During rehearsals for Super Bowls, where the press corps outgrew the locker rooms long ago, players and reporters meet en masse in the ballrooms of the athletes' hotels. Each 49er or Bronco occupies his own stand, and every year a remarkable transformation takes place.
Decorum breaks out. Not just good manners, but a consideration of grace, something close to courtliness, overtakes both sides. Maybe it has to do with the linen and the lace, but the same man who would scratch himself in the locker room introduces himself at the table.
Player or writer, oafs still say oafish things now and then. "Jim, let me get this straight," a New Jersey columnist began the questioning of quarterback Jim Plunkett. "Is it dead mother, blind father, or blind mother, dead father?" But here, at least, the crude and thoughtless draw stares instead of laughter. "Both my parents were blind," Plunkett replied quietly. "My father is dead."
Except for that one semi-civilized week a year, the great American athletes live in caves and act like trolls.
The locker room is a silly and savage sanctum. Even reasonably developed human beings act slightly ridiculous there. Tom Seaver often turned his cap around backwards the moment he entered. Inside the locker room, men of 30 and 40 plot shaving cream jokes and hotfoots in front of wardrobe cubicles festooned like dormitories or barracks with raunchy pictures and slogans.
They pad around in underwear, or without it, clearing their nostrils into the trash can (or, missing that, the carpet). When food is wheeled in, they chow down like the Lords of the Flies, biting the centers out of pork chops and throwing back the rest.
The locker room is a microcosmic village, complete with distinct white, black and Hispanic neighborhoods. In this strange society, the most affluent sectors tend to be the most dangerous. But all are threatening. Like when striding a dark street in New York, or braving that city's subway system, a certain bearing is helpful while walking through the locker room. It also doesn't hurt to be 6 feet 2 and male.
Last week, outside the New York Giants locker room, Coach Bill Parcells either forgot cameras were on him or didn't mind giving a public demonstration of the intimidating tactics practiced within. A reasonable question was asked: Why was linebacker Lawrence Taylor still in the game to be injured on the last play of a blowout? Parcells replied coyly that he couldn't do the thinking for everyone.
When the questioner naturally wondered if he was referring to assistant coaches, Parcells slammed the subject shut with a profanity, the usual one. "Got me?" he added menacingly.
Without seeing Parcells's tormentor, the guess here is he stands 5-8, maybe 5-9. Bullies are notoriously selective matchmakers. To inspire his legions, baseball manager Ralph Houk used to enjoy dragging the smallest newsman he could find the length of the locker room floor, yelling: "You can't call my boys quitters!" Last season, Cincinnati Bengals Coach Sam Wyche took an on-camera swipe at a broadcaster who looked like Wally Cox.
"If you were here yesterday," said Pete Rose, poking his finger in a stocky chest, "I'd have kicked your butt."
"Here I am right now," the newspaperman replied.
Rose hesitated. "If I thought you'd fight back," he muttered finally, "I'd do it."
"Put that worry out of your mind," the man said, pressing a finger to Rose's chest this time. "I always fight back." But that ended it.
Reggie Jackson took one of those looks at New York Timesman Ira Berkow once, but Jackson didn't like what he saw in Berkow's eyes: Chicago streets.
When New England Patriots defensive back Raymond Clayborn got his fingernail too close to the Boston Globe's Will McDonough, McDonough decked him. This is the locker room.
Before his cancer and canonization, pitcher Dave Dravecky was known in the trade for a particularly ugly greeting he gave Claire Smith a few years ago as she entered the San Diego locker room with the rest of the playoff press. Smith, who then worked for the Hartford Courant, was held in complete esteem among baseball writers. Maybe that's why, in a rare show of support, her male colleagues swarmed Dravecky and shut him up.
In a happier world, when tight end Zeke Mowatt and a few of the other Patriots recently flashed their shortcomings at Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson, she simply could have yelled, "Hey, Rube!" and the rest of the roustabouts would have come running.
The shameful fact is, women still are resented around men's sports, in and out of the locker room. The first woman mascot at West Virginia University is hooted when she pulls the trigger of the Mountaineers' muzzle gun. "Go back to the kitchen!" fans yell. "No Mountaineer can have PMS!"
A first wave of women sportswriters fought this assininity, and mostly dropped out. The next wave had it a little easier, but not easy. Today's crew is holding ground.
If a woman's presence ruins the ambience of the locker room; if that's all it takes to make the barbarians self-conscious about their slum, then we should move the women to the head of our columns and back them up this time. The smallest of us can handle Victor Kiam.