Sports journalist Julie DiCaro has seen some particularly virulent examples of misogyny in her career. DiCaro, now at the sports blog Deadspin after working first as a lawyer and then as a sports radio anchor, faced the worst of it (including physical threats) as she reported on NHL star Patrick Kane’s rape allegations in 2015 for Chicago’s WSCR radio in Chicago. She also saw the unacceptable treatment that both her colleagues in the media and female athletes, in general, were suffering.
Her #MoreThanMean video with sports reporter Sarah Spain brought some attention to sexism in sports (and won a Peabody Award in the process).
Now she gives the topic a fuller treatment with her new book Sidelined: Sports, Culture, and Being a Woman in America. In it, she tackles issues related to misogyny throughout the sports industry, mixing research and personal experience for a compelling and troubling revelation of a dangerous culture — a culture that, she points out, reflects on society at large.
DiCaro’s strongest work examines sexism with sports media. She starts with a historical overview, talking about the “smashers of glass ceilings” who were some of the first female sports journalists. One of the big challenges was gaining locker room access, a key part of covering events. DiCaro covers the stories of journalists Robin Herman, Marcel St. Cyr, and others working in the late ’70s, noting that while the debate about female reporters entering the locker room was often framed as an issue of modesty, it had more to do with the requirements of a job that men prevented women from doing. The reporters breaking new ground not only struggled for access, but they also suffered various forms of humiliation and harassment.
The details might have changed, but that sort of treatment continues to this day. By discussing both her own experiences and those of her colleagues, DiCaro delineates the various battles that women face in sports media. While the behavior of “fans” and online trolls might not be surprising (even if the degree of its awfulness is), the pervasive apathy or outright sexism of the industry remains problematic even in the #MeToo era.
The threats against DiCaro and her family make for some of the most appalling stories in the book, but one little sentence captures the depth of the problem. When explaining the hatred that male listeners have for female voices on sports radio, she writes, “They were complaining that we sounded like women.” The problem, made apparent, is simply that women aren’t welcome in a traditionally male field.
The problems exist not just within the media side of the industry, but throughout sports in general. Women fight for equal pay (see the current US National Women’s Soccer League‘s legal struggles), for proper support, and for acceptable treatment. Most traumatizing is the prevalence of sexual abuse within sports, which – aside from the case of women’s gymnasts’ doctor, Larry Nasssar – has rarely received the attention or the convictions that it should.
DiCaro points out that women endure other, even public forms of abuse. She writes well about Serena Williams, discussing the various ways she’s been criticized, including for her open emotion on the tennis court. She explains that as Williams “fought to hold back tears of rage and injustice” at the 2018 US Open final, DiCaro noted that it “was a struggle many women recognized.” The chair umpire penalized Williams for behavior frequently allowed in the mens’ game (“smashing a racket and arguing”).
Williams had had enough, and her rage came out in what she described as “fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality.” The moment resonated with fans and began a public conversation about “the constraints on women in our society.”
DiCaro likewise allows herself to vent her own anger. Too often women face blowback if they show emotion in their public speaking or writing.Whereas a man in politics, business, or sport can be angry, a woman expressing the same feelings is “hysterical” or “shrill“, presumably with her emotions clouding her judgment. The contrast between Christine Blasey Ford and Trump-appointed Brett Kavanaugh during the latter’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2020 comes to mind, as do nearly any instance of a female politician speaking with vehemence.
DiCaro presents her arguments with clarity, but reveals her own hurt and anger as part of the story, adding a necessary element. The book has plenty of personality in DiCaro’s openness, wit, and righteous anger, and when DiCaro says, “Get on board or get bent,” it feels appropriate.
Fortunately, there is hope for women working in the sports industry — even if the author goes to Pakistan to find it. There, she discovered the work of groups like Women Win and Right to Play. They support women and girls by, among other activities, providing opportunities for them in sport. Overseas, DiCaro rediscovers the value of sports and play for girls, including improved “self-esteem and real-world skills”.
The global struggles for equality vary in their specifics – regional cultures may contribute to limited safety, different gender expectations, and more – they also allow for a sort of international community. It’s a lesson DiCaro wants to apply in America, too, speaking of the need for women in sport to lift each other up in their mutual struggle.
Indeed, Sidelined offers a number of topics to spark unifying, public conversations on topics too often addressed only in whispers.
Additional Work Cited: Fottrell, Quentin. “‘Women are judged for being emotional’ — yet it’s more acceptable for men to get upset and angry, female executives say”. MarketWatch. 29 November 2019