Receiving death threats is par for the course in the life of a female sports journalist. So says Erin Riley, whose greatest passion is writing about Aussie Rules football.
‘It’s not an irregular occurrence—death threats, rape threats. There’s a certain subset of people—of men—who really don’t like the sports base being challenged and they get a little crazy.’
Considering the unwanted attention Mel McLaughlin has received may lead observers to conclude that it’s worse for women working in TV.
‘It’s still pretty bad as a writer compared to a TV journalist,’ Riley observes. ‘Everyone gets it (abuse). Everyone I’ve spoken to has talked about the times they get it. But if you dare to talk about gender it’s far, far worse. Women’s acceptance in sport is conditional on the status quo. If you challenge the status quo you are unwelcome.’
So it is certainly courageous that Riley’s contribution to sports journalism includes reflecting on sport as a social, political and cultural phenomenon. She was trolled after writing about the racism, sexism and homophobia on display at the 2014 AFL Grand Final. Jumping to Riley’s defence, feminist writer Clementine Ford pointed out how the abuse Riley received proved ‘Lewis’ Law, [which] dictates that feminism will be justified by the comments on any article about feminism’.
Riley explains: ‘One of the really important things about sport in Australia, one of the really noticeable things, is how it is really this—how do I put it?—kind of this place where this really toxic masculinity is allowed to thrive. That has negative repercussions for all sorts of people. It’s also very white.’
The recent retirement of Lauren Jackson springs to my mind when discussing inequality in Australian sport.
‘She is hands down our best basketballer ever—not our best female basketballer, our best basketballer,’ Riley says. ‘And [that] wasn’t enough for her to have the kind of career an even mediocre male basketballer could have. I don’t think it’s enough just to pay them. Women need to be paid a full-time annual living wage, so when they’re not playing they can train, practice, recover. They shouldn’t have to have a day job.
‘I think there’s a lot of talk about the difference in “quality” between men’s and women’s sport. It’s a Furphy. And it’s ignoring the fact that men’s sport gets all the resources poured into it.
‘My training was as a historian and I like to think a lot of what I’m doing is applying those same principles to what I’m doing now. I’m really interested in how we can take the good things that we love and try to dilute this aggressive, masculine environment. That’s obviously talking about the role of women and it’s also quite intersectional [in terms of gender and sexuality], although I don’t want to talk for other people.’
Riley majored in sports history and also studied English literature, journalism and communications. After that, she worked as a nanny, tutored in sports history and did a lot of writing for minor outlets, including a web forum about her beloved Sydney Swans.
‘It was not professionally done or anything but it was a start,’ she says of the internet outlet. ‘I called up a lot of people and met people in different ways, such as (sports writers) Jenny McAsey and Jessica Halloran.
‘When I was younger—I don’t know how I was this ballsy—I wrote to writers I loved and asked “Can I meet you, buy you a coffee and pick your brain?” and I’d ask them questions.’ The magic of it was that when opportunities came up, those people remembered her and contacted her.
Her first big opportunity came when she landed a freelance gig writing Sydney Swans reports. She went on to work in the Swans communications team for one or two years.
After completing a Master of Letters in US Studies (including a three-month stint in Washington DC), Riley was hired as a blogger for the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. ‘I’d been blogging about it on my personal blog, and I was getting more hits on my blog than the US Study Centre blog!’
While the corporate jobs that followed took her away from writing, Riley is quick to add that she remained active on Twitter. In fact, she is approaching her 100,000th tweet.
‘I shudder to think how many words I’ve written on Twitter,’ she admits. But she values Twitter as a writing exercise and as a platform for writers to practise writing every day. ‘Even just tweeting—the process of distilling an idea to 140 characters—is actually really great training.’
She also considers it a great way to build relationships, and comments that she gets the most hits when she is writing in other outlets. ‘To be honest it doesn’t mean spilling your guts all the time. If you’re honest and you’re thoughtful (in your writing), that’s the foundation.’
Riley may be a Twitter aficionado, but she does not consider it absolutely essential for an aspiring journalist to have an online presence.
‘It depends on the kind of work you’re doing. If you’ve come through a more traditional training program (of which there are fewer and fewer), like beat journalism, Twitter’s not necessarily going to help you, but in nine cases out of ten you do need to. It’s not an absolute rule. I definitely both built my profile through Twitter and also receive job offers through Twitter. People contact me wanting me to pitch stories.’
Riley is ‘pretty solidly through a proposal for a non-fiction book’ and is also working on a novel. ‘It (the novel) is also kind of about sport. It’s about the family of a mountain climber. I’m fascinated by the idea of mountain climbing: why people do it, especially if they have families at home. It means exploring a lot of my favourite subjects—gender, relationships within families, the division of labour—in a (hopefully) compelling story about this thing that really happens.’
Her writing process is free of structural constraints. For fiction writing, her ideas travel from thoughts to post-it notes (which are arranged up the side of her desk) before making it onto the page.
‘I have post its with “Act 1”, “Act 2”, “Act 3”, every key moment is on a post-it. I do that because I can take them off, pull them down, move them around. I am a non-linear writer. I have been known to submit things with half-written sentences in them.’
For this reason she adores Scrivener. The software program can be applied to writing tasks broadly: it is conceptual, separating ideas into scenes the creator can move around. Riley considers it the perfect fit for her writing style.
For op-ed content, sometimes people approach her with ideas, and other times she is the one pitching stories. ‘Sometimes there’s been an event that day and I turn around very quickly and write something about it. Recently I wrote something in notes on my phone on my way to work. It wound up being one of my better op-ed pieces. But there are other pieces I’ll sit on for three months and keep coming back to.’
Riley’s advice to writers extends beyond the need to write every day and read widely (she reads 100 to 150 books a year, which she credits with ‘constantly challenging my mind in all these weird and wonderful ways’). Writers must also respect their craft.
‘Take the time to think about how the words sound as well as thinking about their meaning. I’ve always really loved the way words sound, how sentences sound. Taking the time to get that right is always really valuable. I love it when people tell me they loved the way something is written, that it was eloquent.’
She also appreciates criticism, when it’s well thought out.
‘In one of the very first pieces I wrote that got a lot of attention, there was something (a section) that made sense in my head but didn’t translate to the page. It was really helpful when people said they liked the piece, but didn’t like this bit, and I noticed that it didn’t work.’
Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of community.
‘There are certain writers who’ve really taken me under their wing and I really appreciate that. They’ve been really instrumental in my career. Having peers and friends who write is really important too.’
Similarly, having an executive coach while working in communications helped Riley to clarify her career goals.
‘Sometimes you have to go back to basics: What matters to me? What am I good at? I wrote that I wanted to be known for writing insightful and thoughtful things about sports.’
Whether through social media, traditional journalism or writing books, the medium seems less important for a writer with a clarity of purpose. Riley has found her calling.
You can find out more about Erin Riley at <erinriley.com.au>.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Erin Riley’ in The Australian Writer issue 391 (March–May 2016).