Women writers take look at naked truth, thanks to Lisa Olson's rocking the boat

October 04, 1990|By Kristin Huckshorn | Kristin Huckshorn,Knight-Ridder

WHY DOESN'T Lisa Olson shut up?

I admit it. That is what I have been thinking ever since Olson, a Boston sportswriter, began publicly explaining how she was sexually harassed by five New England Patriots in their locker room last month.

That is what I thought again Tuesday, when I heard that another sportswriter, Denise Tom of USA Today, had been denied access to the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room after their loss Monday night to the Seahawks.

Denise and I became sportswriters more than a decade ago (I switched to news three years ago.). And knowing that she was a member of the old guard, I knew what answer I could expect from her Tuesday.

"I'm referring calls to my sports editor," she said. "I'm not the focus of the story."

Right answer. Dignified. Succinct. Within the unwritten code that governs female sportswriters when they venture through the locker room door.

Rule No. 1: Maintain eye contact.

Rule No. 2: Carry a big notebook.

Rule No. 3: Don't rock the boat.

Lisa Olson rocked the boat. I wish she would shut up.

Feeling this way is difficult to admit. After all, I am co-founder of the Association for Women in Sports Media, the national organization of female sportswriters that was formed four years ago.

Nor do I question Olson's story. What happened to Olson on Sept. 17 -- and Patriots owner Victor Kiam's chauvinistic response -- was the worst incident of locker room sexual harassment yet.

Worse than an incident several years ago in which San Francisco Examiner columnist Joan Ryan, then with the Orlando Sentinel, reported that a football player had run a razor up her leg.

Worse than an incident in 1986 when Dave Kingman of the A's played postman and sent a rat in a pink box with ribbon to Sacramento Bee sportswriter Susan Fornoff.

Worse than an incident this summer when Detroit Tigers pitcher Jack Morris told a female intern from the Detroit Free Press, "I don't talk to people when I am naked, especially women, unless they are on top of me or I am on top of them."

Nor should anyone question Olson's presence in the locker room. Whatever you think about that, it is not at issue here. Female sportswriters have been interviewing athletes inside locker rooms for almost 15 years. They are in the locker room to stay. The NFL underlined that Tuesday by fining Bengals coach Sam Wyche for refusing Denise Tom equal access.

So what bothers me about Olson's reaction?

She is vocal. She hasn't ducked reporters and network news cameras. She has become the story and, in doing that, she has broken the rules.

Reporters work best as flies on the wall. We are observers, not participants. Supporting cast, not leading ladies.

Female sportswriters know we have two strikes against us from the start. We can't enter a locker room and blend in. So we strive for perfect comportment. A cross between Miss Manners and Mary Richards.

We develop peripheral vision (the better to see when a player has his pants on). We develop a thick skin and a sense of humor.

Female sportswriters routinely laugh off comments that should be reported. They accept treatment that should be fined. They keep quiet, figuring silence is the price of admission for doing the job.

That is why I wish Lisa Olson would shut up. I wish she would shut up because I was one of those women who kept quiet.

I remember being reduced to tears by Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight. I didn't complain. I might never again have been assigned to cover the team.

I remember being hit with jockstraps, dirty socks, wads of tape, obscenities. I didn't snitch. Players might avoid me.

I remember standing toe-to-toe with a 6-foot-7 football player, demanding that he stop verbally harassing another female sportswriter. I never asked the players, and male reporters, why they didn't come to our defense.

I never rocked the boat.

And I wasn't alone. For every Lisa Olson, there are 100 locker room incidents that are dealt with quietly or not at all.

Ann Killion of the San Jose Mercury News recently was verbally harassed by Charles Haley, a defensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers. Haley later apologized. Killion said Tuesday that she has accepted his apology and doesn't want to talk about the incident.

"I have to go back in there," she said.

Women who are sportswriters value their jobs. They value their relationships with players. Most have worked hard to be accepted. They know that if they become the story -- like Olson -- all they have worked for is lost.

By speaking out, Lisa Olson is destroying the fragile status quo. She is bringing an old and dreaded issue back to the forefront. She is reminding us that the battle is not yet won. She is rocking the boat.

She makes me wonder: If I had spoken up all along, would this still be happening now?

I wish she would shut up.

She makes me wish that I hadn't.

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