Tweets to female sports reporters beyond unsportsmanlike

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Question for you: Name me an occupation in this day and age in which sexual harassment and violent threats are not only still tolerated, enduring them is actually a condition of your employment?

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/04/2016 (2402 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Question for you: Name me an occupation in this day and age in which sexual harassment and violent threats are not only still tolerated, enduring them is actually a condition of your employment?

 

If you said female sports reporter, you probably saw a viral video this week in which two American women listen as a series of men are asked to read actual social media messages the women have received in reaction to work they’ve done as sports reporters.

 

You know that hilarious ‘Mean Tweets’ feature Jimmy Kimmel does? Yeah, this is nothing like that: 

 

“I hope your boyfriend beats you… I hope you get raped again… You need to be hit in the head with a hockey puck and killed…”

 

It goes on like this for four agonizing minutes, and what makes the video so compelling is that it’s the men in the video — not the women — who are the most uncomfortable.

 

Which is the point — the men are shocked by how sick this stuff is, but the women are sadly used to it because they are confronted with it in their jobs everyday on Twitter, which has become an indispensable journalism tool and one which you cannot escape as a reporter no matter how abusive it gets.

 

Reporters these days are expected by employers to engage with readers, viewers and listeners on social media, no matter how abusive. And beyond that, Twitter has become the principal news wire where major events break first.

 

Abandon Twitter for the sake of your mental health and you will quickly be left behind as a reporter.

 

And so instead, the women who bring you news from the world of sports are forced to simply put up with the abuse as a daily part of their jobs, tolerating a level of sexual harassment on social media that in any workplace other than journalism would earn them a massive financial settlement and all the time off they needed to heal.

 

How bad is it? Well, Sara Orlesky — TSN’s Winnipeg correspondent and host of their Jets coverage — says she considers herself lucky because the sexual harassment she has to endure on social media at least doesn’t usually come with threats of violence too.

 

“I will get people who make sexual comments towards me — that they want to sleep with me, that sort of thing,” Orlesky told me this week.

 

“And I’m not saying that’s OK, of course, but it’s nothing like some of the really graphic things that some other women in our business have to put up with.”

 

Now, abuse on social media is hardly confined to female sports reporters. I can tell you I’ve had more threats directed toward me in a handful of seasons covering the Winnipeg Jets than I did in almost a decade of covering bikers, drug dealers and street gangs as this paper’s cop reporter in the 1990s.

 

Hands down. It’s not even close.

 

But it is the sexual undertones of the social media abuse that gets directed at female sports reporters that makes it especially insidious and of a different character than anything me or my male colleagues endure from this city’s sports fans.

 

I’ve never felt uncomfortable walking through an empty parkade after a game, or spent the drive home checking my rear-view mirror like Orlesky says she has.

 

But then I’ve also never had a head coach tell his players to escort me out of the dressing room “before I strangle that bitch,” as my former longtime Free Press sports colleague Ashley Prest told me this week she once did.

 

And I never had a team’s general manager follow me around the locker room just to make sure I was looking guys “in the eye,” as local Canadian Press sports writer Judy Owen says Cal Murphy did to her in the early 1990s when Murphy was forced, kicking and screaming, to allow the likes of Prest and Owen into the Blue Bombers locker room.

 

BORIS MINKEVICH / FREE PRESS FILES TSN correspondent Sara Orlesky considers herself lucky because the sexual harassment she has to endure on social media doesn’t usually come with threats of violence too.

“Of course it made me uncomfortable,” Owen recalled this week. “I was there for a quote, not a thrill.”

 

Now, it’s heartening, I suppose, that the early battles Owen and Prest fought in the late ’80s and early ’90s — first to force this city’s teams to open their dressing rooms to women and then to force the coaches and players to treat them as equals — are mostly now behind us.

 

But the problem now is the fans, not the teams or the players.

 

Indeed, any player who told a female reporter today that she had no business covering sports and should be instead “lying on my back”— as a baseball player once told Prest (that incident made news at the time) — would be drummed out of any self-respecting league today.

 

In fact, in the rare instance these days in which a player and a reporter do get into a locker room confrontation, it’s almost almost always two men going head to head, as we were all again reminded this week when New York Post columnist Larry Brooks went toe-to-toe with New York Rangers defenceman Dan Boyle.

 

Boyle called Brooks a bunch of names and demanded he leave the scrum. Brooks, who famously was a part of another one of these confrontations with former Rangers coach John Tortorella and just seems like he’s one of those guys people love to hate, stood his ground.

 

It was tense, but the moment passed and it was hard afterward not to laugh at the video, which is to say it had nothing even remotely resembling the sick sexual undertones that go with “strangle that bitch” or “lying on my back.”

 

Part of this job, whether you’re a male or female, is that you accept sooner or later some people are going to express, well, their frustrations with your work.

 

(True story: Blake Wheeler looked me in the eye at one point last season and said, “You know, you’re really starting to piss me off.” There’s a long line to get into that club, Blake. Ask my ex-wife if she’ll let you cut in front of her.)

 

But signing up to be a sports reporter doesn’t mean you waive certain basic expectations of civility, and it should sicken every sports fan in this town that the women who have fought such important battles over the years to bring you the news are now fighting yet another one against some of your fellow fans on social media.

 

The last word in all this belongs to Sarah Spain, one of the two reporters featured in that viral video this week.

 

Some idiot who obviously didn’t get the point of the video tweeted at Spain that she needed to get “a thicker skin.”

 

Spain replied: “My skin is thicker than rhinoceros leather. But just because I CAN take it, doesn’t mean I should have to.”

 

Exactly. Nobody should.

 

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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