A sweaty, unpleasant place where sportwriters spend time

October 07, 1990|By Mark Hyman

The first thing to know about locker rooms is that most sports reporters do not enjoy spending half their lives lingering in them, though we often find ourselves doing precisely that.

In locker rooms, difficult, unpleasant and even potentially dangerous events can and do occur, if not every day, then more often than at the lumber yard or even the dentist's office.

Take me, for example. In 1984, when I was assigned to cover the Baltimore Orioles, Rick Dempsey sent word to the press lounge at Tiger Stadium that we should chat -- not, I surmised, about the start of President Reagan's second term. When we met in the clubhouse, he complained bitterly about an item I'd written and, without Coach Elrod Hendricks' quick intervention, might have slugged me.

Alan Wiggins, another Orioles player, never the easiest person to get along with, seemed particularly hostile toward reporters. Once, during an interview in the Orioles clubhouse in spring training, Mr. Wiggins referred to me and Richard Justice, then of The Sun, as "walking rectums." It is an interview I'll always remember.

Yes, life in the locker room is unpredictable and sometimes plain unfriendly. But for reporters who cover sports teams, it is still the best place to show up every day with a pad and a couple of pointed questions.

That, in a nutshell, is why Lisa Olson of the Boston Herald was back in the locker room of the New England Patriots a day after about a half-dozen players allegedly exposed themselves to her. It's also how she was able to return after team owner Victor Kiam, showing no more sense, referred to the incident as "a flyspeck in the ocean."

The Olson incident, ugly as it was, has shone a bright light on the issue of equal access for female reporters in sports locker rooms. It also has raised questions about why reporters of both genders insist that they be able to observe, absorb and report from the room in which athletes change their clothes.

First, a few words about locker rooms. They range from plush to Spartan. Some are cavernous while others barely have room in them for the players themselves. It's also important to define your terms. In every sport but one, the room in which the players dress, shower and shave is the locker room. In baseball, it's the clubhouse. If anyone ever knew why, they don't any more.

Reporters are permitted to roam at will through the main room of most locker rooms and clubhouses, which usually is the area where the players' lockers are located. The media generally are barred from certain other areas. In the Orioles' clubhouse, that includes the trainer's room, a lounge and the showers. When players do not want to answer reporters' questions, they often remain in one of those "off-limits" areas until the coast is clear. Sometimes they will wait hours.

Players aren't the only hazards encountered by writers. Locker rooms are smelly. Football locker rooms are hot and steamy, and represent especially tough duty for writers whose eyeglasses fog the moment the door opens. The sportswriters' most troublesome non-human foe is without question the ballpoint pen. If I had a dime for every time a fellow writer, groping for position at the quarterback's locker, missed his pad and scribbled on my lapel, I'd own Bic.

That said, reporters still protest loudly when attempts are made to bar them from locker rooms. Despite the inconveniences, locker rooms and clubhouses still are the best places to work, and there are more reasons than there are players to write about.

For one thing, reporters need time with the people they cover, and the only place to get it in quantity is the clubhouse. When the Orioles are in Baltimore, for instance, Manager Frank Robinson might arrive at Memorial Stadium by 3 p.m. for a 7:30 game. He changes into his uniform, fills out his lineup card, meets privately with players and, when time allows, chats with members of the media. Sometimes, it's worth waiting three hours to hear what Mr. Robinson, or any manager, will reveal in 30 seconds in the privacy of his office.

Next, there's competition. Try interviewing Cal Ripken Jr. in the Orioles dugout while 10 kids are screaming for his autograph, he's being glad-handed by a corporate executive and batting practice is scheduled to start in five minutes.

On the road is better, but not much. It's understood among players and writers that interviews should be conducted at the ballpark in all but extreme cases. Smile at a player on a charter flight or the bus ride to the ballpark, but it's best not to ask why he's hitting .212.

The importance of being free to "work" the locker room is as critical to female reporters as it is for men, and it is also why, today, more people probably know who covers the New England Patriots for the Boston Herald than know who plays quarterback for the Patriots.

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