‘More Than Mean’ Roundtable: Female Sportswriters Speak Up About Online Harassment

Julie DiCaro CREDIT: JUST NOT SPORTS, YOUTUBE
Julie DiCaro CREDIT: JUST NOT SPORTS, YOUTUBE

Last week, Just Not Sports shone a spotlight on the harassment that many female sportswriters receive with a video project called #MoreThanMean. In the video, men sat down sports reporters Julie DiCaro (670 The Score, columnist for The Cauldron) and Sarah Spain (ESPN) and read the abusive online messages that DiCaro and Spain have received out loud, to their faces.

While the messages start out predictably dismissive — calling Spain a nagging wife, asking for a ban to all links to DiCaro’s Twitter feed — they quickly devolve into something much more sinister. One said he hoped DiCaro was “Bill Cosby’s next victim.” Another, directed at Spain, said, “I hope your boyfriend beats you.”

The video clearly struck a chord. In just a week, it has been viewed over three million times.

In the wake of the viral video and the conversations it has sparked, I gathered a group of female sports journalists from across the United States and Canada to talk about the reaction to the video, how they handle online abuse, and how we can collectively move forward.

The conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, was held over email. The participants are DiCaro, Lindsey Adler (sports reporter, BuzzFeed), Kavitha A. Davidson (sportswriter), Shireen Ahmed (freelance writer and sports activist), Stacey May Fowles (baseball writer), Rhiannon Walker (associate editor, ESPN’s The Undefeated), and myself, the sports reporter at ThinkProgress.

Lindsay Gibbs: Hello everyone, and thanks so much for joining me! What was your reaction upon first seeing the video? Were you surprised by how much attention it got?Julie DiCaro: My first reaction was that I wanted to change my sweater and take the guys up on their offer of professional makeup. That sounds flip, but I’m only half-joking. I knew my appearance in the video would bring out the fat-shaming trolls, and it absolutely has. But seriously, we were all completely stunned by how fast it went viral. I took a nap, woke up, and had 500-plus notifications on Twitter. It was insane.

Shireen Ahmed: I saw it early in the morning and was really overwhelmed. I don’t expect anything Julie does to be less than amazing but the video itself was really intense. I teared up when the comments about rape came. I had to pause it. I watched it four times in a row. I kept wondering how Julie and Sarah managed to remain so composed and dignified. ​It occurred to me that they are really used to it. And that made me really angry.

Kavitha Davidson: I think I immediately tweeted something along the lines of, “Can we invent a new word for the simultaneous act of crying and cheering that I did while watching that video?” That was my exact reaction. I was crying out of pain and solidarity for these women having to endure such vitriol, while cheering the courage of Julie and Sarah for agreeing to appear in the video in the first place. (If you can imagine “whooping” while weeping, it’s not exactly a pretty sight.)

​It occurred to me that they are really used to it. And that made me really angry.

Stacey May Fowles: I was actually really upset watching the video, and then immediately had to examine exactly why that was. Beyond the fact that I call Julie a friend and that I hate to see my friends suffer, I know how vile these comments can be. It wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know, or revealing something I hadn’t actually endured on occasion. I had to acknowledge that I had a great deal of empathy for the men who were forced to say these things, which really is not where our collective empathy should be going. Rhiannon Walker: It’s not like I’ve never seen other women get abused on social media or seen the depth of other people’s depravity, but it hurt to watch that video. I genuinely cannot understand why anyone thinks to say those kind of things to women. It makes absolutely no sense to me why a woman doing her job offends so many men. I mean, even seeing how numb Sarah and Julie were to what was being said to them was jarring, because how much abuse does one have to go to through before those kind of remarks get no reaction at all?

And if I’m being honest, my thoughts turned to how some of that maybe a preview for the response I’ll get creating content that discusses race, sports and culture. In regard to the attention it received, I was extremely pleased with how much it got passed around and discussed. I don’t think I was surprised, per se.

