Dear Stoolies

This is not written to the general public. This is not written in order to expose the disgusting, festering underbelly of sports fandom that one finds in places like Barstool Sports. If you want to read about what’s going on there, read Nicolas Stellini’s piece, read what Jen Mac Ramos had to say, or read any number of people who are better at writing and at being human beings than I am. No, this is for the “Stoolies” themselves. I write this to each and every one of you, directly, and even though I know most of you will never truly hear these words (and this may never reach you at all), if I can get through to just one of you, it’s worth the effort.

I was once like you.

Today, I’m a 28-year-old … something. I’m not sure what to call myself. I’m a sportswriter, because I write for Brew Crew Ball and BP Milwaukee, but that’s not really my job. So I’m a financial aid professional, but I won’t be for long, and I’ve never felt any sort of emotional attachment to my job. So maybe I’m a teacher or, at least, a future teacher, since I’m a Master’s student in UW-Milwaukee’s English education program. Or maybe I’m not any of these things. Maybe I’m just Travis, and that’s fine.

I like to think that today, I’m a good person. And I think that the majority of the people I’ve met in the past four years or so would agree. I try to treat people with respect. I’m not the friendliest son of a bitch on the planet, but it’s only because I’m painfully shy. I have strong opinions on a lot of issues that sometimes rub people the wrong way, but I think I’m on the right side of these issues. I consider myself a feminist, I favor gun control, and I support movements like Black Lives Matter that seek justice and equality for everyone.

But I wasn’t always this way.

If we run the clock back five years, you’ll see a man who is unrecognizable from the person I am today, and one who would fit right in among David Portnoy’s flock of minions. At my apartment on the lower east side of Milwaukee, the n-word was tossed around by both residents and guests, like we were all Lil Wayne songs made sentient. Even this fails to illustrate just how casually this terrible word was said in the circle of people I called friends; it was filler, just a word to say when you had nothing else to add to a conversation. It was truly disgusting, and when I think about the way I spoke just five short years ago, I am flabbergasted to know that there is anyone who knew me back then that still calls me a friend today.

It didn’t end there. We treated women like garbage, regularly throwing around the same type of hate that can be seen in the comments on every Barstool post. Our “jokes” took aim at anything and everything targetable, and for years I tumbled deeper and deeper into the darkness, as I slowly watched my other friends walk out of my life, fed up with my antics.

I’m not proud of any of this, and it’s not fun to have to admit to the sins of my past. I may lose some respect from people I’ve met since I changed; you might not know the terrible things I’ve done in the past. The things you say matter. But it’s important that you know that I was once like you, maybe even worse. You have to know that, because now I’m going to ask you to follow me, get the hell up, and walk away from it.

It wasn’t some great moralistic uprising inside me that forced me to make a change. There were other issues in the group–lies, backstabbing, thinly veiled hostility–that one might expect from people of such low moral fiber. I made no grand speech. I’m not a hero. I was a garbage person, so I made a change, and became just a person. Today, I think that I’m pretty good. But I have a lot to make up for.

When I hear people say those words–you know which words, and you don’t need me to stuff them into your head once more–today I cringe, not just like any regular human would cringe at hate, but as someone who is beyond embarrassed to acknowledge the way I used to be.

I never hated black people. I never hated women. I never hated anyone. And I think that’s what made it so easy to continue to act the way I did without having to reckon with the fact that I was swiftly becoming an extremely shitty person. It didn’t mean anything, it’s all just a joke. Don’t you get it? It’s the same defense that comes from Barstool–from el presidente, as he’s styled himself, all the way on down to his newest crony–when anyone takes up the mantle of Social Justice Warrior (how in the world has this term become pejorative?) and jumps into the arena to do battle with their army of rabidly misogynistic drones.

It. Is. Not. A. Joke. You have got to realize that before you can start to make a change. It’s not that we think the joke isn’t funny. It’s not that we don’t get the joke. It’s just not a joke, It’s not a joke to tell a woman she has a “fuckin gross fat frog ice cream looking ass face.” What the fuck is wrong with you? Would you really ever say that to someone who was standing in front of you? It’s not a joke to tell her there’s “no job market for ugly broads with an extra chromosome.” It’s not a joke to call her names that start with C, B, or any other disgusting, hateful word. IT’S NOT A JOKE. It’s real, and the people you are hurting are real.

A couple years ago, I briefly reconnected with the ringleader of the posse I used to spend time with. I think I needed his signature on something to finalize a dispute we’d had upon moving out of the apartment we’d been living in. We got to talking a little bit about real stuff, with him accusing me of grandstanding about the changes I’d made in my life. He sent the following text:

“I don’t believe you don’t think that shit is funny anymore.”

I know you don’t. That’s why I left. Some people change, and some people never do.

Sometimes in our society, we hold up men who take such radical stances as “women should be treated equally” or at least “maybe it’s not okay to threaten rape on Twitter” as heroes, but we’re not. That’s literally the baseline of not being a horrifically bad person. It’s unfortunate that a need exists for someone to stand up and say, “Hey, stop harassing women, you idiots.” But we do, and the reason that need exists is you. You have created the need for the “Social Justice Warriors” that you demonize.

So that’s my message for you. The groupthink that emboldens you to act and talk the way that you do is wrong, and you can break free from it if you try. You don’t have to be this way. If your real-life relationships are more important to you than pats on the head in the form of Twitter notifications from your favorite Barstool writers, then you don’t want to be this way. Some of you really do think that women are beneath you, and you’ll never change. But if you don’t think that way, and this is all a big joke to you, it isn’t. It’s not a fucking joke, and there are real human beings who are reading your words. It’s time to grow up.

Travis Sarandos is a writer for Brew Crew Ball and Baseball Prospectus. You should follow him on Twitter.