By Jessica Quiroli
Walking the damp halls of the lower level of a baseball stadium, the sound of my feet echo, as the noise of the clubhouse gets closer. There’s music. Lots of employees hustling around , trying to get last minute work done before game time. It’s a fun environment. You meet talented people all the time, and you get to talk baseball for a living. Pretty great gig.
But when I turn the corner to enter the clubhouse, something happens. Sometimes players are quieted by my presence. Sometimes they whisper or laugh. Other times they’ve made sexual sounds or remarks. They’ve asked why I’m there, made jokes loudly at my expense and told me to leave. They’ve laughed in my face when dropping a towel, and followed me into the hall making sexually lewd suggestions. But I carried on, head held high and did my job.
It was always because I was strong enough to handle it. That’s what I said. I was tough. Sure, that’s true. We’re all strong in ways we need to be when challenged. But when I peeled the layers back, not necessarily voluntarily, but because I was miserable, I saw myself in the merciless light.
I was a survivor of domestic and sexual violence. My reaction to abuse in the clubhouse was pure survival, learned when I was being abused throughout my life. I was in denial. And the pain of my past, combined with facing sexual harassment in the workplace, created tremendous pain and confusion for years.
It’s easy to imagine people reading this and wondering why I wouldn’t just quit. I don’t like when people say this, because that reaction puts the blame on me and other victims. Don’t tell me to quit. Tell the harassers and abusers to quit.
But there I go again. I’m toughening. When really, what I genuinely have felt like doing countless times, is collapsing in a heap and sobbing. I have never done this. And this is the problem.
For anyone unfamiliar with the history of women in baseball, women weren’t allowed clubhouse access until 1978. That’s the year that Sports Illustrated reporter Melissa Ludtke fought back when an MLB team refused her clubhouse access. SI & Ludtke changed history & baseball journalism. But as the law goes, that didn’t stop what people believed, and it still doesn’t. Throughout the 1980’s female sports reporters were subjected to humiliating acts of sexual harassment by players, and it continued into the 1990’s. ESPN reporter Erin Andrews was sexually violated, via a peeping stalker, in her hotel room. She later won a multi-million dollar lawsuit against him, but Andrews was questioned by everyone from fans to colleagues. The question, of course, was in various ways, ‘Did she ask for it?’
This is always the question. And for anyone, it’s hell, and it hurts, and it’s unfair. As a person who’d survived years of physical, verbal and sexual violence, the question feels like hands on your body, violating your right to dignity and protection all over again. It feels physically painful.
The path from violence to normalcy isn’t a straight one. So I can’t say if being in a male-dominated industry surrounded by men who don’t always believe in boundaries or change is healthy. Has it made me tougher? Did it stunt my healing? That second question is my fear. It’s the one that I have a hard time answering, mostly because I know the answer already.
I spent too many years in a painful cycle of suppressing my feelings to survive abuse. I lived my life in a constant internal emotional tornado that I was often so disconnected from that I couldn’t help myself, or even see I needed help. I was scared and felt lonely and embarrassed, and it’s why I brushed off feeling embarrassed. Because I didn’t know how to say, “This is wrong.”
It’s amazing to read that paragraph, and realize I’m talking about being an abuse survivor and a baseball writer.
The sexual nature of the abuse from players had extreme psychological impact on me. Reporters, male and female, deal all the time with players, managers and coaches who don’t want to talk to them and there have been plenty of tense run-ins between those guys and members of the sports media. The difference of course is that male reporters aren’t experiencing the misogynistic, sexually abusive humiliations that female sports reporters have been and continue to be subjected to. Add to that the dawn of social media, and what women in the industry have been exposed to via Twitter or Facebook, or in online comments in response to their work. I recently tweeted about a basketball player and a famous reality star, after reading typical comments about her “ruining” the athlete, something fans like to do when an athlete is struggling. I then spent two days reading how ugly and stupid I was. I felt every trigger in my body light up, recalling an abusive boyfriend who’d call me fat, or would flirt with other girls in front of me, then, if I threatened to do the same, called me a slut. It made me feel cornered for speaking out. Just as sports social media often does, just as the very industry I’ve worked in for over a decade has, on far too many occasions.
We’re told in sports media, just like in life when we’re abused, that we should expect it. That’s part of the job and we need to be tough, handle it, don’t whine.
