Episode 6: Don’t Be The Jerk In Section 123

This week, we’re un-fucking sports fandom with journalist and baseball lover Stacey May Fowles, purveyor of the excellent Baseball Life Advice newsletter and eponymous memoir.

Stacey May Fowles, a white woman with long blonde hair, sits on sports bleachers.
Sports journalist Stacey May Fowles’s Baseball Life Advice newsletter and eponymous memoir aren’t just love-letters to baseball — they’re reshaping the way we think about sports fandom.

Fowles, a Toronto Blue Jays obsessive, recalls the story of her first formative experience with baseball fandom — how it was marred by one dude’s decision to be a huge creep, and how, 20 years later, things haven’t changed much. But things don’t have to be so bleak for women sports fans, and Fowles offers three key tips to making baseball stadiums — or your sporting arena-field of choice — more welcoming.

Listen to us on SoundCloud above, or subscribe to us on iTunes and Stitcher. (And if we’re not on your podcasting platform of choice, let us know!)

Can’t listen? We’ve posted the episode script below — something we’ll be doing for all of our episodes as part of our commitment to accessibility.

But first, here are links to the organizations and resources we talk about on this episode:

Resources:

Episode photo illustration based on the work of Eric Magnuson via Flickr/Creative Commons.

TRANSCRIPT



ANDREA GRIMES: You’re listening to Traitor Radio, the podcast for people who are mad as hell and ready to bring the resistance home.

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ANDREA: ANDREA: I’m your host, Andrea Grimes. Traitor Radio is a way to focus our energy and our anger into making positive change in our own communities, one issue at a time. The format is pretty simple — we introduce y’all to real people who will tell real stories about their real lives, and how they’re affected by racism, sexism, transphobia, xenophobia and all those nasty -isms and prejudices that are making America un-great. Then we’ll give you some homework so you can do something about it — stuff that goes beyond calling your elected officials, which you should totally do, but which will help you start making change in your own community.

I wanna shout out some folks who are doing that work by supporting Traitor Radio on Patreon! Our storytellers always get paid for their emotional and intellectual investment, but I can’t write those checks, or buy microphones or editing software, without your support. So shout out to our Traitors of Record: Patrick, Ruth, Jake, Caitlin, Teresa, Aspen, Shannon, Jonathan, Robin, Scott, Merritt and Aria, who are making it literally possible to for me to be talking to you right now. If you wanna join this badass bunch of donors, head over to Patreon.com/TraitorRadio.

I care about your money but more than that, I care about you sharing what you learn on Traitor Radio with other folks. This shit only works if we’re all in it together, and every activist, new or seasoned, is welcome here. Hello, old-school resisters! But this is a 101-level space; if you’ve never done activism before, or you’re just getting into the swing of it after the election, I’m so happy to join you on your journey to un-fucking this country.

So let’s get started.

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ANDREA: I have a unique and magical skill. I can single-handedly ensure the failure of any sports team at any championship event purely by expressing the most mild interest in their success. This manifests mostly with Texas teams, because I’m a Texan, but I can do it for teams that barely registered on my radar until they made it to the playoffs. Basketball, hockey, baseball — you name it, I can doom a team to failure purely by grabbing a cold beer, plopping myself in front of a television, and giving a shit.

But oh, how I love to give a shit. And I hate how hard it is, sometimes, to give a shit. For women who love men’s sports at the college and professional level, fandom can be complicated and fraught and annoying and actually pretty fucking scary, sometimes. That’s what our story is about, today — it’s by Stacey May Fowles, sports writer and the author of the Baseball Life Advice newsletter and eponymous memoir-slash-love-letter to baseball and fandom, Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game that Saved Me. Stacey talks about one of her first, formative encounters with sports and sports fans — who, as you’ll hear, didn’t exactly go out of their way to make a 14-year-old girl feel welcome at a Toronto ballpark.

There’s been a lot of talk over the last couple of weeks about misogyny and rape culture and how men can stop enabling sexual abuse, sexual assault and sexual harassment. You might think that sports doesn’t have anything to do with that — that sports is supposed to be entertainment, or a break from reality, and what’s this social justice and politics podcast doing talking about silly ole baseball, anyway?

