Sexism in sport: Why do internet trolls target women?

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Story highlights

Female sports journalists reveal problems they face in their job

Abuse ranges from being delivered live rats to online threats

They face accusations of "sleeping around" to get stories

One reporters was turned down for a role "because of my hair"

CNN  — 

The pink box was delivered to the press area.

Susan Fornoff, a reporter for the Sacramento Bee newspaper on the American baseball beat, stared at the shiny covering which lay in front of her.

While the Oakland A’s and Kansas City Royals were busy on the field, Fornoff opened the package and there it was – a live rat with a label signed “My name is Sue.”

The man responsible, A’s veteran Dave Kingman, was fined $3,500 and warned about his future conduct.

Welcome to a female sports reporter’s world.

“In many ways that incident represented progress,” Fornoff told CNN recalling the 1986 incident.

“That particular player had been doing his best to get in the way of my job for the year and a half I had been on the beat.

“The A’s did not, however, do anything about it until he did something so public that they were forced to take a stand.

“I was lucky to work for a newspaper that had editors who unequivocally and vocally stood by me, so I soldiered on.”

Fornoff might have received her “gift” 28 years ago, but female sports reporters are still receiving abuse, though the perpetrators – or trolls as they are more commonly known these days – are usually hiding behind their computer keyboards.

Susie Boniface, one of the UK’s most popular journalists on Twitter, has gained a staunch fan base following the publication of her book “Diaries of a Fleet Street Fox” – the title referring to the central London street where many of Britain’s leading newspapers used to be published.

Boniface blogged about the British media for several years using the alias “Fleet Street Fox” before identifying herself. She has since seen her profile rise markedly following the success of her book.

While her focus is not primarily on sport, she does enter the realm more than regularly and has been abused not for her lack of expertise but for her gender.

This has ranged from being told “women know nothing about sport and she should get back in the kitchen” to being labeled as an “attention-seeking whore.”

“Trolls are people who seek a reaction, and it justifies their reaction,” she told CNN.

“They seek out people who will react and female sports journalists are an easy target.

“The key is not to respond to these trolls. If it’s something minor then ignore it – if it’s really bad then report it to the police.”

The abuse of women reporters takes shape in many different forms in the testosterone-fueled sports environment.

“It’s hard enough when you’re a young reporter, let alone female too,” Laura Williamson, football writer at British tabloid newspaper Daily Mail, told CNN.

“Whenever I get a good story then I have to cope with people thinking that I sleep around, and that’s horrible.”

The abuse Williamson faced was so great that the Mail Online website had to filter comments on her pieces to stem the flow of misogynistic scorn being aimed at her.

In one case, she was constantly trolled by a man in his 60s who would write vitriolic comments about her sexuality on Twitter and even sent a letter to the paper’s London offices outlining his vendetta.

“It’s one thing to be criticized for what you write about, but when it’s because you’re female, it’s another thing to handle,” she added.

“I’ve had lots of nonsense with people asking me what I could possibly know about football because I’m female … to far, far worse.”

The perceived anonymity of internet trolls is key to explaining the level of vitriol that female sports journalists face.

“During my research I came across women who had received rape threats and really nasty personal abuse,” says Suzanne Franks, a professor of journalism at London’s City University, who published an edition of the Reuters Institute’s Challenge series on Women and Journalism.

“When someone disagrees with a man’s article they go for the ideas which are in that article – with women they go for her looks, fashion and it turns very personal,” she told CNN.

The Mail on Sunday was the first British national paper to appoint a woman as sports editor in March 2013, when Alison Kervin took the job.

The BBC, meanwhile, has put its faith in the hugely successful and increasingly popular Clare Balding to front its Olympics TV coverage, starting with London 2012.

One of the recurring themes throughout interviews was the fact that women have to work far harder to prove themselves than their male counterparts.

There were complaints, particularly in football, that female journalists were patronized by managers when asking questions and often referred to as “love” or “darling.”

In December, journalist Johanna Franden asked Laurent Blanc – coach of French football club Paris Saint-Germain – why he switched from a 4-4-2 formation to 4-3-3 during a game, and she received a belittling reply.

“Women talking football tactics, it’s so beautiful,” he commented. “I think it’s fantastic. You know what 4-3-3 means, don’t you?”

Franden, who works for Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, replied by saying: “It is my job to know what it means,” before Blanc continued to patronize her. “I mean, there’s a lot of ways of playing. Ha ha – just joking.”

Women working for national newspapers within football have always faced difficult challenges, according to Ian Prior, head of sport at the Guardian Newspaper.