I heard that when I was being abused in my personal life. And to hear it again in my professional life felt as if I was reliving some of those moments all over again, like some dark revival of a circus that I never wanted to see again. The taunting faces and intimidating tone of voice; and the way that I’d been convinced I’d done something to deserve physical, verbal or sexual assault was all too similar.
These layers shed themselves in due time, always. You can only spend so much time in life being deeply haunted by abuse, before you re-claim personal power. I could do that in my heart. But I couldn’t seem to extend that into an action a lot of the time, and I definitely found it overwhelmingly challenging in an industry that was full of unevolved, abusive, sexist men.
There’s distinct trickiness to experiencing this personal, internal revolution, while still working in an industry with many ongoing gender issues. I’m still a survivor of every kind of violence. I’m still a woman writing about a game that treats players who’ve been arrested for abusing women like THEY’RE the survivors, as though their redemption after hitting or sexually assaulting women is the same as the woman who’s been choked or beaten who’s lived to tell the story. I’m still a woman in sports, on social media, who’s been called a whore, and a know-nothing, and told I don’t belong going in a locker room and asking why I would want to go in there. I’m shamed, ridiculed and sexualized in vile ways. Just like being a survivor of violence, I’m a survivor of this industry.
But I need to come clean here. There’s a very specific reason I wrote this piece. I was inspired by a life-changing moment in the 2016 baseball season.
As always, I walked those damp long halls, full of noise and music and team employees holding all the pieces together for game time. The day was ordinary, until it wasn’t. I carried myself the same, went through the same routine, checked my notes, entered the clubhouse, informed the team who I needed to speak to. I stepped back into the hall and waited, as always.
For the next five minutes, I listened to the sound of a player loudly fake an orgasm. He invoked the name of the player I was interviewing. He continued to do it throughout the interview. As I spoke to the player, the sound of his teammate feigning sexual pleasure continued. A few weeks later, when the team returned, I entered the clubhouse. As I walked toward the exit, he began to fake another orgasm. He wasn’t hiding the game. It’s very much worth mentioning that the first time it happened, one of his teammates stepped into the hall and apologized to me.
And do you know what I did? I said, “It’s ok,” in a warm, upbeat tone. And I laughed during the interview, as the player and I awkwardly talked over the sound. I laughed. What I wanted to do was go in the clubhouse, ask him where he ever heard that sound, and declare my belief that he’d never made anyone make that sound in his life, and, hopefully, humiliate him. I wanted to shove past him, make him fall, make him look like a fool.
But I made it ok. I laughed. Because, you see, I was tough.
Is it ok to admit that I’d had enough? Am I still perceived as tough? Is my skin thick enough for you? Because what we hear over and over as women in sports, is how thick our normal skin has to be, and we should be able to endure every humiliation if we are tough enough. Says who? Who decided I, and any other woman, can really only be a real sports journalist if she’s able to pass players every test? Who says I should never reach a point where I’m Goddamned exhausted?
After that day, something shifted. And in the place of that motor that ran daily, weekly, full-speed for many years, a new motor was installed. One that ran cleaner, more efficiently, without any hitches. I wasn’t pushing the girl to get up the hill. I was just writing. I was thinking about what I wanted to do that would be different, more productive and also allow me less time in the clubhouse. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it anymore. I simply knew that I had passed some invisible line, and I was no longer on that same path. Perhaps stepping forward as a survivor of domestic violence had an impact. Perhaps facing my history with sexual violence now will have further impact on my baseball career.
And just like through all those years of abuse, discovering my voice, being uncaged to hear it and letting my story be heard, hasn’t always been easy. But that revolution, that’s what I won’t quit.
I look at myself and all of us women in sports media as survivors. I know I’m an advocate for survivors of violence, with a specific focus on this issue in MLB. I know and feel how much of a survivor I am. But we need not identify ourselves as survivors by how much we’re willing to suffer for others pleasure or, as women in baseball, that we’re not tough enough unless we show we’ll make endless allowances for sexual harassment and abhorrent behavior. I’m no longer defining my toughness in life and in this industry by how much abuse I’ll endure. I already know I’m what they call baseball tough.
Originally published in 2017 on the minor league baseball-focused blog, Heels on the Field as a special personal essay.