Gibbs: I too became very emotional watching it, but admittedly, I moved on with my day afterwards and didn’t think too much of it. I expected that it would hit a nerve with sports twitter, but had absolutely no sense of the overall impact that it would have. I think that’s because I’m somewhat numb to it. Lindsey Adler: I was actually very surprised too. I’m not sure whether I just believed people who don’t experience the type of harassment shown in the video didn’t believe it was an issue, didn’t care, or were already tired of talking about it, but I am glad my cynicism was proved wrong.  Davidson: I agree. Women sportswriters and our allies are well aware of how much of this abuse we deal with, but it was a welcome turn to see the rest of media pay attention to this, too. And it’s certainly not a foreign concept to women who cover finance, tech, and science.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos, ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos, ThinkProgress

Gibbs: This might sound like an obvious question, but why do you think this particular video struck such a nerve? I mean, it’s not like “women get abused on the internet” and “women aren’t super welcome in sports” are trailblazing topics. Ahmed: I feel like so much attention was given to this because of the regular “nice guys” who were really upset by this social experiment. It’s not as if Julie and Sarah are not public about the abuse they face. Not to discount allyship but it seems now that the nice guy crew is on board, that it suddenly matters.

DiCaro: I have this awful suspicion that it’s because men are involved in the message, but I hope that’s not the case. Women in dozens of fields have been complaining about online harassment for years, so I’m shocked and sort of miffed to hear so many male colleagues in media say “I had no idea it was that bad.” Really? I have a feeling that’s because you haven’t been listening to us when we talk about it, or you’ve been minimizing our experiences. Neither of those options make me very happy.

Gibbs: People don’t believe women. It’s a tired but true refrain. But, when the guys in the video say it, suddenly the conversation picks up.

I think the sad reality is that men have to tell us something is wrong before we’ll tackle it as a culture.

Walker: Exactly. Having “good men” say the same things we’ve been saying forever and day made it more real for some folks.

Adler: This is the part that bothers me about all the discourse leading up to and following this video: Online harassment of women is not a new subject! I understand there are a lot of fortunate people whose lives do not revolve around being online, but for those who have been exposed to this discourse, I wanted to ask why it took a video for them to care. Women. Have. Been. Telling. You.

And so often, when women speak up about harassment, we’re seen as annoying, told to brush it off, or overreacting. “The opinion of online randos doesn’t matter! To me! A person who doesn’t have to be subjected to being called the c-word for having an opinion on baseball!” I understand that the video really “made it real” for a lot of people, but jeez, it has been real for us. Try listening to women instead of discounting our experiences.

Fowles: I think the sad reality is that men have to tell us something is wrong before we’ll tackle it as a culture. The PSA, though extremely effecting, is not conveying any revelatory information beyond what women have been saying for years. Seeing these men reveal their visceral discomfort, having them say “sorry” repeatedly, hits a nerve with people who might not otherwise take the issue seriously when women say “this is happening, and it’s awful, and we should find a way to stop it.” Davidson: To echo what you all have been saying, women aren’t trusted to accurately portray our own experiences. Many people, even seemingly well-meaning allies, needed to hear these vile tweets from the mouths of men to confirm that we’re not exaggerating. There’s also something to be said for the sheer aesthetic impact of having a man read violent threats to a woman’s face. Words in text form lose their emotional context; it’s one thing for someone to type hate-speech on a computer, somewhat detached from its intended recipient. It’s another to actually say those words out loud, directly to someone’s face, thus humanizing the person on the receiving end.

Gibbs: The reaction to the video was all over the place. While many praised it, there were plenty who reacted to the abusive comments by pointing out that “not all men” say things like that, or that male sportswriters get abuse too. Do you think that’s fair?DiCaro: It’s not fair, but it’s no less than I expected. Those guys are always out there. I still haven’t figured out why they feel me sharing my experience invalidates their own, but that seems to be the case. I think we all agree that men get harassed online, too. I’d love for someone to tell that story. But how can Sarah and I speak for men? They have to tell their own story. This was ours. Ahmed: Comments such as “not all men” derail the conversation entirely. This isn’t an initiative to hate on men. It is to highlight abuse by certain people that is violent and misogynist. ​For men to see that as the most imperative takeaway is narcissist and reductive. This actually isn’t about “all men” being abusers. It is about checking behavior and realizing what is happening in an industry and arena dominated by men.

