According to special counsel Philip B. Heymann's 60-page report to NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, this is what happened to Lisa Olson of the Boston Herald on Sept. 17 in the New England Patriots locker room:
Olson, a 26-year-old reporter, was interviewing cornerback Maurice Hurst. Both were sitting beside his locker, which was near the entrance to the team shower. Olson had suggested that the interview be held outside the locker room, but Hurst preferred to do it at his locker.
Olson had been a reporter for four years and had covered the Patriots for three months. She had been in their locker room dozens of times and had generally written about the players in flattering terms. A few players started rumors that she was someone who "looked" at the players when they were undressed and spent more time than was necessary in the locker room. As a result, a Patriots assistant general manager previously observed her conduct; he felt she was doing her job in a normal fashion.
As Olson interviewed Hurst, player Ronnie Lippett shouted repeatedly: "Cover. . . . There is a lady in the locker room," and distributed some towels. Soon thereafter, a naked Patriots player stood at arm's length from Olson and said in a low voice: "Here's what you want." And other comments.
Some players laughed. Others yelled: "Is she looking," and so on. The Patriots' public relations director watched and did nothing.
In the words of the NFL report, reserve tight end Zeke Mowatt told Olson: "You're not writing, you're looking." Then he smiled and purposely displayed himself to her in a suggestive way. Laughter erupted and players shouted: "Is she looking?"
Subsequently, several other players separately walked nude past Olson on their way to the shower. Two or three players, not identified, paused and "modeled themselves" briefly by her "in some fashion." The shouting and laughter continued. Running back Robert Perryman then stood near Olson, unseen by her, shook himself in an exaggerated fashion. More laughter. More "Are you showing off?" "Are you posing?" "That's what she wants."
The report added: "No one tried to bring the humiliating activity around Lisa Olson to a stop. Neither players nor management personnel said or did anything."
Finally, Olson gave up her interview and left. James Oldham, the Patriots' public relations man, described her as "very distraught, she couldn't see straight." After she left, Perryman, now with the Dallas Cowboys, said to those present: "If the kitchen is too hot, get out."
The NFL investigation found no fault with Lisa Olson. She was not inexperienced at her job. She was humiliated and degraded, to say the least, by a room full of professional football players while the team official specifically in charge of media relations watched. According to the report, Olson's response was to turn the other cheek -- try to solve the problem privately and without any public attention.
Olson's editor told the Patriots he wanted Coach Rod Rust to call him and that he wanted the Patriots "to do the right thing." Presumably, apologize to Olson and discipline the central players involved. Ultimately, the Boston Globe, not the Herald, broke the story.
Yesterday, confronted with this report and having had 10 weeks to think about the problem, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced this total punishment: Zeke Mowatt was fined about two or three days' pay ($12,500) and two other players (Michael Timpson and Perryman) each were fined $5,000. The Patriots, who get $33 million a year in TV revenue alone, were fined $25,000 and told to spend another $25,000 to teach their players and staff how to deal with the media.
Olson said it was "an amazing an fair report." She did not comment on Tagliabue's punishments. "My satisfaction with the investigation and subsequent sanctions is surpasssed only by my wish the disgraceful incident had never occurred in the first place," she said. "It was not my choice to have this matter decided in a public forum and it is unfortunate that Patriot management forced this to happen by not dealing with the guilty persons swiftly and decisively."
Olson no longer covers the Patriots; she now covers basketball and hockey.
It's probably not to my credit, but I find my imagination wandering. I think of Tagliabue, someday, enduring a humiliation and misfortune comparable to what befell Olson. Then, in the aftermath of that incident, I imagine those who wronged Tagliabue being slapped on the wrist with the loss of two or three days' pay.
But then I wonder if anything comparable could happen, or would be allowed to happen, to a man in this society.
At the least, it seems fair to say that Tagliabue, by not suspending any players, has accidentally put a price on the sexual harassment of women reporters in NFL locker rooms. Short of committing an actual felony that could be pursued in the courts, what more could a player, or a team, do to a woman reporter than Mowatt and the Patriots did to Olson?
So I guess that's the message. So long as you don't actually commit a crime, you can do or say anything to a female reporter, for any length of time, even with team officals watching, and the most it can cost you is $12,500.
Now we will find out what price the NFL pays for its decision.
When Arizona voted against a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, it knew that the NFL would probably withdraw the Super Bowl, but it never guessed the broader economic consequences for the state. Has the NFL read, or misread, its public?
Patriots owner Victor Kiam closed his public statement by saying: "The decision has been rendered. Now it's time to get on with playing football."
Or is it time to get on with figuring out a truly appropriate punishment for the Patriots and the NFL?