Cub reporter Paola Boivin entered the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse with her male colleagues after a game in 1987 looking for infielder Terry Pendleton. Instead, she encountered one of his teammates. "Are you here to interview somebody, he asked, or to look at a bunch of guys d---s?" No sooner had he spat out the words then a jockstrap landed on Boivin's head. She fled the clubhouse and later interviewed a sympathetic Pendleton in the hallway.
Subsequent locker room visits were less problematic for Boivin, current president of the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM), but she was surprised again last summer. During a post-game interview with Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Tony Womack, Boivin felt someone tugging on the hem of her jacket. The Arizona Republic reporter looked down to meet the son of Diamondbacks outfielder Steve Finley. "Miss, miss," the little boy said. "You can't be in here. This place is only for boys."
The lot of the female sports reporter is much better today than it was two decades ago, when women took their first tentative steps into the locker room. Nonetheless, the female sports reporter is still not competing on a level playing field. She still encounters obstacles and frustrations her male colleagues do not.
A decade before Boivin's unfortunate encounter with a sweat-drenched bit of men's athletic apparel, Sports Illustrated reporter Melissa Ludtke had a run-in of her own.
When Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn prohibited Ludtke from interviewing players in the locker room during the 1977 World Series, SI publisher Time Inc., filed a lawsuit.
The following year, a U.S. federal judge ruled that male and female reporters should have equal access to the locker room. Players howled in protest. "We're not a nudist colony putting on an exhibition," insisted NBA rookie Toby Knight. And the locker room did not change overnight.
Indeed. In 1979,
the Fort Myers News-Press battled the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers
to win equal access for sports reporter Michele Himmelberg. Later
in the season, before a game in Minnesota, Himmelberg arrived in
the press box to learn that all reporters would be banned from the
Vikings locker room because of one woman reporter.
After the game, reporters were herded into a designated interview area. "We stood there for a long time and no players arrived," recalls Himmelberg, a co-founder of the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM) now with The Orange County Register. As deadlines neared, reporters began checking their watches anxiously and grumbling aloud. Himmelberg found herself cornered by two radio reporters. "What are you doing here anyway?" they demanded. "You're just a pervert trying to get a look at these guys." Himmelberg left the interview area, got some quotes in the Buccaneers' locker room and filed her stories. She then returned to her hotel room and burst into tears.
Her job became less difficult over time. By the mid 1980s, all four major professional sports leagues (NFL, NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball) had adopted policies in compliance with the U.S. court ruling on equal access, and female sports reporters had become more commonplace in the locker room.
Nonetheless, several of these women learned that, while they were allowed into the locker room, they were not welcomed there. "Changing the rules doesn't necessarily alter attitudes," Ludtke observed.
No one learned that lesson better than Lisa Olson, a reporter for the Boston Herald. While conducting interviews in the New England Patriots' locker room following an NFL game in 1990, a group of Patriots surrounded the reporter and made aggressive, vulgar comments. The players were later fined and the team's general manager was fired for trying to cover up the incident.
When the incident sparked a national debate, Olson began receiving death threats. Vandals burglarized her apartment and painted an ominous message on a wall in her home: "Leave Boston or die." She received another note when the tires of her car were slashed: "Next time it will be your throat." Olson later recalled that she received mail that "would make you physically ill - depictions of rape scenes and horrible, horrible things."
Olson fled to Australia, where she covered cricket and rugby for five years. She returned to take a writing job at The New York Daily News hoping to put the past behind her. Nonetheless, she started receiving threatening phone calls and letters again, when two famous athletes spoke out against female reporters in the locker room.
In a 1999 Wall Street Journal article, retired NFL defensive end Reggie White wrote that he couldn't see a legitimate reason "for forcing male athletes to walk around naked in front of women who aren't their wives." White claimed to have seen female reporters "ogling guys in the locker room," and encouraged players to fight against equal access for female reporters.
Within a few days, New York Knicks guard Charlie Ward was distributing copies of the article to his teammates. The basketball player claimed having women in the locker room violated the sanctity of marriage.
Madison Square Garden
president and chief executive officer Dave Checketts condemned Ward's
actions and warned him not to use the locker room as a pulpit.
No surprise to Rachel Bachman, a sports reporter at The Oregonian, who covered the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers during the 1998-99 season and has covered them in post-season play since then. "Today, when a woman is harassed or there are access problems, there is an immediate response and a general understanding that the reporter has the right to be there," she says. "That was not necessarily the case just 10 years ago."
But some things haven't changed. Bachman confesses she is bothered by the current "blurring of boundaries" between professional male athletes and female reporters. "Female reporters suffer a lot of harassment because some men don't understand or respect that the women are in the locker room to do a job." Bachman says few women speak out because "they want to be defined by their work, not by their struggles.
"I have had athletes either ask me out or make inappropriate suggestions sexually. It's a horrible position to be in because you have to keep writing about these men after you have rebuffed them, and often they are not very understanding about the reason you say no."
Male athletes' problem with female reporters is rooted in "stereotypical, outmoded and confining images of women, not at all suited to the reality of their actual lives," suggests Ludtke.
"Let's face it," sports reporter Christine Brennan once wrote in the Washington Post. "I'm an outsider in the players' domain."