Spain: Sports world needs to prevent not just respond to sexual harassment

It's not all men, but it might be all women.

I used to think I was one of the few unlucky ones. Now I'm starting to believe that any woman who hasn't been the victim of sexual harassment in pursuit of a career in sports media is an outlier, not the norm.

The details differ, but the story is the same and the message is clear: This is the price you pay for wanting to do this job. Men are entitled to go after what they want, no matter how many times they're told "no." By merely existing -- in that body, no matter the body -- you are a temptation and a distraction. Boys will be boys. Lighten up. Laugh it off. And, most importantly: The sports world is a place that will protect men and punish women.

Listen: Sarah Spain talks to Jenn Sterger about how sexual harassment cases are covered in the media and her own experience while covering the New York Jets.

Sexual harassment in sports media is a feature, not a bug.

Case in point: We're just a few months removed from yet another high-profile incident and we've already returned to business as usual. I bet most people reading this aren't even aware that an investigation into Los Angeles Angels pitching coach Mickey Callaway (formerly the manager of the New York Mets) was completed and resulted in a ban from the sport through the end of 2022.

You probably know the details of the accusations, though.

Early this year, women reporters accused Callaway and now-fired Mets GM Jared Porter of lewd behavior. When he was with the Chicago Cubs, Porter sent explicit, unsolicited texts, including a photo of an erect, naked penis to a foreign correspondent who had moved to the United States to cover Major League Baseball.

Callaway, five women told The Athletic, made comments about their appearance, gave unsolicited shoulder massages in the dugout, offered up invitations to get drinks in exchange for information and sent inappropriate photos and requests for nude pictures in return.

Porter, who admitted sending the explicit messages and pictures, was fired shortly after the story broke. Callaway was found by the MLB Department of Investigations to have violated MLB's policies and the Angels fired him shortly after the league ban was announced.

The response in the cases of both men is a positive step for an industry that has far too often overlooked such incidents, but the men involved were far more expendable than a big name front office executive, legendary coach or superstar player. Just as importantly, the accusers have remained anonymous, making it all but impossible for the public to victim blame.

So are Porter and Callaway actually proof of progress in dealing with harassment, or forgettable cogs in an industry built on big names? Would the punishment be the same if, say, a Super Bowl-winner and future Hall of Famer behaved in the same way Porter did? If the woman in question wasn't a nameless, faceless reporter, but instead a beautiful woman with a history of modeling for magazines like Maxim and Playboy?

We don't have to speculate.

Recently, I invited Jenn Sterger to come on my podcast -- first to apologize for not being an advocate a decade ago, and also to let her give the side of the story few heard when her life suddenly became fodder for sports blogs and newspapers.

In 2010, Deadspin released a story alleging that when Brett Favre was the starting quarterback for the New York Jets in 2008, he routinely harassed Sterger, the team's in-game stadium host, with voicemails and sexually explicit texts and photos.

Sterger first found fame while attending Florida State in 2005, when she was featured on camera during a football game, inspiring now-retired broadcaster Brent Musburger to proclaim, "Fifteen hundred red-blooded Americans just decided to apply to Florida State." She parlayed the attention into modeling jobs, a writing gig with SportsIllustrated.com and, eventually, the host job with the Jets.

Even though Deadspin ran the Favre story without Sterger's consent or cooperation, she agreed to turn over months of text messages and emails to the NFL and participated in interviews with investigators. Favre admitted to sending texts in pursuit of Sterger, but denied sending any explicit pictures. The NFL said they couldn't confirm that he had sent the lewd image published by Deadspin and fined him $50,000 for "failure to cooperate with the investigation in a forthcoming manner." He spent his final seasons with the Minnesota Vikings before retiring, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016 and has remained a popular figure in the sports world, regularly appearing in ad campaigns and television and radio interviews.

As for Sterger, the ambitious 20-something who was just starting her career in sports found her life turned upside down by a man she had never -- and still has never -- met or spoken to. She was regularly plastered on the pages of the New York Post, featured in every sports blog and gossip rag and ultimately became defined by the impression people had of her based on photos they'd seen or gossip items they'd read.