I’ll tell you. Fans and pundits alike love to tell athletes to stick to the game — to stop “making” sports political, as if a multi-billion dollar international industry run mostly by white guys, marketed mostly to men in general, could be anything but political.

All public space is political. The arena, or the stadium, or the court — those are public spaces. They are political spaces. They are places where race matters. Where gender matters. Where class matters. Not just in who’s on the field and who’s holding the playbook, but in who’s in the press box, and who’s in the box seats, and who’s on television afterward telling us all what happened and what comes next.

It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting behind home plate or sidled up to the bar — there are things you can do expand sports fandom — to make your favorite teams more people’s favorite teams. We’ll more about how fans — especially guys — can un-creep the sports world in a few minutes, but first, here’s Stacey.

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STORYTELLING

STACEY MAY FOWLES: When I was fourteen years old, Joe Carter hit a now-mythological walk-off home run against the Philadelphia Phillies at the end of the sixth (and final) game of the 1993 World Series. The three-run homer was, at the time, certainly the greatest moment in the history of the Blue Jays franchise, and arguably one of the most beautiful and memorable moments in the history of baseball.

I was lucky enough to be in one of Toronto’s suburbs that day, after Carter hit it out of the park and was asked by broadcaster Tom Cheek to “touch ’em all, Joe.” Jubilant fans poured out of the stadium, and I got in a car with a friend and her older sister so the three of us could join the happy hordes downtown.

Sadly, the only solid memory I really have of October 23, 1993 is that of a grown man making an obscene sexual gesture in my direction during the public celebration that followed the game. With his shaved head and goatee, his tongue darting in and out of his mouth while he loomed above me, that grotesque man is someone I’ve never forgotten. It was the first time I realized a baseball game was a heaven that sometimes demons broke their way into, and that sports culture was sexist and sometimes even scary.  He taught me that the world of baseball—regardless of how much I would come to love it—could sometimes be an ugly place for people like me.

Even though the details of Carter’s legendary home run are etched lovingly in my baseball brain, I’ve fact-checked the finer details more than a dozen times. This is because, as a woman who writes and talks about baseball, I know there’s always a man at the ready to tell you that you got it wrong. There’s always someone at the ballpark eager to test your knowledge, your fandom, your passion, and your right to be there. There’s always someone in the stands who assumes your male companion is the one who really cares about the game, and you’re just tagging along for the ride.

And there’s always someone to remind you—with their words and their actions—that you simply aren’t welcome and that you don’t belong.

Despite that man’s lewd (and frankly terrifying) gesture, in the years since Joe Carter’s historic blast I have somehow come to feel that there is nowhere I would rather be than at a live baseball game. Even when everything is at its most postseason-stressful, I revel in how the ballpark can still be a vital source of solace and comfort. For many, baseball provides a safe haven from the more terrible aspects of our day-to-day lives, a place where we come together and faithfully connect over the triumphs and struggles of our team.

And yet, there are those who forget the fundamentally congenial and communal nature of baseball fandom; those who think it’s solely about their experience, and who disregard their fellow fans and the generous spirit of the game. Even with all the joy and elation of thrilling victories, with all the strangers I‘ve high-fived and hugged over the years, there have been times when I’ve felt unsafe at the stadium. In fact, I’ve encountered dangerous, drunken, and disrespectful people in almost every ballpark I’ve been to, from San Francisco to Chicago. In the great sea of enthusiastic, kindly fans, it takes only a few thoughtless jerks to create real discomfort.

I can’t help but think that when it comes to a toxic ballpark and baseball culture at large, one glaring issue is the apathy of those fans who are not themselves targeted for abuse. I understand that when you hear someone yelling out obscene or hateful things, or you see someone behaving inappropriately, your instinct might be to “mind your own business” and do nothing, if only to avoid causing more trouble or creating any further discomfort.
I also know there is a genuine fear that if you intervene, things will escalate, because it’s a fear I have certainly felt myself. But the hard fact is we have to stand up for each other and what is right. We have to be part of the solution no matter how uncomfortable it makes us.
We have to take a long look at what we can personally do to make the sports community at large safer and more inclusive for all of its members, on both a macro and micro level, especially those who are most vulnerable to abuse and attack.