Fowles: We know it’s not all men, and that male sports personalities and writers certainly face their fair share of abuse. But what the conversation should be is that this kind of gendered abuse directed towards women, beyond causing psychic harm and legitimate fear, is further excluding them from an already male-dominated sports culture. Women are the outsiders, and then they have to endure this kind of vitriol in the process of doing their jobs. Online harassment is a part of a much larger issue of inequity, so even if “not all men” are spouting cruelty, they can play a part in making the community much more welcoming for excluded voices.

Comments such as ‘not all men’ derail the conversation entirely.

Walker: I was pretty numb to the whole “not all men,” or “such-and-such man gets it worse than they do,” arguments, because I’ve heard all of those defenses as a black person trying to discuss race and racism. It’s not fair, because obviously if what is being said doesn’t apply to you then, then there’s no need for you to be defensive in the first place. I’ve never understood the need to defend something if it’s not something you participate in or do.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is when Atticus Finch is talking Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, and he’s having the conversation with her about walking around in someone else’s skin and understanding things from another person’s perspective. The men getting defensive could’ve just taken a step back, digested what was being said, instead of being up in arms.  Adler: The people who don’t want to learn from the video, or any attendant discourse, are simply not going to learn. I understand the response to say, “MALE SPORTSWRITERS GET SHITTY TWEETS TOO,” but that really tries to undermine a bunch of women telling you the ways in which this becomes a unique experience for women. Men are criticized for their jobs, their knowledge, their abilities; women are criticized for who we are as people, as sexual objects. Also, male sportswriters getting shitty tweets and emails doesn’t make it OK. They shouldn’t be subjected to irrational criticism either! Davidson: I’ve pretty much run out of patience for those who react to women describing their experiences with defensive dismissal, because the only purpose of that is to delegitimize them because you happened not to have directly caused them. But what’s more troubling to me are the people who reacted to the video by basically saying they’re “just tweets” and male sportswriters get hateful comments, too, and women need to grow a thicker skin and “just get over it.” While it’s true that men in media are also the target of abuse, the plain fact is for the most part, those men have the luxury of only experiencing such threats online. For women, it bleeds into our daily, offline, IRL lives. It’s not a far cry from “women should get over online harassment” to “women should get over street harassment” to “women should get over workplace harassment” to “women should get over sexual assault.”

Gibbs: How much abuse do you deal with on a day-to-day basis? Do you notice that it’s worse when you deal with certain topics? If you’re comfortable sharing, what are some of the worse comments you have received? Fowles: It ebbs and flows depending on what I’m writing or tweeting about. It usually hits a peak when I’m writing about issues of sexual assault and domestic violence, and it gets particularly brutal when a major sports outlet has linked to a tweet I’ve written. (Stop doing that, major sports outlets.)

It’s gotten to the point where I actually choose the venues I write for based on the likelihood that harassment will come my way, and sometimes shy away from certain topics if I’m not in a place where I can endure the inevitable. For the most part comments are usually about how I’m a “stupid whiny politically correct feminazi SJW moron who doesn’t understand sports culture,” like if I’m critiquing hazing, or clubhouse violence for example, but sometimes they veer off into something more creepy, and sometimes downright scary.

I think the fear is the worst part, really — the idea that constantly anticipating insult and cruelty is part of my job. I actually turn down television appearances because they’ve been known to invoke the worst kind of abuse, which is obviously a major issue if we’re looking to see more women represented on television in the realm of sports.

Walker: So far, I haven’t dealt with much if any abuse. Even when I discuss football, basketball, baseball, etc. I haven’t had anyone really say anything to me. The few emails I received, I checked those people very quickly. Most questioned my intelligence, and when I doubled back to whatever it was the emailers were upset about, I found I was right in most cases. Either way, I made it clear no one is going to talk to me crazy, because none of these men would say this to my face. I agree with Jemele Hill [co-host of ESPN’s His and Hers] about how to handle abuse though, I’ll put you out there.

Gibbs: I personally notice that the abuse really depends on the topic. I got far less of it when I was just writing about tennis, because perhaps people think that’s a sport that women are “supposed” to cover, but it increases when I write about sports such as NASCAR or basketball, and then peaks when I address topics such as sexism, domestic violence, or sexual assault.

