THE QUESTION came from one of the dozens of television reporters who had questions to ask this week.
"Why do women have to go into the locker room?"
I had heard it so many times before that I wanted to roll my eyes, say something about it being 1990 and turn the conversation to the substantive issues of the sad, disgusting story of the New England Patriots and sportswriter Lisa Olson.
But this reporter was serious. I don't think she knew the answer. So I told her.
"We go into locker rooms not because we want to, but because we have to. The locker room is the place where writers interview athletes. It's not exciting or sexy or tantalizing. It's cramped and steamy and messy. Whatever it is, it's not fun. But most stadiums are too old to have a room big enough for all reporters and all players to meet for interviews. So the only place we can do our jobs is the locker room."
So it went, over and over, as one interview rolled into another and journalists interviewed journalists all week after Olson, a Boston Herald reporter, charged she was sexually harrassed by five Patriots while she interviewed one of their teammates in the locker room Sept. 17.
This incident, which is about to be investigated by an NFL special counsel, is considered to be the worst a woman sportswriter ever has endured. There have been others: Joan Ryan of the Orlando Sentinel had a U.S. Football League player run a razor up her leg as she interviewed another player; Susan Fornoff of the Sacramento Bee received a gift-wrapped present from Dave Kingman of the Oakland A's, only to open it and discover a live rat; dozens of us have been forcibly removed from locker rooms by overzealous security guards when we carried the credentials to stay.
But this one struck a nerve throughout the nation as no other locker-room incident ever had. I wondered why. Perhaps it was because it happened in Boston, a major media center. Perhaps it was because it involved a handful of players, not just one. Perhaps it was because the biggest villain turned out to be "the man who bought the company," Victor Kiam, who was quoted by reporters as calling Olson a "classic bitch." He denied it, but the damage was done.
Or, maybe it was because it was just so incredibly bad. Five athletes who grew up in the 1980s -- presumably with award-winning female athletes beside them at banquets and sitting next to them in college sports management classes -- walked naked towards a working reporter who was sitting down, drew very close to her face and made lewd comments to her. Composed, she hoped to keep the incident quiet and have it solved internally.
The Patriots did nothing. The Boston Globe broke the story. And we all took a step back in time.
In 1985, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle issued an edict to all 28 teams that they had to provide equal access to all reporters, male and female, in locker rooms or interview areas. (Locker rooms can be closed to all, although only the Dallas Cowboys keep reporters out and utilize an interview room.) Major-league baseball provided equal access that year, too; the NBA and NHL teams had begun accepting women as equals a few years earlier. The previous catch-as-catch-can policy that had greeted women reporters (the St. Louis Cardinals' locker room was open, the New York Giants' was not) was history.
This flurry of activity followed a 1978 U.S. District Court decision in favor of Sports Illustrated reporter Melissa Ludtke, which allowed her access to the New York Yankees clubhouse. Denying her that, the court ruled, was a violation of her 14th Amendment right to pursue her profession with equal protection under the law.
So access was gained. But acceptance? Ask Zeke Mowatt, the New England tight end who makes $630,000 a year and was fined $2,000 for harassing Olson, if he accepts women in the locker room. That seems to be the next battleground for women in sports media: winning acceptance from the athletes. I'm an optimistic person, but it might never happen.
I, along with many of my 500 or so female sports-writing colleagues, understand that the battle won't be won overnight.
Of course, some players and teams are wonderful to deal with. Most of the Washington Redskins I was around in my three years on the beat understood that I was to be in their locker room and treated me very well. They had problems with me, but it was my reporting they took issue with, not my sex. I have never had a problem even remotely approaching Olson's, and I've walked into probably 500 locker rooms in the past 10 years.
What do I see when I go into a locker room? From the comments and questions I've had this week, I believe most people think a football locker room consists of 45 naked players cavorting around a couple of women who are watching with incredible interest. It's a dark, dirty, foreboding image.
In reality, I enter the locker room with dozens of my colleagues, mostly male. We fan out, with me bee-lining to the locker of one of the game's stars, talking (or listening) to him with a group of reporters, then moving to another player. This goes on for 20 minutes or so, then I dash out of the locker room, return to the press box and write my story. I spend more or less time in the locker room depending on my deadline.
To be perfectly blunt, I hardly ever interview a player who is totally naked. Most players I talk to are wearing towels, or their uniforms or their street clothes. (They have a 10-minute cooling-off period before anyone enters the locker room, so they certainly have time to undress and grab a towel before I walk in.) I have never, ever been in the shower area of any team, and I avoid the pathway to the shower for obvious reasons. I keep eye contact at all times, and carry an 8-by-11 notebook, so when I look down, I look down at the notebook.
I avoid talking to naked players unless I have absolutely no time or no choice. I don't want to embarrass anyone, myself included. So, when a Mark May comes out of the shower area wearing a towel, and I catch him out of the corner of my eye, and he offers a friendly signal to give him a minute before I move towards him, I give him that minute so he can pull on his pants. A male reporter doesn't have to do this. I do, and I don't mind.
Let's face it, I'm an outsider in the players' domain. I have to learn to laugh when Dexter Manley shouts out, "Hey, Chris, come here. I've got something to show you." I can't take that seriously. As my friend Lesley Visser, the former Boston Globe sportswriter now on CBS-TV, says, you develop "a kind of scar tissue that makes the next humiliating moment that much easier to take."
The same can be said for male sportswriters. Most men in the business have told me over the years they hate the locker room, too. And they also have been mistreated -- just not in quite the demeaning fashion women have been.
While we're on the subject, I'd fight just as hard for a man to be allowed in women's locker rooms. The problem is, the only women's professional sports of note are golf and tennis, individual sports that by and large close their locker rooms to all reporters and use interview rooms. And in women's college basketball, I have been told all reporters, male and female, gather in the hallway and the team comes out to talk there. You can do that with a 12-member team. You can't do that with 45 football players.
In any case, men have equal access with women in these sports. When a women's professional team sport becomes a big deal and top male reporters clamor to cover it, the locker room will be open to all, I'm certain. If that bothers the athletes, I'd suggest they wait the 20 minutes or so to take a shower or do what Wayne Gretzky does: He takes all his clothes out of his locker, changes in a part of the room far from reporters and returns to his locker to talk, even if every reporter waiting for him is a man. While many want the privacy of the athlete protected, I offer two thoughts. First, I believe most athletes would rather have reporters, male and female, camp out at their lockers and wait for them than have the inconvenience of walking to an interview room to find the reporters and talk to them there. Reporters are a nuisance to most athletes anyway; why not get us out of the way fast so they can meet their families outside the locker-room door?
Second, high-priced athletes have to be accountable to the people who pay their salaries, the fans. Most are paid more than President Bush, and they might just be more important to the youth of America. When Joe Montana does well, or makes a mistake, the fans (readers of this newspaper, perhaps) want to know why. They can't ask Montana themselves, but I can ask on their behalf.
Which is why I need to be at his locker.
Christine Brennan covers football and Olympic events for The Washington Post. For two years she was president of the Association for Women in Sports Media.