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'Sidelined' Author On Vicious Treatment Of Women In Sports World

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to talk about the life of a sports journalist now. And you wouldn't think a story like that would require one of those sensitivity warnings that the discussion might include the topic of rape or online threats or vicious personal insults. But we do need that kind of warning because we are going to talk about the lives of women in sports, especially women journalists.

You might remember that 2016 video that's now been viewed millions of times where unsuspecting men were asked to read out loud to their faces some of the vicious tweets directed at those journalists daily. Julia DiCaro was one of the sports journalists in that video, and now she's written a new book expanding on the treatment of women in and around sports. And just like those tweets, it makes for bracing reading. Her new book is called "Sidelined: Sports Culture And Being A Woman In America."

When we spoke, she says it was always hard being one of a handful of women in her field. But she says the harassment went into overdrive when she was covering the trial of a professional hockey player who'd been accused of sexual assault.

JULIE DICARO: I was trying to explain to people how things work, why they work that way and why some things that may seem counterintuitive to them happen in sexual assault investigations. And that was like a nuclear bomb descended on me. You know, I wound up missing work because I was getting threats. There were people telling me they knew, you know, how I got into the building every day - things like that.

MARTIN: We cannot say in this medium some of the things that came across your social media or that have been said to you.

DICARO: Yeah.

MARTIN: But there was one image in particular that came across your Twitter that I want you to share.

DICARO: It was a really horrific picture of a woman who was naked and bound and gagged and was being held by a group of men. Her throat was slit, and they were holding her over a bucket of blood. It was the most upsetting image I've ever seen. I have no idea to this day if it was real. It looked real. But, yeah, I mean, that is the kind of stuff that that happens when you work in this industry. It's wading through 50 feet of garbage every day to try to do your job. And nobody should be in that situation.

MARTIN: I just think some people might be shocked to hear this. Do you think it's particular to, say, sports talk? Or do you think - can you say with some conviction that most of the women in this space have received this kind of treatment at some point?

DICARO: You know, I think that there are women who manage to sort of keep their head down and stay out of controversial topics. And I think that it is easier for them, although I don't think it's easy.

But especially if you are someone who speaks out on what we call the hot-button topics - right? - so if you're talking about racism, if you're talking about domestic violence or sexual assault, if you're talking about any of the things that sort of get people riled up, those of us that talk about those issues in sports, I think, are the ones that are really targeted because at the end of the day, it's about silencing women. There's a segment of people who want to watch sports and not think about any of this stuff, and they are angry that you are bringing it up and making them think about it when they view sports as an escape.

MARTIN: So I want to talk about the question of covering sexual assault in sports. And this is where I just have to let people know they may not like the conversation that we're about to have because you go into a lot of detail about the rape allegations against Kobe Bryant in 2003.

And, of course, he tragically died, you know, a little over a year ago in a helicopter accident with his daughter and a couple of other players and parent on his youth team that he sponsored, a girls' youth team that he sponsored. And you talked about how you weighed whether to even discuss this in this book. Why did you weigh that?

DICARO: Yeah. You know, I was as shocked as everyone else with Kobe Bryant's death. And, in fact, I was working on that chapter at the library when news broke that his helicopter had crashed. I was horrified. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

At the same time, you know, I think there was a really interesting conversation to be had about the way that men in sports are able to rehabilitate their images in a way that people in other arenas are not, in ways that women are not. At the same time, there were quite a few women reaching out to me, and men as well, Black and white, in sports media saying, I'm really uncomfortable with the way that we are talking about this. Like, people will just say, Kobe's legacy was complicated, and then sort of move on.

And I know that in the community of sexual assault survivors, there was a lot of conversation about, how do we talk about this? Is it OK to, you know, bring it up? If you do, you're going to get destroyed on social media, and people are going to descend on you. And, you know, your life is going to be pretty miserable. At the same time, I don't like the way that we're talking about this.

And so, you know, ultimately, I decided to include it and to sort of have the conversation that, you know, this all started before social media. It was 2003, I believe, before Twitter and Facebook and everything really got going. And for that reason, it seems to have escaped some of the scrutiny that later cases have been under. So at the end of the day, I sort of, I guess, put faith in people to be able to have difficult conversations and to be able to explore with some nuance things that have happened in sports. But we'll see how people react.

MARTIN: You know, what would be fair? This is, I think, an issue that people are grappling with all over the place now. What is fair? Because I was thinking about when there were a number of cases in the NFL that seemed to happen in succession, and there was a lot of outcry about the way these things were handled. There was one case in particular - I'm blanking on the name - was he - his then-fiancee, now wife, in an elevator in Vegas. And...

DICARO: That was Ray Rice.

MARTIN: Ray Rice, right.

DICARO: Yeah.

MARTIN: There was a big reaction to this spate of incidents that emerged. And so people were brought into NFL management in order to play some role in policing this kind of behavior. And one of the African American women who's a civil rights activist said, you know, what are you going for here? Is it - because the women who are married to these men - these men - so they're head of their household, or the breadwinners for their families - they don't want these men to be deprived of employment forever. They want them to stop hitting them.

And so the question is, I guess, is there a third way here that could be discussed here?

DICARO: Yeah. And I think sort of victim-centered restorative justice is what we want to be talking about, right? So, you know, the problem with the NFL is that it's purely punitive, right? I mean, you get suspended. You don't play for a number of games. There is no sort of restorative or rehabilitative part to it. Major League Baseball tries to do better. They actually have people evaluated by specialists, actually have guys evaluated by specialists who then tell them, you know, what kind of counseling they need.

The problem is that when you're talking about domestic violence, you're talking about batterer intervention counseling, which is something that can take, you know, months to years. And one of the biggest components of it is group therapy, where you have guys who abuse in a group holding each other accountable because abusers are, you know, infamously manipulative and charming and basically trick a lot of people into thinking they're not abusers.

So having those other guys in there able to call men out when they see that happening is a really important part of the therapy. Now, how do you do that kind of group therapy in - on an intensive basis when your sentence lasts or when your suspension lasts for 30 days, and then you're back traveling with your team all the time? You can't.

And so, you know, people that I know that work in that industry have said that, you know, is six months is when we just start to scratch the surface of getting to down to why someone abuses. There's currently no mechanism in place across any of the pro sports to truly deal with it on a serious restorative basis that benefits not only the abuser but also benefits the victim. And I don't know when or if we will ever see that.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, so much of this book is about the price that you've paid for speaking. And I just wonder how you feel now that it's out.

DICARO: Anxious (laughter). You know, I've seen the harassment ticking up in the days and weeks as the book launch got closer, and I knew that once it was out there and people could read what I'd written that it was going to be something that I had to deal with. I've been really lucky in that I've had a lot of support as well.

But, yeah, I am anxious, and I don't know what's going to happen. And when it comes to online harassment, that's sort of the scariest thing, is you never know when it's going to hit and from where and why and for how long. So I would be lying if I said that I wasn't nervous about it. But at the same time, I'm proud of it, and I hope that people read it.

MARTIN: Julie DiCaro is a sports journalist and editor for Deadspin. Her latest book, "Sidelined: Sports Culture And Being A Woman In America" is out now.

Julie DiCaro, thanks so much for talking to us.

DICARO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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