Sexual Harassment in Sports Forced Me to Change Careers
Mar 2021 - 9 Min read

Sexual Harassment in Sports Forced Me to Change Careers

Mary Smith-Jones Paper Pusher Undisclosed Undisclosed

There were too many unwanted advances and inappropriate encounters to make me feel safe about doing the job I loved. 

Overall, I have been very fortunate in my career to have male bosses who have been supportive and fostered an environment filled with creativity, motivation, solid work ethic and equality. In my department and in one-on-one meetings, I never felt uncomfortable or unsafe—each treated me like they did their male employees. They expected top-notch work from us all, and if we screwed up they let us know. I was lucky, but not every woman in sports has been as fortunate as I have. 

Women, myself included, put up with a litany of inappropriate transgressions ranging from small to large. That includes the foreign female reporter who endured former Mets general manager Jared Porter’s harassment, and many, many others throughout sports who have suffered from thousands of smaller indiscretions—the winks, the unwarranted visits to desks, the “playful” jabs at our clothes. We’ve encountered the guys who make you change your walking paths and parking spots, the guys who mysteriously get our phone numbers to ask us out or randomly text us that they see us when we can’t see them. It’s these men who outweigh the good guys we all know and appreciate. 

The actions of the bad apples speak louder than those who continue to support women in the workplace. And while I’ve been blessed to still have the good guys in my life, that doesn’t mean I was immune to sexual harassment and feeling “less than” from the men who didn’t directly work with me.

Was he going to actually act on his words? What if I tried to leave? Would there be a fight?

I Was Sexually Harassed Almost Immediately (Literally)

A dark hotel hallway leading to the room where a woman was sexually harassed by her male colleague.

It started during my first role in sports. Working in the league I cared about the most, I was beyond thankful for the opportunity and wanted this to be the beginning of the rest of my career. And it felt normal—a good mix of men and women. I felt safe and respected. Then I was paired with a fellow intern for a community outreach project. He had to wear the team’s mascot suit for a public appearance and I had to be the handler. The venue was a local hotel, and we were given a room where he could dress into the costume with enough space. I was already uneasy because he was not my favorite colleague, your classic “Chadtucket” show-off, never letting you forget his daddy is best friends with a higher-up who gave him the internship. 

After the event was over, the hotel was so appreciative that they offered to treat us to room service, which added more to my frustration. I just wanted to get back to my department with the colleagues and managers I enjoyed. I helped him upstairs and, sure enough, he tried to get me to come into the hotel room, failing to “playfully” lure me in with how fun it would be. I waited in the hall until the room service arrived, thinking that when the hotel employee knocked on the door my colleague would have to be fully dressed. I should have left, but I was scared that it would show I wasn’t a team player, that I would leave my colleague high and dry to fend for himself with the team’s heavy mascot uniform and van. I stayed and ate the food silently while texting other interns about how uncomfortable I was. 

All of a sudden, Chadtucket looked at me and said, “You know, we should take advantage of this room and have sex right now.” I froze. I had no idea how to react. Was he going to actually act on his words? What if I tried to leave? Would there be a fight? Would my superiors and HR believe me when I tell them what happened? He laughed as if what he said wasn’t problematic, and continued as I sat in shock with nothing to say. I finished my food, walked out of the room, went back to the stadium with him and then I told my direct reports what happened.

I felt like there was more I could, and should, have done in the moment. But I thought nobody would believe me—that they’d think I was spreading rumors, that this would have been a sure way to get me labeled as a “problem” in the industry, that complaining about something so trivial would land me on a blacklist somewhere in the league. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The rest of the organization also couldn’t stand him and would have liked to see him go, too. But he was never reprimanded. All I was told was, “Just ignore him, he’s a tool.” It was a missed opportunity to tell a young man in the beginning of his career that that’s not how you treat colleagues, let alone women in general. And maybe an organizational lesson: Don’t send opposite-sex employees to a hotel for a company outing in the future.

The Harassment Only Got Worse, Much Worse

The college frat boy arrogance didn’t stop there.

My next job was full of men who treated the younger female employees like game pieces to be played. There was your mix of young men who desperately wanted to get married and, with each intern class, thought they’d find their future “Mrs.” Then you had the slightly older men who were past the honeymoon phase of their marriages (if you even knew they were married—many took their wedding rings off at work). They weren’t even discreet about their interest in young, impressionable women. Then you had your middle-aged men in mid-life crises—they were either on the verge of, in the middle of, or fresh off divorce, looking to sow their wild oats like the good old days. Whichever category, these men feasted on the idea that a young woman working at a stadium could be their next conquest. 

They tried to lure women with promises of free alcohol and great views of the field from their office windows. They invited them to department parties in various parts of the office to “shoot the shit” so they could be one of the cool kids. Several interns fell for this trick, thinking they would get full-time jobs. Some eventually did. “You have to play the game however you can,” I heard uttered whenever interoffice affairs were discussed. There were great men who worked there and kept themselves out of such conversations, but they were outnumbered—this time by men and women. Yes, even women.