More than twenty years after Joe Carter won the World Series with that incredible home run, my beloved Blue Jays finally went back to the postseason. By 2015 I was so far from the teenage girl who reveled in that initial taste of baseball magic, but I still watched those playoff games with the giddiness and unrestrained emotion of youth. I was teary-eyed and riveted as my team won the American League East and battled their way through the ALDS against the Texas Rangers, and was crushed when the Kansas City Royals ultimately eliminated them in the league championship series.

During one of those triumphant playoff games, I exited the buzz of the stadium and joined the celebrating crowd, only to be shoved into a busy street by a drunken, aggressive man with no regard for the people around him. When I protested, he turned to me, looming menacingly above, called me a “bitch,” and then went on to make vulgar, inappropriate comments about my body.

I was right back in that place I was decades ago—demoralized, terrified, the joy of baseball momentarily sullied by the actions of someone so thoughtless and cruel. Instead of feeling the elation of victory that I—like anyone else—was entitled to, I was instead entirely deflated. I had long put up a fight to secure my rightful place in the culture of sports, and some drunken idiot had taken it upon himself to remind me that I would never really feel safe. That I would never really belong.

Yet despite how discouraging and upsetting that moment was, I know I have to keep going back to the ballpark, and I have to keep asserting my right and the right of others to be a part of the baseball community. And no matter how hard and tiresome it can be to discuss issues of inclusion, I understand how important it is to do so.

This is a fight all baseball fans have responsibility to engage in, if only so a fourteen-year-old girl can safely enjoy a game.

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HOMEWORK

ANDREA GRIMES: Howdy, Traitor Radio listeners! It’s me, Andrea, and I’m on the phone with Stacey, who just read — this piece was adapted from your book, or it’s in your book, Stacey?

STACEY MAY FOWLES: It’s in the book, but it’s changed a little for radio purposes.

ANDREA: What is your top recommendation for how to make fandom more welcome?

STACEY: Don’t be a jerk. This is so completely basic. But it’s interesting — my team the Toronto Blue Jays, are not in the post-season this year as we all know, they were abysmal. But I did go through a couple of years of post-season mayhem. And it was amazing to me how things go off the rails in terms of the ballpark is packed with people, the drinks are flowing, and for whatever reason people stop being conscientious of each other. This is not exceptional to the post-season, but it happens when the frenzy of the post-season is happening. It’s just really basic things that apply beyond sports fandom but it applies beyond sports. Have some self-awareness! Know that you’re in a space with other people and they can hear you talking. They deserve to be comfortable in the space as much as you do. I’ve spent time sitting behind a bunch of guys talking about women’s bodies for 20 minutes and that doesn’t lend itself to a comfortable environment. Just a very basic tenet of human existence: Don’t be a jerk.

ANDREA: Totally. And if everybody listened to this podcast and took that advice, we would be set, and I could stop doing this work!

STACEY: You’d be canceled!

ANDREA: I could go to the beach or do something fun, but that’s not the case. So some people are still gonna be jerks. They’re still gonna act like assholes. What is the good dude, good person bystander response?

STACEY: This is an interesting and complex question. A lot of things can happen at the ballpark where we’re sort of in a situation where we’re wondering if we should intervene, if it’s safe for us to intervene? Is somebody being threatened? Is somebody being touched inappropriately? Heckling is a part of the game but sometimes people are yelling things that are offensive or racist or homophobic or sexist, so what is the right thing to do? If you feel comfortable interjecting without escalating a situation that makes more people unsafe, then absolutely do that. But a lot of ballparks have a message in place where you can get them to intervene on your behalf. The Toronto Blue Jays are actually pretty good with this. They have a very covert texting system. In the bathrooms at the stadium they have, ‘If you see something you can text us and we can come intervene in the situation.” They are actually, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to their VP of fan engagement and they’re working on policies tha tmake the ballpark safer and more inclusive for everyone. So that’s something you can demand from your ballpark. Your franchise. You are a paying customer and you deserve to feel safe and have a good time. If you don’t feel safe standing up and saying something, the ballpark should take care of that for you.

