October 19, 1990|By David B. Wilson | David B. Wilson,Boston Globe

BOSTON RTC — TRY TO FORGIVE one more piece and some personal reflections in the matter of Lisa Olson, the Boston Herald sportswriter whose embarrassment in the Patriots' locker room has generated so provocative and durable a publicity stunt.

I was not motivated or otherwise good enough to play college football, but high school football was a definitive experience.

To understand the locker room, even in high school, you must understand that football is not merely or even primarily a game. It is ritualized warfare. People who play it expect to get hurt, just as soldiers expect to get wounded. It is a test of courage. Men and boys play not only hurt but scared.

At the professional level, it is also a big-money business, a highly paid performing art. Locker-room coverage serves the players' interest by conferring recognition.

Locker-room coverage is also corporate publicity, a means of causing the fans to feel a sense of familiarity, however spurious, with the team. If the familiarity is synthetic, the feeling is not, and the feeling may help sell tickets, beer, tires, batteries, etc.

That having been said, it should be added that a football locker room is also a club, and, until women begin playing tackle football, a men's club. Journalists therein are guests.

In high school, I remember that our plunging fullback had a superstition about his athletic supporter. He believed, or professed to believe, that he would be invincible so long as the jockstrap (a word then unmentionable in polite company) did not get laundered from first practice in August to November's last game. This loathsome garment became a sort of talisman for the team. The general neighborhood of the fullback's locker was fragrant with the odor, we believed, of victorious sanctity.

Then there was ''hot stuff'' -- the oil of wintergreen liniment that was then rubbed on bruises and sprains. Somebody discovered that, rubbed upon a player's private parts, ''hot stuff'' inflicted an excruciating, burning sensation. Efforts to wash it off only intensified the pain. Many an unwary lineman, bending over in the shower, got smeared, an event certain to spoil his evening and perhaps even his love life.

The lockers were made of steel sheeting. To smash one's fist against one was a proof of something or other. The idea was to produce dents with the knuckles. To score four was prodigious.

And there was a lot of kidding about picking up the soap in the shower, homophobic, I suppose. Later, in the Army, there was the ''GI bath'' -- a sadistic, vigilante means of enforcing personal hygiene with government scrub brushes and naphtha soap which left the bather stinging and tingling for about a week.

The notion that a female person ever, ever would be welcome in such a setting would have been inconceivable in the early 1940s. Should such a person enter, she would have been presumed to be seeking sexual congress -- and might well have found it.

Now the world changes, and manners and morals change, and perhaps for the better. If women are to be sportswriters -- and some are very good -- they cannot be deprived of coverage opportunities generally available to male writers.

At the same time, it is hard to see where women writers who, like their male counterparts, are guests of the team in the locker room, derive the authority to prescribe the manners and morals of the players.

Football players, in particular after a losing game, are characteristically in a state of emotional turmoil. They are not ordinarily preachers or journalists, psychologists or saints. They are not obliged to be polite to reporters, whatever the reporters' genders, or to accommodate an individual reporter's femininity. The reporter should not expect in 1990 to impose Victorian standards of gentility upon players on their own turf.

But, why, then, pick on Ms. Olson? Why subject her to assaultive crudities? Because, otherwise, she is a threat, a threat to personal male liberty, to whatever is left of manhood, manliness, masculinity -- words which now sound old-fashioned, words implying certain possibly obsolete qualities of character, words defining a rejected culture offensive to a new generation of sexually indifferent absolutists to whom a spurious egalitarianism amounts to a moral code.

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