She said she suffered mental health issues, self-medicated, poured money into legal fees and watched her story get eaten up and spit out by a media and public who believed that the NFL's final word must be the truth.

She explained to me that she's still never met Favre, that she initially reported the messages to a team employee but hadn't sued or asked for money, that she had never intended for the story to go public or for the NFL to investigate and that the Deadspin expose was a betrayal of confidence.

"When it came out in 2010, the fact of the matter is I never sued anyone," Sterger told me. "I didn't want any money. I didn't even want to cooperate with [the NFL] investigation because I knew they weren't going to look after me. That's something that I think everyone needs to understand, and that is: You can do everything right. You can report things to the proper people. You can go through the right chain of command and it can still end up costing you your job."

Sterger remembers her meetings with the NFL and notes that there wasn't a single female employee of the league, nor a female attorney or advocate there, and that the men in the room made her feel like she was to blame.

"I'm having to answer questions that are so accusatory," Sterger told me. "If we had recorded these sessions, people would be appalled at the way I was spoken to. I got so mad. I remember standing up in the middle of this meeting with the NFL investigator, my attorney and my manager, where I was like, 'If you do not stop speaking to me like I did something wrong, I'm going to leave.'"

Favre was the one being investigated, but it was Sterger who had to meet with investigators, lay bare her personal life, defend herself and ultimately pay the price with her career, mental health and reputation.

I'm embarrassed to admit that this then-20-something writer at the time, also new to the sports industry, questioned whether Sterger was being honest about the situation. I assumed she must have done something to provoke Favre's behavior, not yet having educated myself on the habits of predators or the playbook used to discredit and silence victims.

Despite my own experiences with harassment, I didn't empathize with Sterger or think of her as the same as me. I saw her cropped shirts and her Playboy photos and judged her. I was the product of a lifetime of watching society chastise sexually empowered women, blame women for their own victimization and paint those who speak out against powerful men as crazy, unhinged, jealous, bitter or money-hungry.

Despite believing myself to be an advocate for women all my life, I had grown up to believe what was essentially a camouflaged version of the most disgusting narrative of them all: She was asking for it. Look at how she's dressed. There's no way she's innocent in this.

I wasn't alone. Sterger struggled to find support in the sports industry. As a collective, we were years away from the reckoning that would come for the Wild Wild West of sports blogs and even further removed from understanding the damage being done to young women across the media landscape -- from Britney Spears to Jessica Simpson and Lindsay Lohan.

At the time, the women reporters who were sympathetic figures in cases of harassment or unfair practices in locker rooms were mainly the ones with masters' degrees and the right mic flag. Beautiful women like Sterger were viewed by some as a hindrance to the advancement of women in the industry, even while industry leaders clearly prioritized looks in their hiring practices.

Over the last decade, as she's struggled to find work, Sterger has occasionally still heard from uncommonly honest prospective employers that the incident with Favre -- read: the unsolicited and unwanted advances from a man she never met -- made them hesitant to hire her.

Years after Sterger's story broke, as people began to wonder aloud on social media why sports media hadn't yet had its industry-shaking "#MeToo Moment," Sterger chimed in on Twitter with heartbreaking honesty: "Or maybe they have & no one listened because 'she looked a certain way.'" [This tweet is no longer available.]

In the wake of the Mets firing Porter, Sterger reminded people that her harassment had been treated quite differently. "I'm sorry 2010 didn't see me as a good enough martyr for the cause," she tweeted. "I'm sorry 25-year-old me didn't deserve your empathy and compassion because I looked a certain way, but it won't stop me from fighting for what's right, because this will keep happening if no one does."

THE SUCCESSFUL MEN who commit these acts depend on the sympathy of a world that sees them as the protagonist of their story and the women they victimize as obstacles to be overcome en route to redemption. A common refrain in cases of athletes found guilty of sexual assault is a mourning of their lost potential. The touchdowns that might have been scored! The games that might have been won!

Women aren't viewed through the same lens. Their potential is never grieved, the effects of their victimization never counted.

