This past spring, I heard a story that outraged me. I was interviewing Caroline Gleich, an accomplish pro skier, for a piece on the pay gap in professional sports when she told me a harrowing tale of online abuse. Someone—or several people—had been harassing her on Instagram for years, posting degrading comments about her accomplishments, skills, and looks. Some were downright scary, suggesting they’d be happy when she died. The harassment clearly took a toll on Caroline and her wellbeing.
I dashed off an email to one of my editors at Outside just wondering, hey, are other athletes experiencing this? He responded by giving me a 4,000-word assignment to find out. Shit, I thought. 4,000 words? To be honest, I wasn’t sure if there was a story there. But I started poking around and what I found shocked me.
Of the dozens of athletes I reached out to, more than three quarters reported that harassment was pretty much a regular part of their lives. Most didn’t even seem phased by it. They just accepted that some level of vitriol was the price they paid for doing their job well. Um, what? Seriously?
This would NEVER be tolerated in person. Imagine someone coming to your office door on a regular basis and telling you that you suck at your job or you’re ugly or you’re overrated—or worse. We would never stand for that. And yet, it’s tolerated online.
I’m almost embarrassed to say how many people I reached out to for this story. I literally became obsessed with the issue, not just the scope of it (which is considerable) but the why. Why does this happen? Why is it simply accepted? What can be done about it? I reached out to more than 70 people and interviewed more than 40. Sometimes I wonder if an inclination toward obsession is a prerequisite for being a feature reporter…
The story, which was slated for the website, wound up also running in the print magazine and is currently featured in the November issue. Naturally it could have been three times as long, but I hope the story inspires people to really think about how we’re treating each other. Yes, there are crazy people out there, but my view is that a large part of online abuse comes from people like you and me who get swept up in groupthink and aren’t aware of the harm we cause.
What can we do about it? Bystander intervention is arguably the best solution we have right now. And people speaking up about it is key. I’d like to very much honor and thank Caroline Gleich for having the courage to share her experience. Read the full story in the November issue or online here.