Funchess’s physical route-running, to which Newton cheerfully replied, “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes, like — it’s funny.”
His kiddish laughter continued despite an awkward silence by others in the room, and was demonstrative of Newton’s puzzling lack of self-awareness. That lacking digs deeper than his stubborn, occasionally comical allegiance to southern aphorisms and speaks to a general ignorance within the man.
There was, for example, no sense that Newton had reconciled his thoughts about female sports reporters with his own self-defense against stereotype and stigma. This, even considering a mere six years have passed since Newton found himself subjected to ridicule concerning his own mental capacity and aptitude for his profession. Appearing on an ESPN segment hosted by former NFL coach Jon Gruden in 2011, Newton — primed to enter the league — faced a deluge of specific technical jargon intended to question his academic mastery of football.
“Some of this verbiage in the NFL—I don’t know how it was at Auburn—it’s long,” Gruden said. “You’ve got the shifts, the plays, the protection, the snap count, the alert, the check-with-mes,” Gruden said. Newton replied, explaining that the ways he’d called plays in college differed from the NFL methods. “The number one challenge you’re gonna have right away is the verbiage, and just getting comfortable with what we’re calling formations, what we’re calling routes…” Gruden said.
The resulting responses from viewers and analysts were largely unkind to Newton, many of them refashioning previous arguments against the comprehension skills of black quarterbacks. To this day, stigma follows black quarterbacks, with few in starting roles. So it is that in this vein, Newton’s sexist comment on Wednesday appears equally shallow and short-sighted. He paid no mind to the fact that he himself had once been deemed incapable of reading the very routes he assumed women were too simple to understand.
It is no wonder how a sport that so often heralds its proclaimed antithesis to womanhood and femininity provides augur for toxic manhood."
Newton is, in many ways, a rightful target of ire. He made a blatantly sexist remark and the ensuing, probing questions concerning his personal views may well be justified. There are also, though, macrocosmic questions to be asked of men and the culture we breed that allows such sexism to persist. But we ought not neglect our duty to assess Newton’s particular circumstance as an NFL player — as an athlete — and wonder about the specific ideologies nurtured in these environments. United States sports culture, for example, is especially and unapologetically adept at making ancillary figures out of women.
The NFL, in particular, is notorious for its treatment of women as mere tools to secure and widen its audience. Its cheerleaders sue successfully for recompense on denied wages; league executives bungle and botch investigations into domestic violence. Still, league voices have yet to diversify so they better reflect the variation in our society. These are not byproducts, but rather intended outcomes, and they — along with the candidness of Cam Newton’s sexism — are the clear results of a sport that sells hypermasculinity in ample measure.
So much of football and its surrounding culture rests upon a celebration of maleness and the perceived brutishness of it all: the disregard for injury (personal and otherwise), the esteem for physical fortitude, the war-like analogies, and more.
It is no question how a sport that so often heralds its proclaimed antithesis to womanhood and femininity provides augur for toxic manhood. This is not a toxicity we escape through a mere condemnation of Cam Newton — through the sole acts of divestment and public reprimand, as we’ve seen from Dannon and Gatorade, respectively. We mustn’t allow the extent of our activism to rest at Newton’s feet alone. If we are to rightly critique a man for oafish sexism, we must also focus on the systems and environments allowing that man to propagate these views unchecked.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.