A Sportswriter's Place Is In The Locker Room

Posted: October 07, 1990

For more than a decade, the courts have said female sportswriters can do their jobs on an equal footing with male reporters, and they have been doing just that. But suddenly this well-established practice has raised an uproar.

Three weeks ago, a female reporter said that several naked football players made sexual suggestions to her in the New England Patriots' locker room. What the players did, if her account is accurate, is not only repugnant and distasteful but also possibly unlawful, and probably will be identified as such by a special investigator assigned by the National Football League to look into it.

The uproar itself - the they-don't-belong-there-anyway public reactions and the I'm-uncomfortable-with-women-around players' complaints - cannot be so easily sorted out, or neatly taken care of. If morality cannot be legislated,

neither can people be forced to use common sense. Or even act like grown-ups.

On Sept. 17, Lisa Olson, a reporter for the Boston Herald and the person regularly assigned to cover the Patriots, said she was sexually harassed by New England's Zeke Mowatt and four other players while she tried to conduct a locker-room interview.

Patriots owner Victor Kiam first dismissed the incident as a "flyspeck" in the team's season, then belatedly apologized in full-page newspaper ads and television interviews. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue appointed a special counsel to investigate.

And just as the issue began to die down, Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche barred USA Today reporter Denise Tom from entering the Bengals' locker room after their game with Seattle Monday night.

"I'm doing what's best for the players and their wives," Wyche is reported to have said. "It's just not right for 45 men to stand naked in front of women. How far have we fallen in this country? The Cincinnati Bengals won't do it. I'll be out of the business before I do it."

Tagliabue ordered Wyche to follow league policy, which guarantees all reporters equal access, or "get out of the game." On Thursday, Wyche said he ordered 100 robes for his players and said all would be dressed while reporters were in the locker room. On Friday, Wyche was fined about $30,000 by Tagliabue, the largest fine ever levied against an NFL coach.

Twelve years ago, a federal judge ruled that Melissa Ludtke, a reporter for Sports Illustrated, could go into the New York Yankees' clubhouse. Barring her violated her constitutional right to equal protection under the law, the court ruled. Professional and amateur teams were given a choice: Open the locker rooms to all reporters or close them to all.

The professional teams in basketball, hockey, football and baseball ultimately decided to open the locker rooms. For the most part, professional tennis and golf associations opted to close them.

College teams have adopted a patchwork of solutions. Some, such as Villanova, close the locker rooms to all reporters and use an interview room. Notre Dame bars women from the locker room, offering player interviews outside the locker room; if that is not satisfactory, the locker room is closed to everyone. Some, such as the University of Kentucky, open their locker room to everyone for 20 minutes and make the athletes stay in uniform for that time. Then, the locker room is closed.

What all this has proved is that there is no perfect solution.

Female reporters do not want to interview a naked male athlete. In an open locker room, though, that is not their decision to make. The male athlete can choose to grab a towel, slip on a robe or pull on a pair of pants. Or not. But it is his choice.

Whether the athlete likes it or not, the female reporter has the right to the same access as the male reporter. The courts have agreed that it is not right to oblige the woman to wait in a crowded hallway for the athlete to be brought to her.

She cannot conduct a good interview in a crowded hallway with an athlete who has already answered many of the same questions from scores of male reporters and who is being swamped by autograph seekers or family members or teammates waiting for the bus to leave.

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Many people have suggested in the last three weeks that males covering female athletes are also being treated unfairly.

There are no professional women's team sports covered on any sort of regular basis. Women's collegiate basketball teams are occasionally covered. Generally, the women's teams either close the locker room to everyone and do their interviews in separate interview rooms or open the locker room and remain dressed until reporters leave.

In professional tennis, female players are brought to an interview after each match, as are male players. Only at the U.S. Open are men's and women's locker rooms open, and both are open to all reporters. Rarely do reporters go to the locker rooms because the players are available in the interview room.

In professional golf, the locker rooms are closed and the golfers come to an interview tent. It is simple. It is fair. It gives every reporter the same access.

Until the Lisa Olson incident, women have been quietly entering locker rooms regularly for more than a decade.

There have been unpleasant incidents. Baseball player Dave Kingman, then with the Oakland Athletics, sent a dead rat in a wrapped box to a female reporter. Women have been subjected to unkind and sometimes lewd comments. Most choose to ignore the remarks and do their jobs. Most players choose to wear a towel or a pair of pants and allow the women to do their jobs.

Yet, after Olson's complaint was made public - not by her, initially - Patriots fans shouted at her from the stands last week. Many people called radio talk shows across the country and most said women should not be allowed in the locker room. Many players have said they are uncomfortable with female reporters in their locker rooms.

Women have the right to be sports reporters and have won the right to equal access. But the debate rages even while it would seem solutions are simple. The male athlete who is uncomfortable when he is undressed around a female reporter can remain dressed.

The NFL has rules about what color shoes a player can wear on the field, what color socks, what color tape. It would not be difficult to make another rule: For one half-hour after every game and for one half-hour before every practice, the locker room in effect isn't a locker room. It is an office. And for that half-hour, every player remains at his locker and dressed. Then no one is uncomfortable. The athletes don't have to wonder whether a woman is around. The women don't have to wonder who is dressed and who isn't. And it is no imposition on male reporters to interview clothed athletes.

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