Trouble in The Locker Rooms

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Descending into sweaty locker rooms to question naked or skimpily clad, and frequently hostile, members of an athletic team is one of the least attractive duties of a sports reporter. Yet the right to conduct interviews in the players' sanctum is a cherished one, particularly for the women on the professional sports beat who won equality with their male peers in seeking access to athletes in a 1978 federal court ruling. Since then, women's ranks in sports journalism have swelled to around 500, but complaints about the obscenities and petty hostilities the female journalists regularly encounter in their work have been rare, or at least rarely publicized.

Finally, however, the dam seems to have burst. The immediate cause was the charge last month by Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson that several New England Patriots exposed their genitals and made lewd remarks while she was trying to conduct a postgame interview. Since then, reports of other incidents of locker-room harassment have come to light, causing some women sportswriters to wonder if their jobs are under widespread attack.

The latest uproar came last week when USA Today football reporter Denise Tom was barred from the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room by coach Sam Wyche after a loss to the Seattle Seahawks. "I will not allow women to walk in on 50 naked men," said Wyche. Calling the coach's actions "sexist," USA Today sent a protest letter to the National Football League demanding enforcement of the league's 1985 policy of equal access to players for male and female journalists. Late last week N.F.L. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced that Wyche, who had violated league media-relations policy twice before, would be fined one-seventeenth of his annual salary, an estimated $30,000. It was the highest penalty ever levied against an N.F.L. coach.

Tagliabue had earlier appointed a former Watergate prosecutor, Harvard law professor Philip Heymann, to investigate Olson's charges, which had been exacerbated by allegations that team owner Victor Kiam had called Olson a "classic bitch" after the incident. Kiam has denied using any such language, but he took out newspaper ads apologizing to the Herald reporter.

Warning of an "alarming trend," CBS sportscaster Lesley Visser drew national attention to another reporter-player clash: a summer rebuff of Detroit Free Press reporter Jennifer Frey by Detroit Tigers pitcher Jack Morris when she requested an interview. Said Morris: "I don't talk to women when I am naked unless they are on top of me or I am on top of them." Tigers . president Bo Schembechler admitted that Morris' comments were out of line, but said in a letter to the paper that sending a woman into the locker room showed a "lack of common sense."

If anything, the trio of incidents has firmed the resolve of women sportswriters to defend their rights. "Ten years ago, Lisa Olson would have stood alone. Today we are all behind her," says Washington Post reporter Christine Brennan, past president of the Association for Women in Sports Media. For Olson, who was booed by the crowd at a subsequent Patriots game, the locker-room imbroglio has taken an immediate toll. Currently on leave, she will probably not be reassigned to cover the team this season. "She's been brutalized. I'm not sure it would be fair to send her back," says Herald executive sports editor Bob Sales. Furthermore, he says, "she is not in any shape" to cover the Boston Red Sox, contenders for baseball's American League pennant.