Our obsession with sport clouds our morality and allows us to favor the men who thrill us over the women they harass. Sterger isn't going to win you your fantasy football league, the reporter who exposed Porter isn't going to draft the next David Wright and the female students that former LSU head coach Les Miles allegedly harassed aren't going to bring the university millions in booster money after a winning season.

Women are reminded over and over again that when they get in the way of a man's success, it's on them, no matter what they have or haven't done.

The details differ, but the story is the same.

For me, it was an attempt to kiss me during a job interview. Inappropriate questions about my personal grooming and spoken-aloud fantasies about how great the sex we'd have together would be. A comment to a colleague: "If you're not going to try to f*** her, I am." A comment to a prospective boss during a job interview: "I've got an idea for a show. It's a half-hour of Sarah sitting in a chair, me standing over her shoulder staring down at her tits."

A reporter at another outlet complained to a team's PR staff that I must be sleeping with players because they were "giving me better answers." A team PR staffer telling a room full of employees I was a problem because my "boobs are distracting."

I used to say that things seemed to be getting better, but now I know they're only getting better for me. The power and agency I've acquired in the industry over the last decade-plus have made me a pretty dangerous target. But the women just starting out, the ones without a voice, they know the truth. They're going through it, just like I went through it, and the women before me, and the women before them.

The truth is, the ceiling for women in sports is higher than ever, but the floor is the same.

You can be almost anything -- analyst, play-by-play or color commentator, referee, coach, GM, CEO, owner -- but you'll almost certainly have to go through a gauntlet of disrespect, intimidation, manipulation, sexual harassment and misconduct along the way. And even when you've "made it," there are no guarantees.

We will continue to blame women and offer men redemption until we reckon with the deeply rooted misogyny that stands in the way of gender equity in this country and dictates the spaces in which women are considered welcome. Until we reject the notion that women are a temptation that men can't resist and stop excusing unprofessional behavior or harassment as an inevitability. Until we accept that standing by silently is an act of complicity, not neutrality.

If you care about making this industry a place for everyone, just posting cheery Instagram comments on National Girls and Women in Sports Day and "Share a list of your favorite female sports reporters" tweets ain't gonna cut it. You're a part of the problem if you express public outrage about an accused reporter, athlete or coach without also checking your own house. Because it's probably happening where you are, too.

Now remember that the details differ, but the story is the same.

For baseball reporter Deesha Thosar, it was repeatedly rejected pursuits from a coworker that became so alarming they initially caused her to hide in the bathroom at work and eventually required the filing of a police report.

For the nearly 20 women who last year told the Washington Post about a toxic environment at the Washington Football Team, it was unwanted advances, lewd comments about their bodies and outfits and an in-house request for a highlight reel video of the partially nude outtakes from the team's annual cheerleader calendar shoot.

For reporters Jemele Hill, Jen Lada, Cassidy Hubbarth, Kerith Burke, Molly Knight and others who joined my podcast years ago to share their stories of harassment, it was bosses, athletes, coaches and colleagues who didn't care about the effects their comments or advances might have on a woman's career and future.

I'm telling you, it's happening where you are.

Instead of just reacting to the latest woman coming forward, are you proactively asking the people you work with if they're doing OK? If they need help reporting? If they feel like the colleagues they work with and for would support them in calling out bad behavior? Are you properly vetting potential employees, including conversations with women who have worked alongside them in the past?

Are you whispering about a player, manager or boss whose behavior is the "worst-kept secret" in the industry instead of reporting him? Are you excusing blatantly boorish behavior and language as if those aren't signs of potentially worse behavior behind closed doors? Are you shrugging away misogyny as "locker room talk" instead of recognizing that it creates an atmosphere in which women feel like outsiders and men feel entitled?

We keep asking when sports media will have its #MeToo Movement, but that can't happen until we admit, finally, that our industry is broken. While many express shock when a horrific tale of harassment goes public, the fingers point at the individual without any calls to change industry culture. The sports world is so steeped in misogyny and machismo, it feels like many see the antediluvian treatment of women in the media as an inevitability.

It's time to start preventing instead of responding. To be proactive, not reactive. We can't let another Jenn Sterger go through it alone, re-victimized by an industry that chose hero worship over accountability, an industry that didn't show up for its own.