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Female Sportswriters Feel Wrath of Twitter

An example of ESPN.com writer Jemele Hill's Twitter timeline. (Photo provided by Twitter)

“Go back to the kitchen and make me a sandwich.”

“You should write for Cosmo.”

“You have a fat face.”

Throw in the occasional fake marriage proposal and you have an idea of the feedback that some of the country’s female sportswriters receive on Twitter.

The wildly popular microblogging site has changed the face of interaction between fans and any journalist who writes commentary or reports on their favorite teams.  Add gender to the mix and women get real-time, unfiltered reminders from those followers who don’t think they have any business covering sports.

“There is not an hour that goes by that a comment is made about my race or gender,” says Jemele Hill of ESPN.com, who is one of the few African-American national sports columnists. “I don’t necessarily like it because it should not matter what I look like.”

Amy K. Nelson, a senior correspondent for the sports network SB Nation, says she would “drive herself into a grave” if she constantly thought about reader feedback and the pressures of her job.  Nelson says she appreciates the smarter, well-informed reader who understands what she is trying to do, but not everyone appreciates her work.

“It’s offensive when people try to tell me how to do my job because I wouldn’t tell a doctor, lawyer, how to do to their jobs,” she says.

Women sportswriters have endured sexist comments as long as they have covered sports, but the same social medial outlets that all them to connect with followers in new ways have also become a haven for off-the-cuff insults about their gender, whether they work for a blog or The New York Times.

“If someone wants to question my qualifications after 13 years at the Times, they can go right ahead,” says Judy Battista, The New York Times’ national NFL writer. “The only people I have to answer to are my bosses. I try not to respond to negativity. It’s tempting, but I don’t.”

“The immediacy, the feedback and response time is the biggest change in our industry,” says Ann Killion, a sportswriter in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 20 years. “I do know that women get a lot of sexual stuff. Is it because men are pigs? Men get it too, as well as women. It’s part of the job.”

Hill, who constantly jokes and banters with her 90,000 followers, says the pressure isn’t on her to prove her cynics wrong, but to prove to herself that she belongs in a male dominated field.

I don’t think about that pressure,” she says. “The people that hired me are fine with what I write. I can’t think or worry about those Twitter thugs.”

Jane McManus of ESPNNewYork.com, who covers the New York Jets and Giants, says she doesn’t understand the backlash Hill receives on a daily basis, but understands why she sticks with Twitter. McManus says her 9,500 followers are a fraction of Hill’s and Nelson’s, but that interaction is vital to promote her work.

“Twitter is a two-way street. It can be smart and engaging, and I have been very fortunate that I don’t get a lot of  criticism,” that cold be called sexist, McManus says. “For Jemele and others out there doing good work, it shouldn’t matter what you are as long as you are thorough in your job. I guess it just comes with the territory.”

Part of that territory is dealing with the male admirers.

“Absolutely, I get comments about my looks,” Nelson says.  “Is it fair? I don’t know. I am not sure how I feel about being told I have a fat face after a TV appearance. It’s part of the trade because a majority of people on Twitter aren’t trolls.”

“Oh yeah, I get told that all the time that I am kind of cute,” McManus says. “I find it mind-boggling to tell you the truth. People find it interesting. I will never get it.”

But any woman who wants to work in sports must know she will need thick skin, the writers say.

Sports inspire a lot of fanatics and a lot of passion,” Hill says. “They treat their home teams like it’s their mama, or everyone important in their lives. So when you talk about their teams in a negative, I get prepared to an endless stream of backlash.”

All the sportswriters say that even though they take their share of criticism, Twitter is a useful tool for what they want to do. Although Nelson, who has been on Twitter for three years and has 49,000 followers, says she has recently curbed her activity on the site, in part because of abusive messages.

“I have backed off because of my engagement on the site. It was born out of distaste and my timeline getting clogged up with nonsense. I have a job to do, so I don’t have time” for the stupidity, she says.

Hill says she agrees with Nelson, but also says there is more good than bad when tweeting with fans. “But of course there are days when I think, ‘What the hell am I doing? I must be out of damn mind to be chatting with these thugs,’” she says.

While Battista says she will stick with Twitter, she refuses to engage abusers the way Hill and some others do, preferring to ignore or block them.

“I really like Twitter, but I am not getting paid to do it, and I am certainly not getting paid to put up with abusive people,” she says.

Email: tma2125@columbia.edu

February 13, 2012