In a public service video created earlier this year, sports journalists Sarah Spain and Julie Dicaro replicated the popular Jimmy Kimmel segment in which celebrities read mean tweets written about themselves on camera. But in Spain and Dicaro's short film, men read the tweets to them, giving a face to an otherwise anonymous online voice. "I hope you get raped again," one says. "I hope your boyfriend beats you," reads another. "You need to be hit in the head with a hockey puck and killed," recites a third. The men appear to struggle with saying these things, and they all nervously apologize after they read some of the more virulent selections aloud.
Spain, who works at ESPN, is one of the most visible female sports reporters in the industry. But while she and the other women working in her field have risen to success in a traditionally male-dominated industry, they have become targets for threats of extreme sexual and physical violence. "There's examples of people who are within the industry, who are pushing back against evolution in a way that you would expect only of cretins with no life," she told Broadly last weekend at espnW's annual summit at a St. Regis resort in southern California, where she had hosted several panels, including one on the sustained harassment female sports reporters face.
It's not just anonymous Twitter eggs and the denizens of comment sections, Spain added, pointing to Jessica Mendoza, an Olympic gold medalist and icon in sports journalism, who was sitting with us in a conference room after speaking on a panel . Mendoza was a star athlete who made history when she became the first female analyst of major league baseball on ESPN. Mendoza, Spain said, was targeted by a man early in her career as a baseball analyst—but he wasn't "just some random troll." He was the host of a sports radio broadcast. As Spain explained, this guy said of Mendoza, "Why is Tits Mcgee on TV talking about baseball?"
"Some of it's laughable, because it's so ridiculous," Mendoza said, acknowledging that a great deal of the harassment they receive isn't taken seriously. "But some of it is real," she said. "There [have been] times that people really wanted to hurt me."
According to Spain, it is easy for some people to dismiss the harassment that they receive as some sort of natural byproduct of being a public figure in the 21st century. But though all people in the public eye can become the targets of online critics, she says the threats lobbed at women in sports journalism are especially violent, and carry a greater weight because they're rooted in a culture of violence against women that is very real and very dangerous.
It was a wake-up call. I didn't realize I'd have that much of an impact on these very fragile men.
"Women live with this implicit threat of violence throughout their life, at all times," Spain said, dismissing the notion that online comments aren't real, or that they should simply be ignored. "You're giving voice to something different when you threaten to rape someone."
Kavitha Davidson, another sports reporter, says she received serious death threats because less than a year into starting a job at Bloomberg. "I'd been used to getting, 'Kavitha's fat,' 'Kavitha's ugly.' But this is the first thing that was actually, credibly threatening," Davidson said.
In the fall of 2014, Davidson explained, she reported on late developments in the Penn State University child sexual abuse scandal: Davidson wrote about the NCAA's decision to lift restrictions that had been placed on Penn State's football program just two years after the sex abuse cover-up had been exposed.
"The higher purpose of sanctioning Penn State's program went far beyond the idea of due punishment for a horrible crime," she argued in the piece. "It was supposed to completely change a culture all too ready to look the other way and allow this to happen in the name of football." But, Davidson lamented, the culture that enabled the Penn State child sex abuse scandal not changed. She cited "Penn State truthers," and noted that some fans still supported school officials who had allowed the abuse to persist for years. "Don't let football make you overlook those abused boys, as the university and town did for so long," Davidson wrote.
There [have been] times that people really wanted to hurt me.
Hostile tweets began to appear, directed at Davidson. Then, she says, someone posted about her on an alumni forum, which subsequently led to Penn State alumni attacking her on Twitter en masse. "One person tweeted, 'I hope Kavitha gets raped on her walk home from work today,'" Davidson said. "Then he posted a screenshot of Google maps with the Bloomberg office address on it." She was temporarily assigned a security detail.
In the long term, Davidson says that this experience, and subsequent threats, have only encouraged her to cover these issues more—but in the short term, such attacks made her wish her work would gain less exposure. This is unfortunate, Davidson says, because as a journalist, you want to make an impact on the world; you should want your work read by as many people as possible. "It was surprising to me that this very concerted group of passionate fans would organize in this way. It was a wake-up call. I didn't realize I'd have that much of an impact on these very fragile men."