ANDREA: I’ve not been to a ton of professional sports events in my life, but it didn’t occur to me when I’ve been that that’s what those are for!

STACEY: I absolutely know people who’ve used it for that. And from all reports, it’s very effective. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen an usher come down and, depending on the severity of what’s going on, sometimes people are just yelling stuff and it makes people uncomfortable, and it’s just a matter of someone in a position of authority saying hey, knock it off. In more severe situations, there’s security. It’s a ballpark. They’re definitely in a position to get involved and you should feel empowered to get them to do so.

ANDREA: That’s awesome! I’m so glad this exists.

STACEY: Right? It makes you feel powerful with this phone in your hand. You can be like, “Jerk in section 123,” it’s good.

ANDREA: That may now tentatively be the title of your episode of this podcast, “Jerk in section 123.” Outside of the ballpark, or the stadium, how can people be better sports fans and consumers of sports media? How can they break down the dude-dominated, white folk-dominated paradigms that seem like a really high barrier to entry for some fans?

STACEY: When I was writing the book I started to realize that these issues, it’s not, here’s the problem and here’s the solution. All of this is embedded in each layer of why it’s so hard to make sports fandom a comfortable place for everyone. There’s all sorts of institutional reasons why sports has been so exclusionary. Part of it has to do with the mainstream media and the way we cover sports and who covers sports. A lot of the mainstream voices that cover baseball are white and male. A lot of people who consume the media take that for granted. They’re getting all their information from one specific perspective and not seeking voices outside of the mainstream.

So a good place to start, if you’re doing homework, is to seek those voices! They’re actually not that hard to find. In Canada they may not be showing up on Sports Net, for example, but just under the surface there’s a lot of people writing really great pieces and there’s a great podcast called Burn It All Down with a bunch of ladies who are doing a feminist analysis of sports every week.

ANDREA: I love Burn It Down!

STACEY: Shout-out Burn It Down! It’s not obvious if you’re a mainstream sports consumer but it’s there if you look for it. A lot of this has to do with people stepping outside of what they’re used to and learning about different viewpoints. I can also say, I like to be as positive as possible, that’s my way of getting through life, and there are initiatives that do enact positive change in terms of making sports fandom more welcoming. A couple years back the Dodgers did a take your daughter to the ballpark event and it wasn’t overtly gendered, it was just an opportunity to invite young women into the space and celebrate their fandom. I know the Marlins did a fantastic event this year where they had women in the industry speak on a panel and they invited Marlins fans to see them speak. And just on a more personal level there have been men in this industry who’ve reached out to me and helped me write about this game and get more involved in this game with the understanding that the more voices we have, the more diversity of voices we have, the better it is for everyone.

It doesn’t have to be a big monumental project. If all of us engage in expanding how we interact with this game, it’ll be a better place for everyone.

ANDREA: You sent over a couple of recommendations that I’m going to put in our show notes and in our transcript, in particular Stacey sent a link to the Women in Sports Media Twitter list. Subscribe to it! Also, subscribe to Stacey’s newsletter and buy her book.

STACEY: Yeah! I write a weekly newsletter called Baseball Life Advice, I’m on a little break right now  enjoying the post-season as a fan. I’m on Twitter at @MissStaceyMay and you’ll find me there. Also buy my book! I’m supposed to say that.

ANDREA: Excellent! Thanks so much for coming on the podcast and helping make fandom a little more welcoming.

STACEY: Thank you! I had a great time

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ANDREA:

If you would like to contribute to Traitor Radio, we are always taking submissions, especially from people who are willing to share their first-person stories with listeners, just like M did on this show. Journalists are also welcome — if you want to do radio reporting on social justice activism, let us know! Our email address is traitorradio@gmail.com.

This episode was produced by me, Andrea Grimes. Our music is by Emily Meo. Follow us on twitter at @TraitorRadio.

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