Slaying the Trolls book cover. Screengrab via Slaying the Trolls.

Every female sports fan is familiar with “the quiz”—a series of questions about a team, athlete, or coach that many men incessantly ask women when women express an interest in sports. The quiz isn’t a traditional test—there are no proctors or grades—but a proving ground that even women who have followed sports or played them for decades still find themselves in time and time again, fighting for their dignity in a random sports bar, stadium, or SuperBowl party. It’s a situation so common, that it, in part, inspired a book that was published earlier this month. Written by Drs. David Berri and Nefertiti Walker, Slaying the Trolls tackles behaviors employed by “trolls” both in person and online and debunks the myths such trolls tend to spread about women’s sports. According to Walker, their inspiration for writing it was simple.

“We wanted to create essentially a tool for [women’s sports fans],” she explained. “Like, if you are trying to understand or fight against some random troll on social media or sitting at a bar having a beer and you have someone tell you something that you know just isn’t true–like Major League Soccer has more viewership than any of the women’s teams–if you’ve read our book, you can very quickly refute that. So we’re trying to give folks the tools and the information and the resources that are based on empirical research, that they can then go out and defend and make factual claims about how powerful and impactful women’s sports are.”

A plethora of recent headlines point to such an impact and indicate that we’re entering a golden era of women’s sports, whether it’s the formation of professional women’s leagues like Athletes Unlimited, League One Volleyball, and the NWPHL, a historic 2024 March Madness, and WNBA Draft, the 2023 Women’s World Cup, or the 2024 Summer Olympics being the first to feature participatory gender parity. But for Berri and Walker, who started writing Slaying the Trolls in 2018, the impact of women’s sports has existed for some time—and so too, have the trolls.

“You would have some troll with a hundred followers just begin to attack us and engage in ways that were actually very distracting,” Walker recalled of her experiences online. “We’re professionals. We’re trying to do research, we’re trying to get some engagement on social media, and we have these trolls distracting us with just made-up arguments. So that was sort of the genesis of the book.”

It’s safe to say that anyone who is active in online spaces has encountered a troll or two, so perhaps when it comes to identifying a troll, it comes down to the eye test: you know one when you see one. But, according to Walker, there’s a more precise definition that impacts women’s sports and women in sports.

“I would say a troll is someone who is attacking the legitimacy of women in sport or women’s sports and often are using comments, suggestions that are not rooted in fact or research, or even personal experiences or anecdotes,” she explained. “They are typically rooted in sexist ideals, misogynistic views about women. And it’s typically using a negative way to attack the legitimacy of women and women’s sports.”

Walker and Berri both note that although many people think of trolls as random Twitter users with no profile pictures, two followers, and a string of numbers in their handle–that is, if they’re not a bot–trolls can also be much more public-facing.

“It’s men who don’t want women to exist in this space attacking women and they do this,” Berri said, generally speaking of trolls. “It’s not just anonymous guys on the internet doing this. It is guys in the media doing this as well. And they put it forward like they’re being objective and telling the truth. And we’re saying, no, you’re not being objective, you’re being sexist and you’re only looking at the evidence that supports your sexism. So and so we’re coming back and saying objectively you are wrong. This is not the way the world works and this is the problem with you.”

In other words, trolls have range. They can be a user hiding behind internet anonymity or some of the most esteemed names in sports media. Walker pointed to Outkick founder Clay Travis, who has no shortage of questionable takes on women’s sports, as an example of the latter type of troll who posts misinformation in broad daylight with few, if any, repercussions. For example, in 2023 Travis penned an op-ed calling the USWNT “unlikable” because of Megan Rapinoe’s activism, even though the 2023 squad was part of the most successful Women’s World Cup of all time and is more recognizable than the most recent USMNT. He’s also recently accused the WNBA of denying OutKick media credentials for the 2024 Draft because Outkick reporter, Dan Zaksheske, asked about trans athletes at the NCAA championship (in reality, Outkick missed the deadline to request media access). 

However, regardless of their social reach, there’s a common thread among trolls: They’re predominately men.

“I’ve never met a woman who was a troll,” Berri said. “I’ve never seen that. I mean, there’s gotta be some women that are trolls. [Sometimes] they’re anonymous, so we can’t tell. But, yeah, it does seem like it’s predominantly men, right?”

Walker’s experiences are similar. “Unfortunately, at least in my experience it’s almost always a dude,” she agreed. “And I’m not gonna say a man–it’s a dude, right? I think we all know what we mean. It’s typically this random dude with very few followers. But then you have trolls that are know, ESPN personalities right? Very prominent sports personalities who can be trolls as well, and I think that’s important for folks to know, and I think it’s also important for people to have access to our book so that they can feel confident and going against someone as prominent as Clay Travis.”

Aside from gender, another similarity Berri notices among trolls is their attitudes and motives.

“Men do that because they’re threatened,” he said of trolling. “They feel very threatened that a woman is entering into their space and somehow they’re diminishing their experience because of this.”

Masculinity norms certainly tie into troll behavior, and those aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. That’s one of the reasons why, for Walker, troll behavior is so troublesome: it points to larger structural problems that permeate many areas of sports and society at large.

“I think men from a very young age, from boys are socialized to think that they have this god-given right to excel, to be a part of, to have ownership and legitimacy within the world of sports in every way,” Walker explained. “Even women’s sports are male-dominated.”

There’s plenty of evidence of this dynamic in the sports industry from the fact that roughly 60% of women’s college teams are coached by men, or the fact that Mercury head coach, Nate Tibbets is now the highest-paid WNBA coach in the league, in spite of the fact that he has no experience coaching women. Walker also points to the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s April announcement that it would be naming its new women’s coach of the year awards after UConn women’s basketball coach, Geno Auriemma.

