Foul play, naked men

Anna Quindlen

October 05, 1990|By Anna Quindlen

I'VE COVERED politics and I've covered crime, and I've liked them both. But one thing I understood about those assignments: Sometimes you found yourself hanging around with a questionable class of people.

I've never covered sports, but I hear the same is true.

Lisa Olson covers sports for the Boston Herald. No matter what people think about getting free tickets and meeting celebrities, being a sports reporter is hard work.

And the last thing you need, along with deadline pressure and road trips and working weekends for your foreseeable life, is to have a clutch of football players position their genitals close to your face and make lewd suggestions while you're trying to work.

This is what Lisa Olson says happened to her while she was sitting on a stool interviewing a player in the locker room of the New England Patriots.

News reports have tidied it up and called it sexual harassment, which makes it sound a little like some affirmative-action issue. I'm giving the untidy version in the interests of accuracy.

Jocks have this tacit deal with the public. The deal is that they can get away with almost anything as long as they deliver the goods.

One graduates from college barely able to read. Another gets caught driving drunk and mollifies the cop with an autograph.

Yet another does drugs and after he comes out of rehab we welcome him back, and after it turns out he was lying about being clean we welcome him back again.

We even had one ballplayer sent to jail for illegal gambling while fans contended that he deserved a place in the Hall of Fame.

Athletes are American princes and the locker room is their castle.

Some of them behave in a princely fashion, become deserved heroes to us all. And some are jerks. Jane Leavy, a former sportswriter for the Washington Post, has written a novel called "Squeeze Play" about a woman covering baseball and this is my favorite sentence: "You can't grow up if you spend your whole life perfecting the rhythms of childhood."

The other day Leavy recalled that the first time she interviewed Billy Martin, he was nude except for his socks, and he had his feet up on his desk.

This would be an interesting situation if you were a political reporter interviewing the mayor, or a police reporter interviewing the commissioner.

Because you could describe this and then sit back and watch as the man lost his job.

Sports is different. That was just Billy being Billy.

Athletes are always testing, testing, testing.

Some of them aren't good at finding the end zones in their own lives, which is why they test their bodies until their hamstrings snap, why they test coaches and owners until nobody wants them on their team, and why they test reporters. Particularly women reporters.

Some don't think women have any business being in locker rooms.

With 500 women sports reporters working today and the locker room still the place where reporters interview athletes, this view seems anachronistic.

Some also believe women are in the locker room for the express purpose of staring at what my sons, who have the same delusion of universal interest because they are small boys, call their "private parts."

This is a red herring, this idea that somehow athletes must be naked in a locker room when reporters arrive.

This week the coach of the Cincinnati Bengals decided to bar women from his locker room, a violation of law and of league policy, and said, "I will not allow women to walk in on 50 naked men."

Here's a tip, genius: Have them put on underwear.

Ordinary locker room behavior doesn't have much to do with the organized harassment the league is investigating in the Olson case.

And female sportswriters say lots of athletes are decent guys.

The women sports reporters I know are very smart, smart enough to know who gets blamed for the sins of the jocks. At the Patriots game last Sunday, it was Lisa Olson the fans hooted.

This incident has changed her life, perhaps shortened her career as a sportswriter.

Professional athletes know about short careers. Twenty years from now Lisa Olson will still be able to write, but there probably won't be one of the guys on that team who can still play football.

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