The 42nd Annual Gracie Awards - Inside
Journalist Julie DiCaro speaks onstage during the 42nd Annual Gracie Awards, hosted by The Alliance for Women in Media at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on June 6, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California.
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May 4, 2022 2:21 PM EDT

Elon Musk’s $44 billion takeover of Twitter, announced last week, has raised alarms for many marginalized groups often subject to online harassment. Musk has called himself a “free speech absolutionist” who wants people on Twitter to “have both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.” Female journalists who cover sports for a living are often subject to a particularly cruel brand of online abuse. Across sports media, these women are worried. “Can’t imagine how female journos can stay on Twitter with Musk in charge,” Julie DiCaro, a senior writer and editor at Deadspin, wrote on Twitter on April 25, referencing Musk’s own toxic Twitter behavior: in 2018 Musk, during an online spat, called a man recruiting divers to rescue a dozen children trapped in a Thai cave a “pedo guy.” Musk deleted the tweet and survived a defamation suit against him. Musk, DiCaro wrote, “is about to unleash all the beasts again.”

DiCaro knows these online tormentors all too well. In a searing 2016 clip that’s been viewed nearly 5 million times on YouTube, DiCaro—then a writer for The Cauldron and anchor at 670 The Score, a Chicago sports radio station—and ESPN reporter Sarah Spain participated in an anti-bullying PSA: men sat across from DiCaro and Spain on camera, and read “mean tweets” about them back to the two journalists. Some missives are so misogynistic and violent, the men can barely read the words on their screens.

“There are guys who basically, I’m their hobby,” DiCaro tells TIME. “They spend their entire day talking about me, trying to figure out what’s going on in my life. Hitting me wherever they can, making fun of me, sharing it with everyone so they can all laugh about it.”

USA Today columnist Nancy Armour says that whenever she writes about Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick, or Kobe Bryant, her Twitter mentions turn into a “dumpster fire.” Reactions range from those wishing Armour loses her job, to those saying they hope she catches a horrible disease. After she criticized former NASCAR driver Tony Stewart in an article, Armour says that someone “told me that she wanted to find me and bash my head into a concrete curb until I died.”

Since female journalists started to report in men’s locker rooms in the 1970s—following a successful lawsuit filed by former Sports Illustrated reporter Melissa Ludtke— the presence of women in sports media has always sparked uniquely wicked forms of resentment. In 1986, for example, Oakland A’s slugger Dave Kingman sent a live rat to reporter Susan Fornoff, who said Kingman told her he believed women didn’t belong in the clubhouse. In 1990, Lisa Olson of the Boston Herald revealed that several New England Patriots players exposed themselves to her and sexually harassed her; she said she received death threats after making the allegations, which an NFL investigation found to be true. These days, sports fans spew venom toward women journalists via anonymous Twitter handles.

Female sports journalists, says Armour, are “a threat to the quote-unquote, natural order, or the way things have always been. For generations, sports was a male domain. Sports were played by men, and written about and consumed by men. It was a boys’ game. That’s no longer the case. And there are some people who don’t deal real well with that.”

Accountability needed

Armour gives Twitter credit for responding to reports of abuse. “If you say something that is that is physical, if you are making a physical threat to me or somebody else, then I report it to Twitter,” says Armour. “And I feel like those responses have gotten quicker. It used to be that I’d get a message like three weeks later. I wouldn’t even remember what the heck it was. Now, it seems like it gets turned around in a day or so.”

DiCaro, who says that online abuse drove her back into therapy last year, hasn’t seen the same volume of vile messages as she did a few years ago. She chalks up this improvement, however, to female sports journalists such as herself ignoring their detractors, and using Twitter’s blocking and muting mechanisms to their advantage. “We have seen sort of a downtick in it, but it’s because we’ve made the choice to use these things Twitter’s made available,” says DiCaro. “Not because Twitter’s done a great job of moderating this or because they’ve had some kind of come to Jesus moment and have decided they’re gonna treat people better. I think it’s mostly women making a decision to prioritize their mental health.”

Some sports journalists worry that Musk is conflating free speech guaranteed by governments with sensible rules created by private organizations. While it’s legal, for example, to walk into a store and hurl insults at fellow customers, the manager has every right to kick you out. “We need to have some civic education about what freedom of speech actually means,” says Armour. “I hope that if the deal does go through, Musk talks to the people at Twitter, and finds out their reasonings for why they have put the safeguards in place, and get a sense of what is at stake.”

“About Elon Musk saying he wants to encourage more free speech, my viewpoint is, is this free speech going to come with accountability still intact?” says Valencia King, a sports journalist based in Dallas.

Some journalists are skeptical, given Musk’s past history. A 2018 Daily Beast story, for example, detailed examples of the harsh treatment female reporters receive from male Musk supporters when they criticize him online; in response, Musk criticized the article’s writer, a woman, on Twitter. He’s tweeted out infantile, sexist jokes. Female workers at Tesla, Musk’s $54 billion automotive and clean energy company, have sued the company for sexual harassment.

“I just can’t imagine how things are gonna get better,” says DiCaro. “It just feels like things are gonna get a lot worse.”

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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