“You had Tara [Vanderveer], who just retired as the winningest basketball coach ever, and they go with Geno,” Walker said. “You have Pat Summit, a legend, and they go with Geno for a women’s basketball coaching award.  So there’s like just this ideal that being a guy gives you a predetermined, ordained, almost legitimate right, and access to sport. And women don’t have that, and women have to constantly earn their right.”

Although the Auriemma example is laughable in that it feels akin to Ron Swanson winning Woman of the Year, it’s just one area in which women are often brushed aside in sports media, thanks to male dominance in the industry. According to Berri, these norms, and the trolls who bolster them also affect how sports are covered in the media at large.

“I think that’s very true for a lot of men in sports media–they just want to talk about men’s sports,” Berri said. “When it comes to sports, men love men. They really love men and they just love talking about men. They love thinking about men. They love fantasizing about men. Male owners buy men’s sports teams because they are literally living their lives through these men. This is their fantasy. You know, I can’t be a top soccer player. I can’t be a top baseball player. I can’t be a top basketball player, but I can own these people and live my life through them. But you could buy a women’s team and do the same thing.”

Representation truly matters for these men–they love men’s sports because they can live vicariously through the athletes involved. But sometimes, they fake it. For Berri, sports fandom and the behaviors that are associated with it, often function as performances of masculinity. Oftentimes, trolling is an expression of masculinity because it encourages the dominance of men’s sports over women’s sports.

“There are men who totally fake it– they pretend that they care, [but] they don’t care in the slightest,” he said of sports fandom. “There’s a social pressure on men: This is sports. You’re supposed to be interested in this. It’s all this whole idea about what men are supposed to be and what women are supposed to be.”

With this context in mind, it’s hard to understate the importance of a resource like Slaying the Trolls. And although it’s coming at the perfect time as women’s leagues new and old are taking off, the concept of the book has been relevant for quite some time.

“It was at a time where there was a lot going on in women’s sports,” Walker explained of the start of their writing process. “But in particular Dave and I were working on a couple of manuscripts together, and we were both very active on social media, particularly Twitter, and that was just the constant anytime we put out a fact which was backed by the research that we were doing–like, for instance, if there is more dunking in women’s basketball, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s gonna be more revenue, more interest, more fan engagement. Like that hasn’t happened in men’s basketball. So why would we assume that would happen in women’s basketball? Just very basic facts based on research. And the trolls would just come out of nowhere. And they would start throwing out their made-up stats. They would start questioning our research capabilities, questioning our experience and expertise.”

Slaying the Trolls features research from both Berri and Walker, as well as other experts in various areas of sports, media, and academia, and tackles a plethora of controversial topics from politics to pay gaps. One such topic that’s resurfaced as women’s basketball takes off is the entertainment value of women’s sports compared to men’s sports.

“Women do not have to be better than men for women’s sports to be entertaining and interesting and valuable any more than college teams have to beat professional teams for that to be interesting and relevant,” Berri explained. “If that were true, there’d be no Little League baseball. There are no high school sports. There’s no college sports. All there would be is professional sports and there would be no boxing classes. There would just be the heavyweights.”

Slaying the Trolls uses facts, data, and statistics to weave together a broader narrative of what trolls and even sports media oftentimes get wrong about women’s sports–like the fact that although the Battle of the Sexes, Finch vs. Pujols, and the Sabrina vs. Steph shootout make for great entertainment, women don’t have to prove themselves against men to be great. 

Even so, Chapter 4 makes a bold claim right off the bat.

“We know that women are obviously tougher than men,” Berri said. “Serena Williams won the Australian Open while pregnant. Men don’t seem to have the same pain threshold that women have… We did include talking about periods just to make the trolls as uncomfortable as possible. We thought we should put that in the book for sure.”

That’s probably a good thing, as trolls are everywhere, both in person and online, and although it’s easy to write them off as annoying and inaccurate, trolls and their behavior pose real threats to women in sports. A book entitled Slaying the Trolls must have some tips for doing away with them entirely, right? But for Walker, it’s not that simple.  

“I think they’re gonna be a constant,” Walker said of trolls. “I’m not that optimistic and the reason why I’m not that optimistic is because if we just look at women and other aspects of life and leadership… If we look at women and medicine, women are still fighting a lot of the battles that women are fighting in sport, or that they were fighting 20, 30, 40 years ago. I mean, we’re just not that evolved from the days of when women had to have men sign for them to get a credit card, or women couldn’t buy a home or women couldn’t work…so to suggest that we’re gonna get to a place where we’re not gonna have to think about trolls and sport media…I think we’re just very far away from that. It’s gonna take a lot of undoing, resocializing policy changes, process changes like a total culture, upheaval, and sort of redo to get us to a place where women can go out in the sport role and not have to think about a troll at all.”

So although both Berri and Walker agree that truly slaying the trolls is a lofty, if not impossible, goal, Slaying the Trolls still offers benefits as both a resource and a historical marker.

“The most valuable piece about the book is that you can go back to it,” Walker said. “Because there are going to be things that happen out in the world where you’re going to be in situations at work, you’re going to be arguing to get someone at a bar, and you’re going to be like ‘you know what? That’s not right. I know I read something about that. Let me go back to it.’ And that’s where I think the book becomes really valuable because it allows folks who are invested in women’s sports and invested in women’s sports being successful to go back. And it’s a resource to go back to over and over again to tell these really important, powerful stories about how women’s sports is impactful, is successful, and is on the brink of something very, very significant.”

Slaying the Trolls is available here.

About Katie Lever

Dr. Katie Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Global Sport Matters, Sportico, Extra Points, Forbes, and other outlets. She is also the award-winning author of Surviving the Second Tier, a dystopian novel about the dark side of the college sports industry, available on Amazon. Follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @leverfever.