In the last 20 years, since women sportswriters have been allowed to interview athletes in locker rooms, there have been some uncomfortable incidents, from frat-house-style heckling to a USFL player running a razor up the leg of the Orlando Sentinel's Joan Ryan. Jack Morris, a Detroit Tigers pitcher, said to a Detroit Free Press summer intern, "I don't talk to women when I'm naked unless I'm on top of them or they're on top of me." The intern was a Harvard graduate, Morris was from the school of Neanderthal thinking.

Women have had to suffer fools in locker rooms for a long time, but nothing as reprehensible as what happened recently in the New England Patriots' locker room. During the middle of an interview, several naked players surrounded Boston Herald sportswriter Lisa Olson, reportedly inches from her face, and dared her to touch their genitals. Difficult as it may be to believe, owner Victor Kiam later made it worse.

Within earshot of several male reporters in the locker room after Sunday's game, Kiam called Olson "a classic bitch." Much more offensive than that, Mr. Remington Shaver told a Herald reporter the Patriots could "wiggle their waggles in front of her face as far as I'm concerned."

On Tuesday, Kiam, now deeply concerned with damage control from his outrageous remarks, issued a statement of apology that ended with, "I now hope that we can get back to preparing our team for the Jets game on Sunday." Olson did not accept it. Good for her.

Michele Himmelberg, a reporter at the Orange County (Calif.) Register and president of the Association for Women in Sports Media, faxed NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue a letter on Tuesday. It read, in part: "If Mr. Kiam believes it is appropriate behavior for his employees to sexually harass a working member of the media it is useless . . . to address Mr. Kiam. At this point it has become the NFL's duty to inform Mr. Kiam of his indiscretions, to request an apology and to assess a penalty."

Tagliabue, just two weeks ago, warned Falcons Coach Jerry Glanville in no uncertain terms that the league would not tolerate one coach calling another a "jerk" as Glanville did Houston's Jack Pardee. Tagliabue moved quickly and decisively to head off what he perceived as a behavior problem that would negatively affect the league's image. When asked Tuesday about the Patriots' sleazy behavior with Olson (which happened on Sept. 17), Tagliabue was noncommital about whether the league would take action beyond the Patriots issuing a token fine of $2,000 to one of the players, reportedly tight end Zeke Mowatt, who earns more than $600,000 a year. "I really don't have all the facts," Tagliabue said, "so I don't want to comment because I'm not all clear what has happened."

Yesterday Tagliabue seemed to confirm that Mowatt was the Patriot at the center of the incident. Joe Browne, the NFL spokesman, said the commissioner would meet with Mowatt next week and have him explain his actions. Remember, commissioner, Glanville calling Pardee a jerk is small potatoes compared with players sexually harassing a woman.

One player already has been fined. Kiam and General Manager Patrick Sullivan already have apologized. A Patriots P.R. man was standing nearby and has acknowledged seeing at least part of what happened. Ronnie Lippett, a veteran Patriot with a touch of class, sought out Olson and told her to hang in there, that she was only doing her job and doing it well at that. Tagliabue ought to tell Kiam and the Patriots -- and the other 27 clubs for that matter -- publicly that this behavior will not be tolerated, that violators will be hit with heavy fines and meaningful suspensions.

No precedent-setting rule is needed; the NFL already has one that calls for equal access to all accredited reporters. If the Patriots players or any others don't like it -- which is their prerogative -- then tell the woman you'd like to get dressed before conducting an interview. Or, if you feel even stronger about it, tell her you'll talk to her outside the locker room.

Hearing women sportswriters assailed isn't surprising, sadly, when the men doing the assailing are crusty old fogies like Victor Kiam and Bo Schembechler, the Tigers' team president who defended Morris and regularly lets it be known he's opposed to women in the locker room. But when men in their twenties and thirties -- like Morris and the pathetic Patriots players -- who have grown up in more liberated times demonstrate such a base level of ignorance, it's scary.

The smaller issue here is sports locker rooms. Women sportswriters aren't there because they especially want to be. But when Lawrence Taylor is injured on the final play of the game, when he shouldn't even be on the field, a reporter -- male or female -- better go to the locker room and find out why it happened and who's responsible.

The locker room isn't always a battleground for women reporters. The Post's Christine Brennan estimates she's been in "more than 500 locker rooms in my 10 years and I've never had a bad incident." Also, the vast majority of players aren't interested in harassing women; they want to get dressed and go home.

But there are always the boys from Animal House who think that because they are professional athletes they're also above the law. They can say or do whatever they want and get away with it. And to show just how rough and tough they are, these brainless bullies surround a woman in a locker room and behave boorishly.

How manly.