It makes sense that sports fans in particular would be so protective of a traditional conception of manhood, according to Andrew Smiler, a psychologist specializing in men and masculinity. In an interview with Broadly, Smiler explained that sports has always been a stronghold of masculinity, but that the role it plays in maintaining masculinity in the United States may have become "more important over the last few decades, as we've shifted away from a manufacturing economy that valued the masculine traits of physical strength and stamina to a service and digital economy that relies more on interpersonal skills and is more egalitarian."
While most men have no issues with women, Smiler noted, "There is a subgroup of men who dislike and even fear (most) women. Most of these guys have not had female friends, although they have had girlfriends."
Like Davidson, Spain covers sports along with the cultural issues that intersect with them. They both often report on gender, race, and sexual violence—unlike Mendoza, who is largely doing game analysis and not straying from that. Spain believes that this difference results in more extreme threats and harassment against herself and sports journalists who cover similar issues. "When I talk about Aroldis Chapman's domestic violence case, or Patrick Kane's rape case—or pretty much anything that devolves into male/female relations—that's usually when I get the most hatred," Spain explained.
To Spain, the reason some men are resistant to seeing women speak with authority on issues of race and gender in sports is because they want "to protect other men and their sports heroes, regardless of evidence or fact." She points to "the number of people who went out of their way to defend Ray Rice" when footage was released showing him dragging his unconscious fiancé from an elevator.
Then, when a second video emerged clearly depicting Rice knocking out his fiancé inside the elevator moments before, those same critics were silent. Spain says that there's a widespread tendency to disbelieve any allegation of male violence that's not proven with video footage, that, to some sports fans, "even wanting to give respect to both sides of a domestic violence or rape case is deemed as projecting guilt onto someone."
"It's a matter of infringing on a space that they're used to having all to themselves," Davidson said. When women enter the realm of sports journalism, she explained, men who are unused to sharing their beloved hobbies with people who aren't cisgender, heterosexual, white men "get very threatened" and "feel their fandom is taken away from them."
Even wanting to give respect to both sides of a domestic violence or rape case is deemed as projecting guilt onto someone.
Of course, this issue isn't isolated in sports—hostility born from male insecurity can be found in virtually all major American industries, from finance, to tech and science. As Davidson sees it, the harassment she and her colleagues experience is a cultural reaction to the progressive changes that have been made toward equality for women, LGBT people, and people of color. "They don't like their opinions challenged, because it's been the norm for so long."
"When you serve in a journalistic capacity, you come with a certain level of authority—this is our job. It's our job to know everything about these topics. When you challenge someone's opinion knowledgeably and well, they can get very defensive." But Davidson explains that, while everyone is entitled to their opinion, "it's my job to know more about this than you do."
The nature of the threats made against women in the sports media industry has spurred major companies like ESPN to develop and strengthen internal security measures. At Bloomberg, Davidson had access to a security detail when she received threats deemed credible, and she says that, at ESPN, there is a global security unit designated to monitor, investigate, and respond to threats made against employees. According to Spain, ESPN developed and strengthened their security procedures in the wake of sexual and violent threats made against their female employees.
Davidson is grateful to work for a company that takes these threats seriously and has the resources to provide protection for the women who are targeted—but she says she has spoken with other women in her industry who work for companies that do not have the same systems in place. "They're kind of just on their own."
This problem seems so vast—especially online—that it is unclear how to stop it. While security details provide aid to some women in the industry, and female sports reporters can rally together to shut down these threats, the solution probably lies, at least in part, in the hands of men. Smiler says we need to "change the definition of masculinity so it includes compassion instead of a willingness to commit violence, is no longer focused on perpetual competition (in almost every realm of life), and stops emphasizing extreme versions of independence." He says that men are taught from a young age "to not empathize with girls and women," through small but impactful things—like "when we chide boys 'don't throw like a girl.' Or really, to not do anything like a girl. Boys consistently tell us that being called a girl, a pussy, or a sissy is one of the strongest insults there is."
Davidson suspects the answer has to do with inclusion, exposure, and visibility of diversity. "The more interaction that you have with these communities that you're forming opinions about, the better informed those opinions are going to be."
"As these spaces become more inclusive, that's going to foster a greater level of empathy," she said. "It shouldn't take that, but the reality is that it does."