Hold-Your- Breath Journalism


October 26, 1990|By Ernest B. Furgurson TTC

WASHINGTON. — "I COULD CARE LESS about playoff stats. They don't mean a darn thing. Nothing. Everybody blows them out of proportion. Everybody is saying the big guys can't hit. This is one game, man. Just one game.''

Thus spake Mark McGwire after the Cincinnati Reds skunked Oakland in the first game of the World Series. His words were recorded at the same fount of profundity that gave us ''It ain't over till it's over'' and ''Duh -- those guys really came to play'' and ''It was right down the middle. Minute he hit it, I knew it was gone.''

That well of wisdom, source of the emptiest cliches in the history of the King's English, is the locker room. In the opening days of this pro football season, the loutish conduct of a few undressed athletes turned that sanctum into the latest arena of the war for women's rights.

As in so many other battles over evolving folkways, some contestants in this one would rather fight on than admit that the old way was best.

The clash began when a woman sportswriter in Boston, conducting a post-game locker-room interview, was harassed visually and verbally by one or more players for the New England Patriots. This ignited a national debate on whether women belong in men's locker rooms.

Within a few days, Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche was fined for refusing to allow a woman reporter into his team's locker room. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers' manager opposed admitting a radio newswoman to his locker room -- but whatever his motive, he hit upon the sensible solution: He simply shut out all reporters, and set up post-game interviews in a room next door.

That this uproar could occupy so much space in the paper and on the air seems silly. But it's a lower-case democratic debate; any bar-fly can join in, without fiscal, foreign-policy or even sporting expertise.

While the Patriots' gross behavior caused the immediate fuss, the roots of it run back to the infancy of television. After fans could see a game at home, see instant replays from every angle, reporters felt that to compete with live television they had to go beyond straight description and comment.

Red Smith, the greatest sportswriter of them all, would not have been caught dead hanging around a smelly locker room begging gems of wisdom from overpaid, semi-literate boors. His work was lyrical, far above all that. Grantland Rice's was Wagnerian. Rice didn't need the fumes of liniment and moldy sweat sox for inspiration when he wrote of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. A few deep whiffs of Johnny Walker Black, maybe, but that's another matter.

The glory days of those noblemen were before TV, the days when Graham McNamee, Bill Stern and Dutch Reagan rattled off play-by- play on the radio, then print sportswriters turned the game into a contest of gladiators.

Sports columnists survive today, but readers don't rush to the newsstands to see the game through their favorite writer's eyes the way they once did. A column is by definition a linear exercise, which means fans must use both eyes and brains to take it in. That's a lot to ask of today's sports buffs, who crave fast-cutting visuals with sound bites to match.

Thus the invasion of the locker room, at first by male sportswriters. Then female reporters moved onto beats they never covered before. To compete with their male rivals they had to have access to the locker room, too.

That's fair enough -- and obviously, to be fair, male writers should have the right to women's locker rooms as well. But that is a tender subject, and for some people, women in men's locker rooms is just as ticklish.

For those reasons, but most of all because the end product of locker-room reporting is so inane, the sports world should do what manager Cal Murphy did in Winnipeg.

That means keeping all reporters out of the locker room, and setting up an interview room nearby. Not surprisingly, the NFL Players Association wants reporters out. As its chairman, Gene Upshaw, says, players shouldn't have to be interviewed unless fully clothed. No doubt the rest of his thinking is that they shouldn't have to be interviewed at all.

The only way to make a locker-room ban reasonable for all parties is for the league to require players to pass through that interview room on their way out.

Some writers argue that even if the players pass through, they may not stop. The dedicated scoop artist defends the locker-room approach, because there he has the athlete effectively trapped; a player can't get away when all he's wearing is shower shoes.

But hook that go-getting reporter up to a lie detector and ask where he'd rather be -- groveling there in the sweaty catacombs, or up in the free air of the press box, with the ghost of Red Smith at his elbow.

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