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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Women in sports media continue to endure vicious trolls

Men read harassing social media messages directed at women sports journalists

I received my first “Dear Bitch” letter when I was a 24-year-old sportswriter.

I still can remember the feeling of being slammed in the gut when I read those words. “What did I do?” I recall thinking. “Why is this reader so upset?” Less than two years out of journalism school, the worst feedback I had ever gotten on a story was a bad letter grade. Now, here I was in my dream job covering college football in Los Angeles, and someone was angry enough to write me a profane letter.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to figure out what I had done, because the vitriolic letters just kept coming. I was called the b-word and the c-word. I was told to get back in the kitchen. I was told the only reason I became a sportswriter was so I could see men naked.

What I had done was follow my dream, a dream that previously had been reserved for men. And, the further I advanced in my career, the nastier the letters became. Things took a particularly sick turn when I moved to New Jersey to cover the Jets. Not only did I get scary letters, I occasionally received gifts. One reader sent me a condom with a lovely note saying he didn’t mind if I got AIDS, but he thought it was best if I didn’t reproduce.

Sadly, this is why I was not as shocked as I should have been by the #morethanmean video that went viral after it was posted on Tuesday by a production company called Just Not Sports. The video featured Sarah Spain, an espnW reporter and ESPN Radio host, and Julie DiCaro, a Chicago radio host and Sports Illustrated reporter.

In the video, men were asked to read aloud tweets in which the two women journalists had actually been mentioned. The men sat on stools directly across from the women and had to look them in the eyes as they read. These men were friends of the producer and had not written the tweets. Nor had they seen them before.

At first the men nervously laugh as they begin with a couple of relatively benign tweets, calling DiCaro a mediocre beat writer and Spain a “scrub muffin,” whatever that is. The music was light and it evoked the atmosphere of Jimmy Kimmel’s mean tweets comedy bit.

But then the video turns darker and the men twist nervously in their seats as they are forced to read more and more threatening and aggressive tweets. “One of the players should beat you to death with a hockey stick,” read one message. “Hopefully, this skank Julie DiCaro is Bill Cosby’s next victim,” read another. (Though charged, Cosby has not been tried nor convicted of sexual abuse.)

Part of the brilliance of the video is that the men who are reading the tweets are all in their 20s and 30s and casually dressed in jeans and hoodies and backward baseball hats. They look like any-fan USA, like the average Twitter user, the average caller to a sports talk radio show.

And that is the point.

“People don’t believe women,” Spain told the Daily Dot this past week. “But in this clip, instead of just hearing women read the tweets or talking about it, you’re seeing the men say it and you’re seeing their reaction. You’re seeing the power of it. The emotions of the guys are what draw so much feeling out of the clip. You need to see it emotionally affect the men.”

Of course, it’s sad that the best way to end harassment of women is to show how it emotionally impacts men. Though technology has changed the vehicle of harassment over the course of my career — from letters, to emails, to reader comments so nasty at the end of stories that I have had to ask my mom not to read them — one thing has remained constant. The majority of them, if not all, seem to be written by men.

Why? What kind of person actually gets so upset about a woman writing sports that they wish her harm? I have my theories. One is that for a small portion of men, what attracted them to sports is the relative absence of women. For years, this has been an area where men go to talk about men. It was a place to go if you didn’t want to be around women.

These guys may have a woman boss. They may have women customers they have to keep happy. They soon might have a woman president. But for years, if they opened a newspaper, flipped on a game or tuned into sports talk radio, they had a pretty good chance of not hearing a female voice.

That, however, is quickly changing. The man who sent me the condom years ago could not stop the number of female sportswriters from multiplying. In 1987, The Association for Women in Sports Media, known as AWSM, was founded by a handful of women as a support group because there were so few of them in the workplace. Today, AWSM has more than 600 members, and the actual number of women working the industry probably is double that.

Most telling is that, according to AWSM board chairwoman Lydia Craver, there are 145 applicants for AWSM’s eight scholarships next year. That’s 145 women looking to make a career in sports, #morethanmean tweets or not.

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