The Sportswriter And The Sports Star The Stevenson-erving Liaison Raises Anew Questions Of Ethics - And Double Standards.

Posted: July 18, 1999

You can't help but wonder about an offhand comment made by Samantha Stevenson two decades ago.

She was a sportswriter trying to gain access to the Phillies locker room in 1978, in the days when women were knocking on the door of equality. They wanted access to the athletes whom only male reporters had covered for generations.

What was the team's objection? "I think [then-owner] Ruly Carpenter is fighting me so hard because he thinks I'll seduce his superstars, and find out what's really going on with that team and then write the whole damn thing in some national magazine," Stevenson told The Inquirer in October 1978. "If he's thinking that, he's not too smart. If he's smart, he treats me just like any other writer. But no. . . . Fine. Now maybe I will go out and seduce his superstars."

Stevenson eventually did get into the locker room.

She also covered the 76ers. Earlier this month, during the Wimbledon matches, a newspaper reported that Sixers legend Julius Erving was listed on a birth certificate as the father of Stevenson's daughter, tennis prodigy Alexandra Stevenson, 18. He acknowledged being the father. The Samantha Stevenson case has reignited a controversy that female sports journalists have grappled with for decades.

"When something like this comes up, it makes all of us look bad," said Jill Agostino, outgoing president of the Association of Women in Sports Media, which discussed the matter at its annual convention in St. Louis, which ended today. "It goes against everything we've been fighting for for years and years."

More than a tale of infidelity, the affair is a matter of ethics, perception and double standards.

When it comes to a journalist's covering someone, how close is too close? At what point does a professional relationship become a personal friendship? And is it realistic to think that a reporter's objectivity can - or should - be maintained?

Sports reporting - all journalism - is fraught with potential ethical dilemmas, from accepting free playoff tickets to allowing an athlete to pick up a meal tab to having a late-night telephone conversation with a player in a hotel room.

Women covering sports have always been under closer scrutiny than their male colleagues "because with women, the sexual relationship is always assumed," says Cathy Henkel, sports editor of the Seattle Times, "even though [ethical breaches] happen with both genders."

Michele Himmelberg of the Orange County (Calif.) Register, who covered the San Francisco 49ers for the Sacramento Bee in the early 1980s, said: "At some point, how far you go in developing a relationship with an athlete becomes a personal choice. But that's when you should be aware of the consequences for yourself, and how it reflects on the rest of us [female journalists]."

Stevenson, 49, turned down a request to be interviewed for this article, though she and her daughter will talk to ABC-TV's Barbara Walters on 20/20 Friday night. Samantha Stevenson, now a San Diego-based correspondent for the New York Times, also has a book deal in the works.

Stevenson, a 1969 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, had already written about football and tennis in Dallas when she landed in Philadelphia in the mid-1970s.

New York Times sports editor Neil Amdur, who has known Stevenson for 21 years, said last week that he always found her to be "responsible and strong-minded and very tenacious in the way she went about her work."

From her South Philadelphia home, Stevenson freelanced for Playboy, Oui and Sport magazines, as well as for The Inquirer. Aggressive and willful, Stevenson had a reputation for writing edgy, provocative stories.

In 1978, in a piece for Oui magazine titled "Confessions of a Female Sports Writer," Stevenson wrote that she occasionally got turned on by athletes:

"I can see myself with all my clothes off in the steamy shower with my choice of men offering me soap and suds. . . . That doesn't make me a bad reporter. That just makes me honest," she wrote.

She often cast athletes in a salacious light.

For Oui, she wrote that some of the Flyers hockey players had orgies in unoccupied rooms at the Spectrum during games. For Playboy, in a story titled "The Secret Life of Baseball," she wrote that the Phillies usherettes, whom she dubbed the "Hot Pants Patrol," indulged in "pre-game quickies" with visiting players. The teams at the time dismissed her characterizations.

In part, her stories caused a group of Phillies wives to try to block her from the locker room in 1979 (she pushed her way in anyway). This followed a lawsuit in which Stevenson took on the Phillies. Eventually, she was given access.

Stevenson met Erving in the spring of 1978 while reporting a cover story on the Sixers for Sport magazine. He was married. She was not.

To dream of becoming intimate with a news source is one thing, but to act on the dream is quite another, say some women who have spent their careers covering men.

Most editors believe that it is in a journalist's best interest to avoid personal relationships with the people they cover. It's written policy at many publications, and it applies to journalists of both sexes. "I have known men [sports journalists] who are so gaga over the guys they're covering that they couldn't write an objective story," says Tracy Dodds, the Cleveland Plain Dealer's associate sports editor, who is female. "I knew guys, if they could possibly sleep with [the athlete], they would."

If women complicate their work relationships with sex, says Dodds, "you leave it all askew. There is no way under those circumstances that you can be objective. Other players know, so you lose your credibility. You hurt your ability to cover the team."

Spare Susan Fornoff the lofty objectivity argument. Fornoff, a writer for the San Francisco Examiner whose 1993 tell-all, Lady in the Locker Room, detailed her five years covering the Oakland A's for the Sacramento Bee, says it's an unrealistic notion.

Fornoff, who said she "briefly" dated A's pitcher Dave Stewart after she left the beat (both were single), says she would welcome an honest discussion of the realities of covering a professional team, from which a more enlightened attitude could be adopted.

"Why is it when we're talking about women sportswriters, the issue of credibility comes up?" Fornoff says. "Why don't we talk about life on the road that is so lonely that it causes these men to have extramarital affairs. . . . It's inevitable that if you're spending so much time with people that one or two of them are going to be your friends. It's hard. You're trying to be objective about someone you like. I don't think it's realistic."

Though Fornoff says she wouldn't date anyone she covered on her beat, she doesn't think there is anything necessarily wrong with journalists' having relationships with players, as long as it doesn't interfere with their jobs.

Stevenson hasn't stated her rationale for the affair with Erving. But news of it did nothing for the image of female sportswriters.

Stevenson's professional life has changed recently, and not necessarily because of the affair.

Since her daughter has turned pro, she no longer will be writing tennis stories for the New York Times.

Neil Amdur, her editor, said she would be reassigned, in accordance with the newspaper's ethics policy.

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