Women in Sports Experience Widespread Harassment—How Can That Change?

Abbey MastraccoContributor IJanuary 22, 2021

This screen grab from a Zoom call shows New York Mets general manager Jared Porter Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. Mets general manager Jared Porter sent graphic, uninvited text messages and images to a female reporter in 2016 when he was working for the Chicago Cubs in their front office, ESPN reported Monday night, Jan. 18, 2021. (Zoom via AP, File)
Uncredited/Associated Press

"Tights tonight?"

This was the direct message over Twitter from a staff member of one of the hockey teams I covered in the fall of 2014. At the time, I was 28 years old, working as a regional reporter in Los Angeles. My role involved writing about nearly every team in Southern California, but it had a heavy hockey emphasis, with the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks being two of the best teams in the NHL. 

I received these DMs throughout the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. This staffer had taken a liking to the black tights I occasionally wore under dresses and skirts. I was working at freezing cold hockey rinks—what else was I supposed to wear under a dress? The messages took on an increasingly flirtatious tone, and later on, a highly inappropriate tone.

The DMs stopped over the summer, and I was relieved. But as soon as the season began in the fall, I saw the message icon and knew who it was. 

I ignored him. I felt the messages were pretty innocuous, but I couldn't deny they made me uncomfortable. They made me uncomfortable enough that I stopped going to the pregame meal, knowing I'd have to see him in the media room. I didn't use the media room after games either. I went back up to the pressbox. It didn't occur to me that as a media member, I shouldn't be made to feel like I couldn't use the very room that exists to do my job. 

I stopped wearing tights. I planned my outfits accordingly, never wearing dresses or skirts if there was a possibility of running into him. 

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The messages kept coming, and two veteran reporters happened to see them one day when I had left my laptop open in the pressbox before a game. They told me I needed to report him in order to prevent him from sending messages like that to others. And if I didn't, they would. So I took the issue to my editor, who could not have handled it better. I felt he took the issue very seriously and had my safety and well-being in mind. 

I blocked the staffer on Twitter. The DMs stopped. The issue was handled, and I was naive enough to think that nothing like that would ever happen again, and that if it did, it would be handled in the same diplomatic manner.

But it happened again. And again. A few more times after that. It didn't happen with that particular staffer again, but make no mistake: There were other men in sports who messaged me with varying versions of the same things former New York Mets general manager Jared Porter messaged a foreign female reporter in 2016. Porter, then a member of the Chicago Cubs front office, sent her 62 unwanted and unreturned text messages, including one of a naked, erect penis. 

Too many women who work in sports media have run into these problems. The Athletic's Brittany Ghiroli opened up earlier this week about harassment she experienced during her time covering the Baltimore Orioles in 2012. Kavitha Davidson, also of The Athletic, wrote about her experiences as a woman of color in sports.

For me, there were messages about my body, messages about my demeanor, messages about what I wore under my clothes and late-night "U up?" texts in Pittsburgh.

The very act of sending these messages is just as inappropriate as the connotations they contain, but when they go unanswered or the advances are rebuffed, women face the fallout of the awkward interviews, an uncomfortable workplace or worse: getting shunned from the teams they cover completely. 

The next time it happened, I was on a different coast with a different job covering a different team. There was a well-known player and a couple of coaches who, like Porter, attempted to manipulate me by offering news or access.

I've worked in the two largest media markets in the country. I know that to stand out, you need to break news. And I knew that would be a steep climb when I moved to New York to cover baseball. That player and those coaches knew this, too, and they tried to leverage their insight and network into dates or more. 

But this isn't just a Me Too story. This is also an it-could-happen-to-you story. Every few months there is another story about another woman wronged in sports. There is performative outrage for a few days, maybe even a week or two, and then it disappears from the news cycle.

This isn't just a problem with players, coaches and executives. Women face opposition and harassment from co-workers or other media members. 

Without meaningful change, men like Porter will continue to sexually harass women. They will send unsolicited nudes and make sexual advances. Many men will go unchecked, enjoying the protection of the powerful network that being a man in professional sports often provides.

Women will continue to be driven out of the industry instead of advancing into higher positions, and the cycle will continue. 

So, here's my story, what I learned from it and how I think this cultural issue can start to be addressed.

        

How it affects us

In July 2017, a player I covered asked me to come to his hotel room. He said he knew how to sneak me in: He could leave me a key under an alias. I declined. For weeks, I had been trying to form a relationship with him, but not that kind of relationship, and I was so upset that it blew up in my face. 