I’ve gotten much better at ignoring the comments, but no matter how much I try and just suck it up, I’m still really bothered by negative comments on my weight and appearance, rape threats, or the bizarre combo of the two — “you’re just sad you’re too fat to get raped.” Adler: For me, it seems like the worst abuse comes out of the blue, not related to any specific thing I write or tweet. Which is maybe worse and more unsettling? Like, instead of just ignoring me, which is pretty easy to do online, you got so worked up you had to create a fake email account and email me out of the blue to ruin my day just because you don’t like that I’m a feminist? Fortunately, I don’t think I’ve ever received a rape or death threat. I can’t believe I’m saying I’m fortunate for that! Well, I did recently get told that I would be “better off raped and dead,” but it wasn’t an explicit threat, I guess. I get called the c-word every once in a while by salty sports fans. Dudes email me to tell me I’m an embarrassment to feminism, which, lol, as if I’d care what some dude says about that. Someone recently told me: “Fuck you. And tell your mom she should be ashamed she let your father pump his jizz into her wretched womb to create the piece of shit you’ve become.” Mostly, I just get called a bitch.

Because I am an identifiable Woman of Color in hijab, my comments are often coupled with Islamophobia.

Davidson: I’m lucky not to really deal with abuse each and every day, but when it rains, it pours — after a major television appearance, or when writing about sensitive issues like domestic violence, sexual assault, and race. (Oddly, however, one of the worst instances of abuse I experienced was after I wrote a column calling for an end to horseracing, so.)

In addition to the standard tweets calling me ugly and fat and threatening sexual violence, I have the unique privilege of being a woman of color in sportswriting, which carries its own special brand of hateful comments. I had one reader who would regular accuse me of having “Indian white guilt” — whatever that is — whenever I would write about racism against black athletes. Someone once tweeted at me that the turban and red dot on my forehead would protect me from concussions on the ice after I wrote about safety in hockey. (That he was mixing Sikhism and Hinduism and tweeting to a woman raised Episcopalian was lost on him.)

Then there was one instance in which my company sent me home with security after deeming a series of coordinated threats relatively credible. A Twitter user shared my public info (which I very carefully curate) on a fan forum and suddenly I had a swarm of mentions. One of them tweeted something along the lines of, “Let’s see when Kavitha gets raped on her walk home from work,” and another shared the address of my office building. I was so freaked out I went directly to my parents’ apartment after work, security escort in tow, instead of going home.

Ahmed: Abuse comes mostly after I publish a piece. I write often of race and gender, together, much to the chagrin of bigoted dudebros. Because I am an identifiable Woman of Color in hijab, my comments are often coupled with Islamophobia. I will get told “Women like you are lucky to be allowed to watch sports” or “You are lucky to be here, you would be whipped and stoned where you come from.” I come from Nova Scotia so that makes absolutely no sense.

The worst one I received is after I tweeted something about my 16-year-old son’s volleyball game, someone tweeted and asked if ‘the fuckin terrorist prolly held a grenade as he came out of your pussy’. Yeah, that one was really upsetting. I deleted and reported immediately. And then I ate ice cream to calm down. I was too ashamed to say anything to anyone for awhile because it hurt on multiple levels. Attacking my identity as a parent, a Muslim and as woman who identifies as South Asian.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos, ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos, ThinkProgress

Gibbs: I struggle so much when young women reach out to me and ask about being in the business. I don’t want to discourage them, because we need more females in the industry, but I also don’t want to lie to them. How honest are you with aspiring female sports journalists about the abuse you receive? Do you have any go-to advice for them? DiCaro: I agree that I don’t want to discourage them from entering the field, but I tell them to start working on their thick skin and coping mechanisms while they’re still in school. I tell them to start figuring out how they’re going to handle it, because it’s coming their way, no matter what they do.

My fear is not so much that they’ll avoid the field, but that they’ll self-edit, or worse, trying to paint themselves as the ‘cool girl’ in sports media. The cool girl aligns herself with the guys. No matter what, the cool girl who never makes waves, the cool girl who doesn’t stand up for herself or for other women, the cool girl who sits there and takes it. I’ve seen so many young women go down this path, and it breaks my heart, because taking it, after a while, kills your soul. Ahmed: I always encourage women (especially WoC) to get into sports writing and I help them out any way I can: advise, introductions, interviews, whatever my schedule allows. One of the way to move forward is to change the landscape and that means more women need to be in this industry. ​At the moment it is 90 percent white men. That’s ridiculous.

