They'll never grow up

Russell Baker

October 03, 1990|By Russell Baker

MANY PEOPLE have been angered by the story of the New England Patriots football players displaying themselves naked to female sports reporter in the locker room.

Many others are angry at the female sports reporter.

They ask, why does she want to be in a locker room anyhow? Doesn't she know there's likely to be nudity in a locker room?

Locker rooms are places where athletes shower and change clothes. These activities require undress. Doesn't she know that?

Oh come off it, says the other side. Unless these players grew up rich, they probably spent their boyhoods sharing one-bathroom households with mothers and sisters.

Surely they know how to bathe and change in close proximity to women without embarrassing the female side of the family.

This view of the matter is too sensible.

It suggests the only thing involved is the mechanics of etiquette, like how to use a finger bowl.

Don't athletes, like everybody else, learn in boyhood how to knot a bath towel around the waist?

This isn't about etiquette, however. It's about the male dislike of growing up.

Eternal boyhood is the dream of a depressing percentage of American males, and the locker room is the temple where they worship arrested development.

Schoolboys first experience locker-room rites when they learn the joy of flicking each other on bare buttocks with wet towels.

The activity in locker rooms of professional athletes can be more infantile, according to traitors who have spilled the beans in print.

Jim Bouton, the Yankee pitcher whose memoir, "Ball Four," is a classic of the genre, detailed antics so idiotic many athletes still think of him as Benedict Arnold in a jockstrap.

Television's traditional end-of-season visit to the winning team's locker room is a spectacle of boyish joy at its most intense, and boyish ignorance of how to treat champagne.

(It is said that owners provide eleventh-rate champagne, possibly because they can't bear to waste the real thing on overgrown boys who spray it around like water out of a garden hose.)

In less exciting times the locker room is the stage where the athlete engages in quiet boyish pastimes: for instance, refusing to talk to the press because it has hurt his feelings, or sulking pointedly so the press will report that he feels unappreciated by management or fans.

As the place where boyhood never ends, the locker room is naturally hostile to invasion by women.

This is not only because women are not boys. It's also because while women as a class may not like growing old, neither do they yearn to remain children forever. They are not simpatico. They spoil the ambiance.

The athletes' resentment, according to female sports writers who have had to work the locker rooms, varies according to the maturity of the sport.

A sports reporter quoted in the New Yorker a few years ago said she found acceptance easiest among basketball players, most of whom had been through college and seemed relatively adult. The most hostile were baseball players.

The locker room's resistance to female reporters is very different from the resistance to feminism put up briefly by the stag bar and much longer by the private men's club.

The stag bar was not a refuge for people who wanted to be boys forever, but only a place where males could take alcohol without incurring such complications as may ensue when men and women take alcohol together.

It was founded on the theory that drinking should occasionally be done in a simplified environment.

The private men's club, by contrast, positively exalted the complications that could be created among males, whether mature or of arrested development.

The blackball was the characteristic feature. The club existed to exclude almost everybody, not just the entire female sex.

Stag bar and men's club -- both have pretty much fallen now to feminism, though why women wanted to liberate the stag bars must remain a mystery impenetrable to anyone who can't understand why anybody wants to spend more than five minutes in any kind of bar anywhere.

The men's club must be equally baffling to men who never understood how other men could take pleasure in denying their fellow man the opportunity to lunch on bad food. Still, women are also entitled to exclude people, I suppose.

The locker room will not fall so easily. Too many American athletes cherish their boyhoods.

They will not grow up without a fight, bare knuckles and everything else.

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