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Original Issue


Athletes should dress first, then talk to the press

I could see this one coming. So could many sportswriters who have spent a lot of time covering big-time sports and, out of necessity, hanging out in men's locker rooms. At some point the issues raised by having women reporters hanging out in the same locker rooms—right there with the guys—had to detonate.

And now it has. It started with Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson accusing several New England Patriots of sexually taunting her in the locker room on Sept. 17. It moved on to Cincinnati, where Bengal coach Sam Wyche barred USA Today's Denise Tom from his team's locker room after the Oct. 1 Monday-night game. A lot of ugliness—including death threats against Olson—has followed, and where it all will end is anybody's guess.

When the dust settles, I hope that the sporting world can finally come up with a locker room policy that protects the dignity of naked men at the same time that it allows sportswriters, male and female alike, to do their jobs. Trust me, we don't have that now.

Everybody agrees that members of one sex have the right to expect privacy from members of the other sex while performing basic bodily functions or while dressing or undressing. It's why we have separate men's and women's restrooms. But we also acknowledge that members of both sexes should have an equal opportunity to perform their jobs. And when the job is sportswriting and the beat is big-time men's sports, a quandary arises. What do we do about female writers who need to enter locker rooms in order to have the same opportunities as their male counterparts?

All pro sports leagues have decreed that women writers be given the same access to players that men writers have. In theory this is fair and right. In practice it is crazy. It means the locker room is a place where basic codes of privacy do not exist. It is a rule that demeans male athletes, implying as it does that their nudity is of no import compared with the right of newspeople to gather news. One can't imagine such a rule pertaining to women's locker rooms—allowing male writers to see women as they traipse to and from the shower. That there are no major women's sports leagues is beside the point. Only by extending a rule to its logical limits can we determine whether that rule makes sense for all. And this one does not.

I am friends with many women sportswriters, but I always find it bizarre when I run into them in the midst of nude men. That the women are not there to look, only to work, doesn't matter. When women wander through men's locker rooms, something is out of whack, regardless of the women's business-only intentions.

Having said this, let me add that I don't think male sportswriters should be in locker rooms while athletes are unclothed, either. They should have no advantage over female writers, and they should show some basic empathy for athletes freshly off the field. Players and coaches need time to unwind and time to dress. Writers, particularly those who work for daily newspapers, will scream that they need to be in the locker room right after games because of deadline demands. But their deadlines are not the players' problem. Many veteran reporters will also claim that they get better, more pungent quotes from players who are hot from battle. But I don't know that that is true; a good interviewer should be able to get good quotes anytime.

Postgame locker rooms are tension-filled zoos, packed with strangers, hangers-on, camera crews (talk about invasion of privacy!) and, yes, at least some voyeurs, male and female. Sports teams—especially in football, with its large numbers of athletes—need to set up interview rooms at all stadiums. Journalists need to give athletes a chance to dress and compose themselves before grilling them. Twenty minutes should be plenty of time. Baseball, basketball and hockey writers, including some at SI, insist that their jobs, which require almost daily access to the players, would suffer under the more formal constraints of interview rooms. But I think they have been accustomed to entering locker rooms for so long that they can't imagine working any other way. In exchange for acceding to these new arrangements, journalists should receive assurances that players will not be allowed to slip out back doors or linger forever in the training room. And the players' bosses should insist that they be courteous to all writers.

SI's Shelley Smith recalls that in 1986, when she was with the San Francisco Examiner, she was grabbed and marched through the 49ers' locker room and into the crowded shower by 300-pound Bubba Paris, who yelled, "This is what you wanted to see, isn't it?" Smith was rescued by Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright, but she was shaken. "I'd be happy never to go into another locker room," she says now, "as long as you could guarantee me equal access to the news."

With players showered, clothed and ready to talk, she would have that access. Then, if one of them got out of line, sexually or otherwise, it wouldn't be a problem for the NFL. It might well be a problem for the police.