By Ryan Heller
Maddy Sells laid in bed, listening to her Business Operations class on Zoom. The Indiana University senior reached over to her phone at 1:30 p.m. to check her Instagram feed, knowing her laptop camera was off. While scrolling, she noticed she had a new direct message from a guy that had been flirting with her for weeks.
Earlier that day, Sells reposted the Mar. 5 news about Maia Chaka becoming the first Black female NFL referee. He had his own opinion, commenting “this is beyond irrelevant.” She’d never responded to his replies before, but her displeasure forced her to speak out.
“If you’re wanting to work in sports then you better change that mindset or nobody will hire you,” Sells said. “And he responded saying, ‘It’s a damn good thing I don’t then.’”
It’s a harsh reminder to Sells of the cruelty towards women in the sports industry. But it was nothing new. She’s faced it her entire life.
A love for sports
Sports were instilled in her at an early age. Her dad drove her nearly two hours to IU basketball games from her hometown of Westfield, Indiana, and her half-brother invited her to Miami Heat games whenever she visited him in Florida. The energy in those arenas was beyond anything she’s ever experienced.
Fans screaming and dancing, as the Hoosier fight song resonates through Assembly Hall. Flames shooting out from thin as the Heat starting lineups are announced at the speaker of American Airlines Arena. It entranced her. It was a place she felt comfortable supporting her teams – something she couldn’t do walking down the halls of Westfield High School.
“I got made fun of a lot for being a fan of the NBA,” Sells said. “I would wear Heat stuff all the time. I had a Heat backpack and Heat shirts. It was kind of embarrassing.”
She had girl friends, but sports helped her naturally connect with guys. It was easy for her to sit around the couch watching NBA games, blurting out random facts about each player. She felt a sense of gratification in seeing their shocked faces.
But the type of people who refused to accept her were the same people she desperately tried to fit in with at school. Social media was where she encountered most of the verbal abuse, but it was also where she made some of her strongest relationships.
Unfair treatment of female fans
Just a few weeks ago, a strange man edited an Instagram picture from Sells’ account of her posing in Australia with current NBA rookie point guard LaMelo Ball. The photo was left unchanged except for a few noticeable alterations. Sells’ breasts were enlarged and her eyes were distorted to resemble an alien.
Allan Fegley, founder of the Instagram page @heatupdates, was left shocked and disgusted after looking at the edit sent to him on a group chat involving the creators of his account.
“That’s not gonna change anytime soon unless we change the way the next generation is raised in how they perceive women,” he said. “Those views are not gonna change in sports if we don’t.”
Fegley saw Sells’ potential when he saw her Heat-themed promposal in 2018. He immediately messaged her, asking her if she wanted to work on his account with him. The two have built the account into the largest Heat fan page on Instagram. But the hate went with her.
Whenever she showed her face, on either the page or their TikTok account, people bombarded the comment section typing shady remarks. Degrading statements like “a girl owns this page??” and “amazing she had to look all of that up probably” were found beneath videos posted on @heatupdates.
“A lot of times it’s people making slight comments or wanting to ask me trivia questions on sports,” Sells said. “You don’t need to do that, I know my stuff.”
The constant struggle
Fegley wasn’t the only content creator to see Sells’ critiques. Mason Hafner, founder of @real.nba.quotes, has received several screenshots through text.
After Sells commented on a Bleacher Report Instagram post saying LeBron was the best NBA player of all-time, a guy responded, stating her opinion didn’t matter. She clapped back explaining her experience in the industry, but all he did was called her gender-based slurs and cussed her out.
“Maddy and I have had this conversation so many times,” Hafner said. “It’s been proven that it doesn’t matter if you’re a guy or girl. It matters what you put into it. I’ve seen how unfairly they’re treated and not given the respect they deserve for no reason.”
The two met after Sells commented on one of Hafner’s pages. Knowing she was a Heat fan and content creator, he DMed her, and their friendship grew from there.
Hafner knows Sells’ struggle. He has an account that pokes fun at mainstream sports media by posting ridiculously fake quotes of NBA players. His followers perceive his posts as jokes, letting his humor run free.
Sells doesn’t have that luxury. She has to worry about preserving her reputation.
“I’ve seen the work she puts in all the time,” Hafner said. “She’s always doing something to improve her page and everyone just wants to make fun of her because she’s a girl.”
Universal issue among females
None of Sells’ friends understand her more than Aelia Hassan. Growing up in Zionsville, Indiana, she was inherently seen as different as a Black Muslim in a majority-white population. IU filled her life with much-needed diversity, but when she ventured into sports broadcasting, she stuck out once again.
“It’s one thing saying ‘I’m a female in the sports industry.’” she said. “But it’s another thing to say ‘Out of the females in the sports industry, I don’t look like any of them.’ That was another problem I had to face.”
When Sells sends pictures of her sexist messages, she relates to them. She’s lived through them.
While at IU, Hassan confessed to a male student her love for UFC. He told her “What do you wanna do when you graduate? Be a UFC ring girl?”
All he did after was laugh.
“I was like ‘Are you kidding me,’” Hassan said. “I couldn’t even believe that he had said something like that to that caliber. After that, I knew I wanted to inspire both younger and older females to see if she can do it, then I can do it.”
Perseverance despite oppression
The bond between Sells and Hassan is just a few months old. Sells sent her a DM after learning her name from Fegley, who knew of her from podcasts she’s worked on. The women have used their shared experiences to develop a tight relationship. It was the support Sells needed.
Sells recently found success of her own, getting an internship with the Indianapolis Colts. While COVID-19 has created obstacles for her, she was still able to work this past season. She went from taking part in Thanksgiving food drives with All-Pro defensive tackle Deforest Buckner to running up the stairs of Lucas Oil Stadium zip-tying chairs. But she was happy.
While the hate she received ruined many days, she used her platform to develop connections, creating a social support system to push her to the next level of her career.
She’s now finally being taken seriously.
“I always try to get my girl friends in sports to realize we can do it,” Sells said. “Don’t listen to the comments. They’re just ridiculous.”
Edited by Mikayla Goss.