Women who write Sports and Men who Hate them

It didn’t take long for someone to call me a moron after my article about Seattle’s last-second collapse in Super Bowl XLIX went live on CNN Opinion. I welcomed the slam. Being called a moron for stating a sports opinion is par for the course. I was even okay when that reader told me to “Call the Wambulance you sickening little baby.” A little childish, but at least it was a gender neutral.

As Ashley Judd recently found out the hard way, that is rather unusual. Judd’s tweet about basketball, as she details in her recent op-ed piece, brought forth misogynistic slurs that even exceeded what women have come to expect as normal levels of insults on social media. As any woman on social media knows, and knows well, there seems to be a special kind of hate reserved just for us. To its credit, Twitter recognizes the problem. Just a few months ago, the company teamed with the advocacy group Women, Action, and the Media (Wam!) in an attempt to tackle the harassment of women on its site.

To be sure, the vitriol is not reserved only for women who tweet about sports. The so-called Gamergate controversy demonstrated how misogynistic and hateful gamer culture can be, something that was particularly magnified in online outlets. The term “mansplaining,” defined by Lily Rothman as “explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman”, makes its way through the Twitterverse on a seemingly hourly basis. And Robin Williams’ daughter somehow became a target after his death. She shut down both her Twitter and her Instagram accounts within hours of posting a heartfelt good-bye to her father when people accused her of causing his suicide.

But there does seem to be a particular brand of nastiness reserved for women who write about sports, as sportswriter Melissa Jacobs wrote in response to the Judd incident. When I asked Jacobs about this, she responded that social media gives “direct access that we can’t ignore.” As managing editor of the website The Football Girl, she has sought to counter the kind of abuse that Judd found herself the target of. Jacobs explained that she started the site in 2009 initially to parallel the NFL’s increasing efforts to market to women.

But I strategically chose to eschew pink, recipes and only female writers. My goal has always been to create a space where women feel comfortable and welcome (for instance, they can read thorough fantasy advice without a sidebar on the “NFL’s Hottest WAGs (wives and girlfriends).” They can get education, if they need it, but they can also read more sophisticated content that may be from me or one of our handpicked contributors, many of whom have been men. We have a heavy dose of men, too. Good, useful content is good, useful content. I’m proud TFG has grown into a respected place that celebrates the evolved female fan without alienating the other gender.

Jacobs finds that the majority of her own male Twitter followers are “respectful, inclusive and treat me as a resource.” As someone who has devoted most of my professional writing to sports, I agree with her. The majority of my colleagues respect my expertise, my judgment, my opinions (even though a lot of them assume that I write about gender in sports when in general I do not). Yet the only thing I could do was smile and nod when Judd’s Twitter problem came into conversation. It was something I was all too familiar with.

Writing in the past for Salon and Slate, I had experienced the “comments” section and thought I was tough enough to forge on writing in the online arena. But last summer, when I wrote a series of pieces for CNN Opinion about the World Cup, I experienced a completely different kind of reader response. My article about Brazil’s loss to a seemingly unbeatable Germany struck a particular nerve. My editor emailed me a few hours after it had gone live to tell me that the article was leading the site, with 1.2k clicks per minute. That was only the beginning. Soon, the article had been moved to CNN’s main homepage – with 1,077,594 page views and counting. And yes, with those clicks came the comments.

Let’s be clear: writing about soccer in America deserves combat pay (and no, I don’t mean that literally, so please don’t come after me about the military). While Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl has created a fantastic and respected niche for himself, soccer writing doesn’t fare well in mainstream sports-media venues in the U.S. Disdain for the game – which seems to come primarily from those who live and breathe America’s version of football – is strong and ugly. But the way these guys came after me was truly special. Thousands upon thousands of nasty insults were fired my way, on everything from my hair to, well, the things they claim I must have done to get a gig writing about sports. A lot of the comments, as Ashley Judd has outlined, were vulgar nonsense that had absolutely nothing to do with the subject at hand, trash that women encounter every day of their lives. But more of them struck down my ability to have anything worthwhile to say. After all, how could a blonde chick like me know anything about sports?

One of the comments on Amy Bass’ 2014 blog post for CNN about the FIFA World Cup.

How bad was it? One self-described soccer fan emailed me directly, writing that “the comment cacophony below your post is so ugly that I felt a physical pain in my chest after scanning only a handful.” He wanted to send an encouragement. “This message was my version of ‘No! No! Don’t pay attention to them! Your work was beautiful and on target, like the game! And of course you know that!’” As I busily deleted the emails screaming of my ignorance and stupidity and, yep, blondness, this one email from this one lovely guy only reinforced that the comments were as horrible as I thought they were.

It is both thrilling and terrifying to have a piece of writing take off the way that article on the World Cup did. My many years publishing as an academic had not prepared me for that kind of response, despite the fact that I write most often about race in recent U.S. history, one of the more contentious subjects out there. Was I really being savaged for a post about soccer? While the advice of everyone who publishes online is “Don’t read the comments,” I did. I read all of them. I wanted to find a thread of response that took up my ideas, my perspective. But for the most part, those comments weren’t there. Instead, I got a chilling education, yet again, on what it often means to be a woman.

So I’ll say what Ashley Judd has thus far been too polite to say: Fuck ‘em. I am going to keep publishing on sports. And Melissa Jacobs will keep writing about football. And Judd should keep tweeting about her beloved basketball. Because women taking flack for opining on sports is part and parcel of how women have to live their lives every moment of every day. It is part of the same world in which women battle against domestic violence and sexual assault and the wage gap. It is part of the same machine that sees male politicians trying to legislate female bodies, corporations firing women for breastfeeding on the job, and male professors receiving better teaching evaluations than their female counterparts. I have earned my position in this world as an authority on sports. So to every single one of those commenters, I say: thank you for reading.