He would not be the last source to try to get me to a hotel room that season. But to make matters worse, he refused to do any interviews with me the rest of the season. Even in scrums, he would give short, curt answers or no answers to my questions.

I pulled back on my reporting, I only stuck close to players or coaches I was comfortable talking to, and I stopped trying to build sources. I hid in stairwells, I went up to the pressbox early and I didn't eat with anyone. I just withdrew.

This is not an effective way to do the job. I moved to New York wanting to make an impact and tell good stories, but by the end of my first season, I absolutely dreaded going to the ballpark every day. I cried some days before going to work. 

No one in any profession should be scared to go to work. 

             

Why we don't come forward

It's tough to know who to trust in competitive markets, and I didn't feel that I could confide in anyone. My boyfriend thought I was exaggerating, and my friends outside sports couldn't relate. 

I started to scrutinize every interaction and every text. I thought maybe I read the situation wrong. I must have done something to give these men the impression that I wanted to sleep with them, right?

Finally, I told another woman on the beat. I had to get it out and tell someone. My gut told me I could trust her, and it was right.

"Am I crazy?" I asked.

She reassured me that I was not. 

If I can't tell anyone else I work with, how can I tell a boss or even a team official? I had a great relationship with my editor in Los Angeles, but that hasn't been the case everywhere else. Sexual harassment is not a comfortable subject to talk about with an editor, especially with a male editor when you're the only woman on staff. 

Above all, job security in sports writing is fragile. It's tough to justify rocking the boat when you have rent to pay. And even if you do have iron-clad job security, there is always the risk of being ostracized from the sport you cover. That boys club network is more powerful than one little beat writer. 

A few years ago, fed up with everything, I asked a longtime friend who works in baseball why women even bother. 

"Because you want to make it better for the next Abbey Mastracco," he said. "You know there's a 10-year-old girl somewhere in California that loves sports and wants to write about them for a living. 

"You do this job so when you're done, she gets to work in a better environment."

I look at the screenshot of those messages often to keep that goal in mind. 

        

Changing the culture

The Mets took decisive action in firing Porter immediately. New owner Steve Cohen showed strong leadership by doing so, saying on Twitter that he has an organization of 400 employees who matter more than one.

The Mets set a precedent that behavior like that will have consequences. But how can we try to prevent it in the future?

There was a key moment in team president Sandy Alderson's Tuesday press conference. The longtime baseball executive was asked if any women were consulted when the club was going through the hiring process with Porter. The answer was no.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

"There was not one single recommendation from a woman, and that's a reflection of the demographics of the game today in the front offices," Alderson said in a Zoom press conference. "That says something very loudly."

What it says is that we need more women in high level positions throughout the many facets of the sports industry. Women are needed in front offices, they are needed at media outlets and they are needed at agencies. 

In talking to women throughout the industry during the week, that's the answer I kept hearing. Women make great leaders, but they are only just starting to reach the upper echelon of sports management. It took Kim Ng 30 years to get the same job that it took a 41-year-old Porter only 37 days to lose.

The argument that women can't work in baseball because they didn't play baseball doesn't hold up when there are so many executives and media members who never played at any level higher than little league. 

Men in high-powered positions need to speak up as well. And that might mean men in media who need sources like Porter. That's a tough position to be in, but I promise it's not as compromising as it is when a source is trying to sleep with you. 

More thorough vetting needs to be done when interviewing front-office candidates. The Mets didn't know of any women in baseball operations with the Diamondbacks or Cubs who they could have asked about Porter, but maybe next time they could ask a few female media members.

Teams often turn to executive search firms to handle the vetting of candidates. They could specify that women need to be consulted. But if there were more women in management positions to begin with, then teams wouldn't have to go to such great lengths just to find women who know the candidates. 

The hope is that if more women come to occupy management positions, men might eventually view them as equals. Having women in positions of power would not automatically stop the mistreatment, but it could make it easier for women to come forward without retaliation. 

This isn't an overnight change, but an over time change. It might be too idealistic for an industry that doesn't seem to want to evolve, especially when it comes to matters of diversity. But at the very least, we could try. 

Maybe then, we wouldn't have women, like the one Porter sent 62 unreturned text messages to, leaving the business. Maybe then, we could finally see a difference made in the culture of professional sports. 

At the very least, maybe then we could wear tights without worrying about our DMs being blown up.