Cincinnati Bengals Coach Sam Wyche yesterday received the largest fine ever assessed a National Football League coach as NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he must pay one-seventeenth of his annual salary -- an amount believed to be about $30,000 -- for barring a female reporter from the Bengals' locker room after their game Monday night in Seattle.
Tagliabue also rejected Wyche's proposed plan to open Cincinnati's locker room to all reporters for 20 minutes after games while the players remain in uniform, then close the locker room until the players have changed clothes. Tagliabue ordered the Bengals to conform to the league's policy, which is to open the locker room to all accredited media from the end of a cooling-off period until the players have departed.
Wyche, who reportedly makes $500,000 per 17-week season, said he would pay the fine. And Bengals assistant general manager Mike Brown said the team would comply with Tagliabue's order. However, Wyche and Brown said they would remain unchanged in their opinions about the issue, with Brown adding he intends to pursue the matter with the league after the season ends.
"No amount of fine will force me to change my conviction on this matter," said Wyche. "We need to find a way for women to have a decent and open access to all these athletes. The commissioner feels like it's more important to fine me than to seek another solution."
Brown commented, "I don't know there's anything much wrong with Sam saying his piece and now he's said it and we'll put it behind us. . . . But the issue isn't closed. There is a significant portion of the players who are bothered by this. Their rights, their privacy is invaded. We've got to listen to that point. That's something that should not be ignored."
Wyche was fined $3,000 last season for closing Cincinnati's locker room to all media and $2,000 in 1986 for knocking a microphone out of a reporter's hands. According to a statement released by the NFL, Tagliabue has informed Wyche that "any future violations of league policies will justify more severe disciplinary action" than that taken yesterday.
Until yesterday, no NFL coach had been fined more than $5,000. That had been assessed against several coaches for public criticism of officials and on-field conduct.
"Commissioner Tagliabue has said equal access is a priority, and I think this emphasizes that point," said Joe Browne, the league's vice president for communications and development.
Wyche prevented USA Today reporter Denise Tom from entering Cincinnati's locker room after Monday night's game even though male reporters were admitted. He had been scheduled to meet with Tagliabue in New York, but the team has remained in the Seattle area this week while preparing for Sunday's game against the Rams in Anaheim, Calif. As a result, Wyche and Tagliabue spoke by telephone Thursday night.
USA Today's managing editor for sports Gene Policinski expressed satisfaction with the rulings.
"We are pleased that the NFL is taking such strong action to enforce league policy on equal access . . . ," Policinski told the Associated Press. "The quick action . . . and the warning that any future violations will mean even more severe discipline supports the basic idea that reporters -- male and female -- have a legitimate professional role in NFL locker rooms."