"I have to stay outside, right?"
A male newbie covering the Chicago Sky at Allstate Arena asked me the question after Coach Pokey Chatman's after-game press conference.
The locker rooms were open, and I was making my usual dash to get in line to ask WNBA Players of the Week Sylvia Fowles and Elena Delle Donne how they were getting along (winning has its advantages: everything was great!) and why they were going on four straight wins.
The question surprised me. "No, it's open to everyone. Come on." I said.
The newbie hung back a bit, taking in the sights and sound of the locker room, not asking any questions, but trying to understand how this worked.
A man in a woman's locker room? How'd that happen?
Actually, it was true 16 years ago, and it's true now. When the WNBA debuted in 1997, it was either Sheryl Swopes or Lisa Leslie who made a guest appearance with a late-night talk show host--either Jay Leno or David Letterman. When the host asked about men in the locker room, she shrugged her shoulders. "What you see, you see," she said.
I thought that was a good attitude then, and the same attitude exists today. Most female athletes wear something while reporters are in locker rooms.
Twenty-five years before that, the shoe was on the other foot, as women made their way into the locker rooms in the Post Title IX era.
The excellent ESPN series "Nine for IX," celebrating 40+ years of adventures in breaking down barriers in the post-Title IX era, is exploring locker room etiquette in "Let Them Wear Towels, " airing July 16.
According to their promotional materials, the film tells the story of the women reporters who gained equal access to men's locker rooms. Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, and Bud Black are featured in the documentary.
Lisa Olson is a Facebook friend of mine, as well as a hero, and one of the stories of raw courage covered in "Let Them Wear Towels."
In fact, when I was a newbie on my first UPI Radio assignment in 1991, I was often reminded of her by some of the teams I was covering. Whether it was because I have red hair, or because I was a woman, who knows? But this film explores her story, when she was sexually harassed by New England Patriots players in 1990.
Her experience set off a national debate about women in men's locker rooms.
As I told Rick Kaempfer in the Chicago Radio Spotlight, the only time I ever had any so-called trouble was a weekend that I was the only woman covering a Cubs-Dodgers series at Wrigley. One of the players--not sure if I should name names here--got upset when he saw me in the locker room and yelled that I should announce my presence before entering. I just mumbled, "okay," and went to interview Orel Hershiser, who was the winning pitcher that day. Even though I was standing far back from the pack, Orel reached out and picked up my microphone and drew it in like the last lily in a bunch of flowers. It was, somehow, a comforting gesture, like he was saying "not everyone doesn't want you here."
The next day, I said "Women!" as I entered the locker room...my perpetrator said "Why don't you just leave?" I turned my back on him and started talking to Daryl Strawberry, then went in to talk to then-Manager Tommy LaSorda. The perpetrator didn't pursue me, so I thought I was safe. The final game, he'd saved the best for last. He'd recruited another player, it seemed, to walk close by me naked with an eaten corncob in his hand....the significance of which was lost on me.
Orel again came to my rescue, saying, "xxxxxx (his name)....remember Lisa Olson!" I just didn't react at all. Just pretended like nothing had happened.
I got my interviews, and thanked Orel just recently in my "Token Female" column. I've always wanted to do so in person.
I guess I was lucky. I didn't know until I read Sports Illustrated's article by Lori Riley that I have former Baseball and 1984 Olympic Commissioner Peter Ueberroth to thank for my presence in a National League locker room. She recounts the story of Claire Smith, then the sole sports reporter for the Hartford Courant, who was refused locker room access by the San Diego Padres, who were set to face the Cubs in the National League Championship Series. Smith went to cover the series in Chicago, where she was refused access, despite assurances from the manager that she'd be allowed to cover.
Peter Ueberroth, coming off organizing the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, was just taking over for Bowie Kuhn as commissioner. "It was his first week on the job," Smith said. "He's coming from the 21st century Olympics and he can't believe he's walked into this. "The next day, he said, 'The clubhouse is open. This is nonsense.' "
Apparently, it was up to the individual clubs prior to this ruling.
Today, locker room etiquette needs to be respectful. It's generally not an issue, but I wanted to give some guidelines just in case you find yourself covering locker rooms:
- Keep your eyes focused and fixed on the eyes of the person you're interviewing
- When waiting for interviews in a locker room, avert your eyes when non-interviewees come in from the shower
- While waiting, write down interview questions, glance at the TV, at other reporters.
Follow these rules, we'll all get along!