Lesley Visser has heard boorish views and sexist statements similar to those uttered this week by Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton countless times over the years. She was, after all, the first female reporter to cover an NFL team, and neither football nor society knew quite what to make of that back in 1976.
But what she saw unfold in the aftermath of Newton belittling a female reporter earlier this week did offer her a pleasant reminder of how things have changed.
"Personally, I am staggeringly gratified that the reaction was to diminish his thought, not celebrate it," said Visser, the longtime CBS correspondent and the first woman honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "Because for the 40 years that I have covered the NFL, the first 15 years were people agreeing with Cam Newton."
The backlash against Newton intensified Thursday, one day after Jourdan Rodrigue, the Panthers' beat reporter for the Charlotte Observer, innocuously asked Newton a question about one of the team's receivers, referencing the "physicality of his routes." Newton smirked and responded, "It's funny to hear a female talk about 'routes.' "
After he was dropped earlier in the day by one of his sponsors, Newton issued a video apology Thursday night, saying "my word choice was extremely degrading and disrespectful toward women."
"To be honest, that was not my intention," he said, "and if you are a person who took offense to what I said, I sincerely apologize to you."
He acknowledged he lost "sponsors and countless fans," adding that he's "learned a valuable lesson through all of this."
Newton had drawn a sharp rebuke from journalism circles, and a league spokesman said his comments were "just plain wrong and disrespectful."
"They do not reflect the thinking of the league," Brian McCarthy said.
On Thursday, Newton lost one of his sponsors when yogurt company Dannon Oikos announced it was severing ties with the seventh-year quarterback.
"We are shocked and disheartened at the behavior and comments of Cam Newton towards Jourdan Rodrigue, which we perceive as sexist and disparaging to all women," Michael Neuwirth, senior director of external communication, said in an email. "It is entirely inconsistent with our commitment to fostering equality and inclusion in every workplace. It's simply not okay to belittle anyone based on gender. We have shared our concerns with Cam and will no longer work with him."
Gatorade, the sports drink company he endorses, issued a statement condemning the remarks but did not drop Newton from its roster of athletes. "Cam's comments were objectionable and disrespectful to all women and they do not reflect the values of our brand," the company said in a statement.
Another sponsor, Under Armour, the sports apparel company, did not comment on Newton or its relationship with the quarterback.
Nearly 40 years ago, veteran journalist Melissa Ludtke successfully sued Major League Baseball for the right to be allowed into baseball clubhouses like her male counterparts. She heard Newton's comment this week, that familiar tone, and was disheartened.
"It took me instantly back to 40 years ago," she said. "But then there was a pause."
She said she quickly realized that while an athlete still might hold unsophisticated views, the real progress can be seen in the fallout and the "institutional support" that exists today. In 1978, Ludtke squared off against the teams, the league, even her fellow journalists just for the right to do her job.
"In the 1970s, when we faced this, we never had people who had our backs," she said. "We faced it alone."
In an odd twist, the Charlotte reporter was forced to issue an apology of her own after Internet sleuths unearthed old social media posts in which Rodrigue appeared to make light of racist humor and casually used the n-word. In her apology, she said the offensive tweets were four or five years old.
"There is no excuse for these tweets and the sentiment behind them," she said in a Twitter post Thursday afternoon. "I am deeply sorry and apologize."
Many journalists of both genders rallied behind Rodrigue the night before. Visser said she was relieved to see the groundswell of support for the journalist. As a reporter with the Boston Globe, Visser was first assigned to cover the New England Patriots more than four decades ago, before female reporters were even allowed in locker rooms. She was at the forefront of a generation of women who challenged team and league rules, fought for access and fair treatment. In many ways, Newton's remarks felt like they came from a different time and place.
"I am hoping that this is attributed to Cam Newton's youth and that in years to come he will see how ill-founded his comment was," Visser said. ". . . The bigger picture is society has really come around to understanding that Cam Newton was in the wrong. That's really a huge leap from where I started, where there wasn't even a ladies' room."
Cindy Boren contributed to this report.