I remind young women that self-care is so important. Women can be amazing in sharing their experiences and empathizing. Really, really great support. And I also tell them never to read the comments because they are a cesspool of hatred. I recommend finding a group of female friends to commiserate with. For me, this has proven invaluable. I do add that I have had really great support from male editors as well.

I think it’s important to value your safety and mental health above all else.

Fowles: I’m honest about it, and I’m honest about the things I’ve done to protect myself from it. I think it’s important to value your safety and mental health above all else. Culturally we have this strange response to online abuse that we should either ignore it, or suck it up and take it, but I like to tell people it’s okay to acknowledge how hard it is and the harm it does. There’s certainly no obligation to “take it,” and the sooner we start busting the myth that it’s “just part of the job,” the sooner we can start dealing with the issue.  Walker: Since I haven’t received any abuse really, I tell young women that. That doesn’t mean it’s not coming, because I’m prepared for it given the subject matter I’m about to start covering. My general advice, if asked, is to have a thick skin and don’t be afraid to defend yourself, because no one has a right to make you feel inferior.  Adler: My advice is simple: It’s fine for online abuse to affect you and make you feel down. It doesn’t make you weak, doesn’t mean you’re not resilient. It just means that you’re human, a human who doesn’t like being abused for having a voice.

Davidson: I tend to be brutally honest about the abuse — especially when the woman has identified herself to me as an assault survivor. As a survivor myself, I think it’s important to be realistic about just how much of an emotional toll this job can take. It’s extremely triggering at times. There are days when the sheer number of abuse cases to write about — and the sheer number of fans jumping to defend the accused — dashes any hope you may have for a future without violence.

But then I make sure to tell aspiring sportswriters about the countless emails from women and men thanking me for my work — either for lending them a voice, or for helping them to see things in a different light. For every 10 abusive tweets or emails urging you to “stick to sports,” that one note of solidarity from a survivor makes it all worth it.

Gibbs: Where do we go from here? Beyond, “TAKE ABUSE SERIOUSLY, TWITTER,” I’m kind of stumped here.Walker: We have to keep discussing the issue, and I believe in letting people show their ass. My mother always told me I don’t need to help anyone else bury themselves, especially if they choose to try and intimidate me over the internet. Ahmed: ​Encourage executives and senior editors to bring it up at regularly at staff meetings (i.e. encourage men to *hear* the women speak about it because as we know it is effective). Request more active solidarity from male colleagues. Consider banning comment sections. And, you know, HIRE MORE WOMEN. Adler: I don’t know. Accept that it’s never going to change? Shitty people will always find a way to be shitty and the type of pleas made to reasonable people will most likely not deter them anyway. Listen to a shit-ton of Beyonce? Accept it, mostly. Fowles: I think part of the solution lies in representation and inclusion. Having an all-white male masthead, or all-white male panel, or an all-white male sports desk, for example, certainly doesn’t send a welcoming message, and like it or not, that trickles down into hateful comments. So much of online abuse is about “you don’t belong here,” and when sports media starts conveying the message that diversity is vital, we’ll likely see a shift.

Also, I think publishers, editors and producers need to take much more responsibility. In the many years I’ve been writing I’ve only had a few editors address harassment with me, and in doing so they made me feel more at ease and supported. It means a lot to know the publications you work for are addressing these issues the best they can, and not simply sending you out into the world to be abused.  Davidson: Twitter really does need to cut its laissez-faire attitude toward abuse and step in here. This hands-off approach is not working and is only making Twitter yet another space that’s unsafe for women in a world already full of them. That said, I think we also need men to step up more. Specifically, we need men to actually listen and believe us when we talk about the abuse we suffer, and not to reflexively jump to reactive doubt.

We also need men to call out abusive behavior when they see it from other men — especially men in media. Some outlets — and we all know who they are — specifically sic their legions of Twitter followers on women sportswriters, and then claim they’re not responsible for the actions of their readers. Others just sit silent while their readers take it upon themselves to start Twitter wars with women in sports. We don’t need men to fight our battles for us, but it would be nice to have some of them in the trenches.