Last week, the team at the “podcast and web community” Just Not Sports shared a new video project. The video, titled “#MoreThanMean: Women in Sports ‘Face’ Harassment,” featured two notable sportswriters, Julie DiCaro and Sarah Spain, who sat across from men who read “mean tweets” to them.
The tweets began in an almost comical yet rude manner—”I’d like to start a petition for a ban on all links to Julie DiCaro’s Twitter feed”; “Sarah Spain sounds like a nagging wife on TV today”—but they escalated quickly into violent misogyny, including messages of sexual assault. These messages had been sent directly to the women, and they had seen them. The tweet-readers had not. The video shows the men shifting uncomfortably in their seats as they are expected to vocalize these horrific remarks. Meanwhile, DiCaro and Spain remain very dignified and calm.
Within one day, the video had reached upwards of one million views; it now it stands at over three million. The #MoreThanMean project filled social media timelines and headlines, including international outlets. It has ignited discussions on the radio, news shows, and feminist websites. Fellow women sportswriters wrote about their own experiences and how we were affected by this video. I did. Spain wrote about what the experience meant to her, as did DiCaro.
Much of the response, however, has also been around how shocked the men in the video seem to be, and how shocked its male viewers have been. Men have said they were horrified to read and hear these tweets, effectively centering their own reactions in the conversation. This, too, is problematic: This video may have highlighted the abuse DiCaro and Spain receive through the internet, but women in sports media have faced this kind of harassment for decades. Disbelief and horror are not enough; it will take real, systemic change from the industry, social media companies, and these “shocked” fans to work against this kind of incessant abuse.
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In 1990, Lisa Olson, a former journalist at the Boston Herald, endured what she called “premeditated mind rape” when she attempted to interview the New England Patriots football team after a game. She settled with the team owner and the players were fined. More than 25 years later, prominent sports journalist Erin Andrews was awarded $55 million in a lawsuit against a hotel that failed to protect her privacy from a man who videotaped her while she was naked in her room. He leaked the video to the internet. Both journalists were unmistakably targeted because they are women.
In the case of online trolls, however, the problem is more complicated: Comments, emails, or tweets can be issued by people who do not use their real names and might not be identified. The waters become murky. One of the only ways to fight them is to block them, mute them, or as often suggested, disengage, phrased as “not feeding the trolls.”
Some women, DiCaro among them, argue against not engaging because they feel it is tantamount to being silenced. Each woman might have different ways of processing and handling the situation; it’s unfair to expect that all women should simply not reply or defend their work. People who attack women constantly are trying to derail our work and conversations—and the voices of women are important for adding nuance and perspective in a field that is already predominantly male.
For that matter, it may not work. As DiCaro explained for Chicago Magazine, “There are these guys who feel you’re a fake, a phony, a fraud, and you’re in a position you don’t deserve to be in, and you’re receiving attention you don’t deserve. Their mission is to take you down. Those are the trolls you can’t ignore. They don’t go away.”
And logging off—leaving Twitter and other forms of social media—is not a plausible course of action. As a sportswriter, I feel it is essential to be on Twitter. Social media is a tool to collect information quickly, and connect with readers and fans about events in the world of sports. In other words, being on social media is an essential part of our jobs.
This is where it becomes crucial for social media companies to step up and enact policies that can prevent this type of abuse from happening. DiCaro thinks social media—Twitter specifically—should wield greater responsibility in order to create a safer space for women online. “I blocked guys, but they would just create new accounts or find other ways to get around being blocked,” she said to me over email. “And Twitter didn’t really do anything about reported tweets unless they were rape or death threats. Anything else seemed to be tolerable to them, and that was really shocking to me.”
Twitter updated its Abuse Policy in December 2015 to crack down on “hateful conduct.” But DiCaro was so frustrated about constant harassment that she created a new handle at the end of March, @ZeroSafety, where she shares screencaps of harassment in order to urge Twitter to take these tweets seriously and further amend their policies to suspend abusive accounts. At one point, ironically, the account itself was suspended for using an avatar that was considered branded.
Female sportswriters will tell you that their work and their social media profiles are real life. It is not always possible to divorce one’s personal life from what they put out on their Twitter feed. A constant deluge of horrific comments can’t be ignored or simply waded through—particularly when the comments might wish for death or sexualized violence on the sportswriter. It is unfair to expect that women will have the mental or emotional bandwidth to fight trolls all the time.