Not only did I have to look out for men hunting me in the workplace, but I had to be wary of women who could be just as vindictive with their power if their advances weren’t accepted.
A predatory female boss.

Men Aren’t the Only Ones Responsible for Sexual Harassment in the Sports Industry

Looking back, I was naive to think that a woman, especially high-ranking, could never abuse their power and that having female leadership would stop the exploitation. I didn’t think a woman buying me expensive gifts from my favorite brands and taking me out to expensive meals for no reason was a red flag—I can’t believe I didn’t see it. My female colleagues did, and eventually, I caught on, but there wasn’t anyone to tell.

One woman, lavishing gifts and more-than-OK attention on me, was in HR—and HR was a one-person show. We played off her love for me as an inside joke since there was nothing else to do. I eventually told one of my managers, whom I trusted. He’d stood up for me quite a lot when anyone (especially men) were either rude or flirtatious. But he couldn’t help me this time. “You don’t want to make enemies with her,” he shared. “[That person] has been here a long time and knows a lot of people”. 

This was by far the hardest, and craziest, revelation I had working in sports. For the rest of my career, not only did I have to look out for men hunting me in the workplace, but I had to be wary of women who could be just as vindictive with their power if their advances weren’t accepted. And there would still be retaliation if you came forward. After I left this role, that woman texted me on Valentine’s Day about how much she missed me. It was the first time I had heard from her since I left. I ignored it and pretended it never happened. She had too many friends in the league and I just wanted to keep working.

In the End, Not Even My Closest Colleagues Could Be Trusted

Unwanted touching in any form are examples of sexual harassment in sports.

My last role in this sport was the final straw. I had a female manager who went to great lengths to make me feel inadequate and constantly spoke to others about how annoying my niceness was, and that I sent the wrong impression with having a happy attitude. Already regretting the move to this team, I also had to ward off the high-ranking executive who got my number and kept asking me to go to the movies. He would text me every time he saw me from afar to let me know he could see me and comment on my clothes. I told someone about it, and tried to find out how in the hell he got my number. But much like the previous experiences, trying to get help fell on deaf ears. “He’s useless, don’t worry about him” was pretty much all the help I got.

When I was at my wit’s end, a friend from a previous team came to town and I thought, I’m saved. He would let me confide in him like he always had when we worked together, and he could help me figure out my next move. We went out to dinner and caught up, discussing my long-term relationship and other topics. But things took a turn when he started to tell me his marriage was failing. It didn’t feel like friends confiding in each other anymore, especially when he put his hand on mine and told me, “She’s not like you.” I felt like throwing up—I stopped eating my food, moved my hand away, and said, “I’m in a very happy, committed relationship, what are you doing?” I actually can’t tell you what he said next because, like my first encounter, I froze. I eventually got all feeling back and told him I needed to go. He walked me out but only because he tried to get me to go back to his hotel room. I walked away, and that was the last time I saw him. 

This man was my friend, or at least I thought he was. We had bonded over very serious family issues, mutual friends falling ill and then passing away, and the usual headaches of working in a front office (low pay, long hours). Until this moment, it had never felt like anything other than a good friendship. I cried on the train ride home because this was the moment I realized I was never going to be able to trust anyone, and it was only going to get worse from here. I left the sport with my tail tucked between my legs (and with that high-ranking executive still emailing and texting me to go to the movies). I moved on to the corporate world with a crushed dream buried six feet under.

It’s Time to End Female Sexual Harassment in Sports

Male Women's Rights protesters show solidarity with a sign that reads "Men of Quality Respect Womens Equality".

There are many women who have dealt with much more than I had to. My experiences feel minor compared to what has recently made national headlines, but they added up enough to make me never want to work in a front office again. Why did I even put up with it for so long? I tell myself that I had thick skin, determination and a sheer passion for what my jobs were and what my career could have been. But eventually, it was enough to make me crack. I gave up on an industry where married men asked if they should leave their wives for me. Where men would comment on how much better I’d look if I wore tight-fitting clothes. Where men would ask me which female colleagues I’d want to sleep with. Where men and women would send me dozens of unanswered messages. Where men and women told me I brought these advances on myself because I was “too nice.” After all, they said, “When you smile it makes everyone think you want to sleep with them.” 

I don’t really have an answer to this problem right now. What other ways can you tell people to keep it in your pants? It doesn’t really seem like a novel concept. But it is, apparently, and I hope we get to a place where this culture of using and abusing power will change, and that women, especially, can have just one workday unscathed. Sports is not the only industry that makes women feel less than, but I hope that this Jared Porter situation will be the catalyst to finally start changing the cycle. I won’t hold my breath until then.

Mary Smith-Jones Paper Pusher Undisclosed Undisclosed

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