Prior works with three of Britain’s best-known female reporters in Amy Lawrence, Anna Kessel and Louise Taylor, while columnist Marina Hyde is not shy of weighing into sporting matters.

“It’s a multi-faceted problem,” Prior said of the lack of women in sport. “The numbers of women coming through at entry level are small verging on pathetic and it’s something you notice.”

Prior believes more needs to be done to help women break down the barriers within football and sport as a whole.

“There is something about sport – the gender imbalance is obvious,” he added.

“We, as do all newspapers, do have to ensure the environment a young women comes into is a warm and encouraging. We all have to be conscious of that.”

Arguably a seminal moment occurred in Britain in April 2007 when Jacqui Oatley became the first woman to ever commentate on the BBC’s flagship football highlights program, “Match of the Day.”

It was too much of a moment for one former top-flight manager, Dave Bassett, who was moved to say: “When she commentates at the weekend, I shall not be watching.”

The prelude to her commentating debut is still very much to the fore of Oatley’s memory.

“On the Wednesday morning I woke up with the BBC news on the radio and the first thing I heard was a debate about whether I should be allowed to do this,” she said.

“I was laying in my bed thinking, ‘Oh my goodness what have I let myself in for, this is a little bit frightening.’

“A newspaper did a whole-page spread on, ‘Yes or no, should she be allowed to do it or shouldn’t she?’

“As a result of that it blew up into a bigger storm and became a sexism row which became the news story. So by the Thursday it was on the front page of the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian with a picture and headline saying: ‘Is football ready for Jacqui Oatley?’ I was just sitting there going, ‘This is extraordinary.’ “

Since then Oatley has established herself as one of the UK’s most respected football reporters, on both radio and television, and has provided an inspiration to women who would love to follow in her footsteps.

However, that path is often obstructed by old-fashioned chauvinism.

Richard Keys and Andy Gray were household names on Sky Sports – two men who presented football to UK viewers for so long they had become an integral part of the game itself.

Both left the broadcaster in 2011 shortly after they were caught making derogatory remarks about female match official Sian Massey.

Talking near a microphone they thought had been turned off, Gray said: “Can you believe that? A female linesman. Women don’t know the offside rule.” Keys replied: “Course they don’t.”

Following the incident, further clips were released showing Gray asking co-presenter Charlotte Jackson to help tuck his microphone down his trousers during an advertising break.

Another clip showed Keys referring to a woman as “it” by asking male pundit Jamie Redknapp on two occasions if he “smashed it” (British slang for “did you have sex with her?”).

Only last month, a short clip published on the Football Ramble site showed both men wolf-whistling at reporter Claire Tomlinson while she was preparing to go on camera before chanting, “Get your t*ts out for the lads.”

Both men apologized in January 2011 and continue to work in football despite their past transgressions, having hosted their own radio show before moving to Qatar to present Al Jazeera’s English Premier League coverage.

But it is not just in front of the camera where there have been such problems – many of the women who spoke to CNN revealed how they were often denied a route into covering sport because they “didn’t look the part” or were told to dress provocatively “because that’s what the viewers want to see.”

One journalist, who did not want to be named for fear of repercussions, explained how she was simply turned away because “the producers didn’t like my hair.”

There is also huge frustration that qualified female journalists are often overlooked in preference of those who have come from modeling backgrounds.

“When employers hire models or girls who pose in men’s magazines because it pays well, it demeans everything we do,” says Kait Borsay, a respected journalist and part of the successful “Offside Rule” podcast along with Lynsey Hooper and Hayley McQueen.

“Although some outlets are making changes it’s too easy for them to revert to type when the big decisions have to be made. Broadly, the entire industry needs a shakeup. I am a mother and there are loads of moms by association who watch football and enjoy their sport.

“Those women are not provided for. One mom I spoke to said, ‘How do you think it makes me feel having a son really into football, trying to get understanding of game, being told it all by a young glamor puss I can’t identify with who probably knows little more than I do?’ ”

Fornoff, who wrote the book “Lady in the Locker Room,” and now covers golf, is disappointed by the lack of progress by women since that “gift” landed on her desk all those years ago.

“I think it was very important that I did not let the rat and many other early-career incidents – the kind all women sports journalists of the time experienced to some degree – discourage me or sway me from pursuing a career that can be a lot of fun, and rewarding for the right person,” she says.

“I left the baseball beat because I did not think the lifestyle fit me, not because I did not think the job fit me or that I did not fit the job.

“I am disappointed to see so little growth and progress for women in sports journalism. It is discouraging to hear of their struggles.”

“I still hope to see more women on major beats and in charge of sports departments at major media companies.”

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