This was especially evident in #MoreThanMean, when the male participants had to use their own emotional strength to get through reading the tweets. The experience was harrowing: One of the tweets directed to DiCaro, who bravely wrote in 2013 of her rape, read, “I hope you get raped again.” On more than one occasion, DiCaro has described the abuse as “soul-sucking.”
As emotionally exhausting as it is, DiCaro and Spain have very courageously pushed this conversation forward. I can’t fathom sitting in a chair and hearing all those awful comments spoken to me in front of the whole world. DiCaro and Spain used this opportunity to educate and share lived experiences.
But I wondered: Why did this particular video affect so many people? Was it the way we were able to see Spain and DiCaro as people, not just as faceless personalities on social media? Or were the men so sincere in their discomfort that the public was mortified?
DiCaro thinks it is the latter. “Honestly, I think it’s because society in general believes men more than they believe women. Sarah and I could scream from the rafters about being harassed, but if it was just us in the video, I wonder if it would have had the same impact,” she said.
DiCaro believes #MoreThanMean is a great start toward addressing this pervasive reluctance to acknowledge women speaking about abuse. In addition to urging social media companies to take action, she also tasked those horrified individuals to make change themselves, by including women in conversations, helping to promote them in industries where women are outnumbered, and by recommending women for panels and conferences. “Don’t speak for us; scoot over and give us a place at the table where we can speak for ourselves,” she wrote.
To men, DiCaro emphasized, “And if you see a buddy or family member beating up on women online, SAY SOMETHING. It’s not okay for people to treat others this way, and it’s not okay to stand by silently, either.”
It is my experience as a visible woman of color that there are no limits to the abuses that can be showered upon a woman for speaking up about a game, a team, or advocating for a victim of sexual assault by a player. I write about misogyny and race in sports; I also write about Muslim women. So, the abuse I receive is not only sexist, but coupled with Islamophobic and racist opinions. Charming, I know. This occurs only because I am doing what I am supposed to. Essentially, women sportswriters are abused for doing their jobs. For thousands of women in this industry and others, we don’t accept it but are are forced to tolerate it.
This is probably another reason #MoreThanMean struck a chord with so many. DiCaro said she was approached by women who admitted they never felt like they could talk about it before they saw the video. She suspects a lot of women keep it quiet or constantly self-edit to make sure they say nothing anyone could possibly object to. Both approaches silence women and suggest complacency is a way to combat abuse.
One way to also move away from a toxic, and in my opinion dangerous, acceptance of abuse is to support women’s work in the industry. In a column about #MoreThanMean project, DiCaro wrote, “Support women’s sports. Read and share women sportswriters. Question why more women, and especially women of color, aren’t actively promoted by their employers. Call out panels at events that don’t include women. Teach your sons and daughters that women have a place in sports equal to men.”
I feel this is essential if we want to move forward at all.
As far as handling the abuse, DiCaro told me about her self-care routines and how she should make them more of a priority. “We’re all working so hard to get ahead in this industry, [self-care] tends to fall by the wayside. But lately I’ve been giving myself permission to not charge so hard after everything. To set longer deadlines for myself, to have nights where I do nothing but watch a River Monsters marathon. And I’m a huge proponent of having pets. No matter how bad your day is, they always make you smile,” she said.
Her comments resonate with me too. As much as I rely on Twitter to stay connected and be “in the know,” I also love my time away from social media. It might involve watching Bend It like Beckham and eating popcorn. Or it might mean working out and just enjoying my family.
But self-care also means that when I log back on, I know I need help from other individuals to get through the day. After a few years on Twitter, I also became part of an informal support group of women who write about sports and its intersections with misogyny, sexual assault, politics, and various important social issues. We encourage and help each other every day, offering advice about projects, sharing contacts, and venting about our mentions. In response, we send each other photos of baby sloths or elephants and positive notes. This type of safe space is critical, particularly when we are trying to work while simultaneously swatting away trolls and defending ourselves against unfathomable rudeness.
Women are moving forward in sports writing and presenting, as game correspondents and as match analysts. As this happens, it is important to highlight toxicity in sports media and make sure that male colleagues, readers, and fans are aware of the abuse that happens and how they can eradicate it. It will not go away on its own. Consistently promoting the voices of women, and not excluding them from discussions of violence, is crucial. Equally important is addressing the layers of misogyny, racism, and homophobia present in all facets of the industry, including online.
Women need to lead discussions on what are the best strategies to combat online harassment and abuse. But it cannot be done without support.