The Great Locker Room Of Life

ELLEN GOODMAN

October 05, 1990|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON. — ALMOST EVERY SOCIAL issue gets played out on or around the sports pages. You want to talk about drugs? You want to talk about greed? You want to talk about race relations? You want to talk about men and women?

Tune in to your local sports station and argue about drug testing on the football field, the undeserving rich on the mound, race relations in the front office, segregation at the golf course. And sexual harassment in the locker room.

The story of Lisa Olson, the Boston Herald reporter whose treatment by a gang of Patriots gave new meaning to the term ''locker-room mentality,'' began when a group of naked football players reportedly displayed their parts before her. They suggested that she wanted to reach out and touch someone.

In all its nationally publicized permutations (Did owner Victor Kiam call Ms. Olson ''a classic bitch?'' Will the Remington man find his profits shaved by irate women?), this tale has focused more time and space on harassment than a dozen national surveys.

Moreover, if you doubt that the moral attention of the country has switched from politics to sports, the man appointed to investigate the locker-room incident is Harvard Law School's Philip Heymann, whose last moment in the limelight was as associate special prosecutor for Watergate.

I remain bewildered at the psychology of sexual intimidation. Try to imagine a collection of angry women punishing a male invader in their midst by circling him naked, daring him to touch them.

I am also fascinated at why these issues get their longest and most heated run when attached to sports figures. It may be simply because sports are truly a spectator event. Every glorious and smarmy moment is played out before fans or their media emissaries. What happens is public knowledge in a way that behavior in the boardroom or the mine shaft is not.

But I also think that what fans expect from sports -- the people and the games -- may be contradictory. As Berkeley sociologist Todd Gitlin says, ''Everything hangs out in sports. The lid comes off. Sports is the zone where society permits itself to get out of hand.'' At worst, ''people go to the games to throw things and yell.''

On the other hand, there is a lingering heroism about athletics. ''Every game is a morality play. We want to see the players as being swifter, stronger, more dedicated,'' says Mr. Gitlin. ''In a society that doesn't have leaders it trusts, people actually look to sports figures as carriers of virtue.'' This is especially true for children.

What happens when sports are expected to be both ''out of hand'' and a field of dreams? When athletes are set outside the normal set of constraints and expected to embody our finest? When the hero flunks his drug test? When the pristine ground is a golf green of bigotry? When gridiron giants harass a woman in their locker room?

These morality plays set the terms for arguments about the rules and who is required to live by them.

The fans who booed Lisa Olson last weekend -- ''She asked for it!'' -- sounded like ticket holders at an Andrew Dice Clay concert. But these are jeers of losers. Sexual bullying now has a name and a cost. It's against the rules.

What of the nervous Victor Kiam, the razor man who wanted his own football team and got a locker room full of trouble? Somebody should have told him that times have changed since he first helped market the zipper Playtex girdle. We're all breathing a bit more freely now.

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