Olson fiasco may inspire Tagliabue to take control

PRO FOOTBALL

October 07, 1990|By VITO STELLINO

The issue of women sportswriters in the locker rooms of the National Football League was debated last week by everyone from Phil Donahue to Sam Donaldson.

Within the NFL, though, there is a much larger issue: Who's going to run the league?

When Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche barred Denise Tom of USA Today from his locker room Monday night and announced he would close his locker room today to all reporters after 20 minutes, he was blatantly defying league policy.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who has had a reputation in his first year in office of not acting quickly or decisively, took a first step toward getting control of the league when he fined Wyche a game check -- a little less than $30,000 -- and informed him he can't close the locker room after 20 minutes today.

That's only a first step, though. Tagliabue has to make clear to the players -- and some coaches -- the importance of media relations to the league.

Even the league admits this has become a public-relations nightmare.

"What has happened has given us a real bad black eye," said Joe Browne, a league spokesman. "The good news is that anything that happens in the NFL is major news. But this is an embarrassment to this league and to the overwhelming majority of clubs."

The league, though, has nobody to blame but itself for this problem. It has allowed its media relations to deteriorate in recent years.

When Jim McMahon blew his nose on a male reporter in San Diego last year, it was treated as a joke. In San Francisco, when the locker room is opened during the week, Joe Montana and several other high-profile athletes usually are hiding and unavailable for interviews. Reporters finally asked if Montana could be made available one day during the week. Even that was denied. When reporters complained to the league, nothing was done about it.

The league created this atmosphere by letting the players think they can do whatever they want. It was just a matter of time before things got out of control, and in New England, they finally went over the edge and sexually harassed Lisa Olson, a Boston Herald sportswriter.

As for women in the locker room, that's not for debate. Equal access is the law.

As far as banning both sexes from the locker room and having an interview room, it's not feasible in many stadiums because they weren't designed with interview rooms.

Even if they are available, the real story is in the locker room. Even some players and coaches understand that.

"It's probably the best time to get the rush and feel the experience to help you guys write the story," said Darryl Grant of the Washington Redskins. "After people have calmed down, the effect is not the same. I understand it from that standpoint."

New York Jets coach Bruce Coslet, who worked for Wyche in Cincinnati, said: "The big point is you guys have to get your stories when emotions are hot, right after a game. That's the best time to get the stories, and I appreciate that."

Ultimately, though, the league isn't doing the reporters a favor by letting them into the locker room. It's in the league's best interests to have vivid stories about the games.

The real question now is whether the league can reverse the current trend and put more emphasis on media relations. It sends representatives to the clubs during training camp to talk about drugs and gambling. The league's image is just as important, but all it does is send the teams a 7 1/2 -minute video on the subject.

One problem is that it's harder to get through to the players these days. In Pittsburgh, the team is having enough trouble getting the players to accept Joe Walton's passing offense, much less be concerned about the media.

In taking action against Wyche on Friday -- even though it should have been done three days earlier -- Tagliabue showed interest in correcting the problem.

It remains to be seen if the league is now going to start taking the problem seriously or just wait for the next disaster to happen.

*

It was overshadowed by Wyche's banning of Tom, but one of the more heartwarming comeback stories of the year was played out in the Seattle Kingdome on Monday night.

The Seattle Seahawks' Derrick Fenner ran for 144 yards on 22 carries. He's the former North Carolina running back who spent 44 days in a Prince George's County jail on murder charges in 1987 that were later dropped, then pleaded guilty to a drug charge and was put on probation.

Fenner said he considered suicide when he was in jail, but then he'd think about getting out and playing football again.

"I kept telling myself, 'This is going to be a great story,' " he said.

Yes, it was a great story. For about 24 hours.

The night after his big game in the Kingdome, he was in trouble again. Fenner, whose probation doesn't run expire until February, was accused of hitting and kicking a man in a restaurant parking lot.

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