espnW reporter Sarah Spain opens up about harassment surrounding women in sports media

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2016 CLIO Sports AwardsPhoto: Getty

EspnW reporter Sarah Spain is as respected as they come in the sports media industry. But if you look through her Twitter mentions, "respect" isn't the word that would come to mind.

Spain and many other women are mocked daily by complete strangers behind computers. In an industry with an unspoken social media activity requirement, vicious attacks of this nature are unavoidable.

In an attempt to address this venomous and persistent harassment, Just Not Sports released a PSA called #MoreThanMean where Spain and colleague Julie DiCaro sat down in front of different men as they struggled to read the women's Twitter notifications out loud.

Spain opened up to AOL Sports to highlight these inevitable realities women face in the sports media industry.

Q: What inspired the #MoreThanMean video?

A: It actually wasn't my idea. The guy who came up with the concept, Brad Burke, runs this website called Just Not Sports. One thing that he noticed was that there were these one-off stories about harassment of reporters that people would get up-in-arms about for a day or so and then the cycle would pass and people would stop talking about it. And he just thought it was something that deserved a better treatment and deserved a more lasting message to people. He got in contact with me and Julie DiCaro and a couple of other women, and Julie and I were the only ones who agreed to go on camera. To be honest, he's a friend of my now husband so that's part of the reason I said yes despite not knowing much about his background. But also because, if I'm given the chance to talk about issues like this, I'm gonna take them up on it. So when they asked me to come be a part of it, I was totally down.

Q: Did you have to mentally prepare to film it?

A: No, it's actually interesting. I was taking engagement photos after this video. It was this odd balance of a very happy occasion and then shooting the video itself. But it really didn't affect me, and it's unfortunate to say that. I'm so used to that stuff that I don't really think about it anymore. I would say, it certainly is different and powerful to actually hear someone say the word to your face versus just reading them. It did remind me of the power of the words and that there is real meaning behind them. Having someone face-to-face saying those words –- it certainly reminded me of just how awful the things people saying to me are, but I wasn't that affected by it because it's just something I've gotten so used to, unfortunately.

Q: When it comes to bullies, what's your approach to handling them on social media?

A: It really just depends on the day or the hour or the minute or what mood I'm in. A lot of times, it's just stupid and misogynistic, or racist or homophobic or sexist. Sometimes I just block them and move on. Sometimes I mute them so they don't even have the satisfaction of knowing that they're blocked and I can't see them. It really just depends on the occasion. A lot of people say to just ignore it, but I think that's really unfair to ask these people who are getting insults and death threats to internalize and digest them over and over again without being able to respond. I think, in a lot of cases, we're able to expose them. Some people post their jobs or pictures of their kids, and I think they need to be reminded you don't get to be two people -- one on the Internet and one in real life. There are repercussions.

Q: When you decided you wanted to work in sports, did you anticipate any of the obstacles you'd face as a woman in sports media?

A: When I started working in sports, social media wasn't the same. People were on MySpace and Facebook where you're interacting with people you know. It wasn't until Twitter came around in 2008 that I think the vitriol changed because of the communal aspect. It's the kind of stuff that you'd only see if you went to a message board back in the day. You wouldn't be privy to it unless you sought it out, whereas Twitter, it comes to you. I do feel like part of the reason I want to speak out about it is that I'm in a position now where I'm confident in my abilities and who I am. That makes it easier to deal with this stuff. But I know if I were just getting started and I had to deal with this, it would be a lot harder. I don't want young women getting in to the industry to not be able to do the job that they love, or to feel disempowered trying to work up the ladder because of this. It's really sad for me to think about what it would have been like to deal with all of this when I was just getting started.

Q: Do you have any advice for those women trying to break into the sports industry right now?

A: If you're going to take a stand on something that's controversial, just make sure you have your facts right. It makes it a lot harder for people to take you down. If your perspective is something you really want added to the conversation, then it's worth dealing with the crap. Not that you should have to deal with it because of the job, but I think you decide what's worth it. I think it's super important to be informed and do your research, so if you do engage in a conversation and you are standing up for something that's important to you, the extent of what they can criticize you for is just B.S. personal attacks and not that what you're arguing for is wrong or uninformed. To me, it's much more painful when someone points out accurately that I'm misinformed about something than to just take a cheap shot at me. I'm used to that by now. I try to tell myself that the people who would want to spend their time insulting strangers must be deeply unsatisfied with their lives. As long as I remind myself of that, I tend to feel sorry for them instead of angry. I would never go out of my way to make someone feel bad by attacking them and I can't imagine the kind of people who are like that. I don't fill my world with people like that, so I tend to feel sorry for them.

Q: Can you describe your first experience as a female in a male locker room?

A: When I first got in there, I had some negative experiences. I think being a 20-something girl who had just moved back to the city after living in LA, not really knowing anyone else in the beat reporter world of Chicago, a lot of people made assumptions about me based on my looks, on my age and on my gender that were sort of unfair. I had to fight a lot of B.S. and that was really unfortunate. I think, for some people, it might have kept them from pursuing a career. I had some good mentors in the industry who I would talk to about things that I thought were unfair and they just told me to keep pushing forward. That eventually I would be in a position where teams and reporters wouldn't be able to say no. Unfortunately, I did have to go through a stretch where the assumption was that I didn't know my stuff or that I was in the locker room for the wrong reasons. When I was covering the Blackhawks for a startup website, I was only in the locker room for 2 or 3 weeks when someone that I know in the industry tipped me off that an older male reporter, who had been on the beat for a while, told the PR people that I must be sleeping with the players because they were giving me better answers than him. I don't think the players even knew my name at that point. It was mainly that I was just younger and that I wasn't just going with the same old boring questions that these guys had been asking for quite some time on the beat. I think I went out of my way to blend in. I wasn't wearing inappropriate things. I was just a woman, and for some people, that's troubling. I think proving myself helped a lot. People who didn't necessarily give me the respect I deserved are very much on my side now. I wish I didn't have to go through that to get here, but it's good now.

Q: What is the best game you've ever covered?

A: The whole Cubs' run, I was sort of balancing my fan hat and my reporter hat. I did pre-game and post-game for SportsCenter for Game 6 of the NLCS when the Cubs advanced to the World Series. It was their first World Series berth in 71 years. So that was pretty cool to get to do the pregame reports and talk about how everybody in Chicago was feeling, what the energy was like in Wrigleyville and how excited people were for the opportunity to clinch. And then, as soon as the game ended and the players were still on the field jumping on the mound celebrating, I snuck out of the back where the SportsCenter set was located. As the fans were still screaming, I got to talk about what it meant for Cubs fans to see something that a whole generation didn't get to see. I would say that was pretty awesome.


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