At some point, the marketing people at Dannon, the 75-year-old, Pennsylvania-based yogurt company, thought Cam Newton, 6-foot-5 NFL MVP quarterback, would be the perfect pitchman to move considerable amounts of their Oikos Greek Yogurt brand.
It speaks to the stature the 28-year-old has attained, rising from near college bust, to junior college rebound, to controversial Heisman winner, to NFL megastar and big, smiling face of a yogurt brand.
“This Greek non-fat yogurt packs 15 grams of protein punch,” Newton declares in one commercial, wearing his Carolina Panthers uniform while standing in the grocery store dairy aisle playfully punching a fellow shopper in the arm. Later it’s implied that if the dorky shelf-stocker eats yogurt like Newton he’ll end up dating a cheerleader.
That’s some serious hucksterism there. That’s some serious wholesome Americana – yogurt and Cam Newton.
“We will no longer work with him,” Dannon said in a statement.
It began Wednesday, at Newton’s weekly news conference with reporters.
“I know you take a lot of pride in seeing your receivers play well,” Jourdan Rodrigue, a Panthers beat reporter asked Newton. “Devin Funchess seems to have really embraced the physicality of his routes and getting those extra yards. Does that give you a little bit of an enjoyment to see him truck sticking people out there?”
Newton smiled and laughed to himself.
“It’s funny to see a female talk about routes,” Newton said. “It’s funny.”
It wasn’t funny. Neither was Newton’s failure to offer a full apology in the immediate aftermath.
That just compounded the disappointment here in part because this is something that should have been buried in the 1970s and in part because as far as Newton has come he was capable of being an even more prominent and more positive role model.
Perhaps Newton was attempting to tell a joke or perhaps, as he apparently explained later, he should have substituted the word “reporters” for “female” but those are explanations, not excuses.
Rodrigue’s question was precise and respectful. It wasn’t derogatory or combative. It was designed to elicit a response from Newton about the improved play of one of his wide receivers, a positive story that a team leader should encourage.
Newton instead demeaned Rodrigue. In turn, he insulted every other female reporter, past and present, who struggle to deal with both open and hidden sexism in the workplace. Gender offers no innate ability to understand or discuss route running in the NFL.
It’s not like Rodrigue’s question was out of the ordinary, or showy with some incredible technical observation. Funches is a massive receiver, 6-foot-5, 236 pounds. Being physical is his advantage. That is obvious to anyone. The term “truck stick” is football slang for a bigger player plowing over a smaller one.
She asked a simple football question of a football player at a football news conference.
Newton blew it.
And Newton needs to make up for it, first to make things right with Rodrigue, who didn’t deserve any of this, but in the longer run, for himself.
Newton has the potential to be too important of a force in the league, too important of a leader to have his message undone by self-inflicted idiocy.
He needs to issue a real apology, both publicly and then personally to Rodrigue. It’s OK. Everyone makes mistakes and says the wrong thing. Then he needs to focus on the obligation he has to serve as a force of positivity. His comments weren’t just sexist. They suggested dismissiveness to someone trying to do their job. They were rooted in arrogance. They were impolite.
Rodrigue, who is in her second full season on the Panthers beat, reported that Newton later acknowledged that he knew neither her name nor her place of employment.
Look, no one can blame Newton if he doesn’t want to speak to the media or doesn’t care who any of the media members are. Yet that’s part of his job. The NFL is the most popular entertainment entity in America in part because of the constant attention the game enjoys. The NFL mandates interaction with the media because it long ago understood the benefits to the bottom line.
Newton is paid so handsomely because generations before him promoted the league. And it’s not just his $103 million deal with the Panthers. His fame is why Dannon ever thought to hire him to sell yogurt.
Most NFL quarterbacks, especially if they’ve been at the same franchise, know the names of, or at least something about, the media that regularly cover the team. It’s not that the media needs that. It’s the same way it knows (or should know) anyone else who works inside the facility, from the cleaning crew to the administrative assistants.
It speaks to basic decency. Connecting, at least superficially, with the people who work around you each day of the year isn’t hard. Treating them with a modicum of respect is easy.
Newton serves as a tremendous example of someone bootstrapping their way back from adversity – he was thrown out of the University of Florida as a freshman over allegations of stealing a laptop. He wound up at little Blinn College (Texas) of the junior college ranks. With his back against the wall, he responded with determination and drive.
He won a national title at Blinn, a national title and Heisman at Auburn, and an MVP and an NFC championship in Charlotte.
He electrified the Carolinas, brought fans together and inspired all ages. He became likable enough to sell yogurt.
There is so much more he can accomplish, so much farther his voice and actions can carry. It’s a shame to see it undone by sexism and stupidity.
Cam Newton needs to be better than this.