Monday, August 05, 2013

In the locker room

ESPN recently aired a documentary on women in sports journalism called "Let Them Wear Towels." It was very well done, as the filmmakers spoke to most of the women who fought the battles to do their jobs in the 1970s.

The reporters involved certainly were tougher than their male counterparts, which includes me, since they had go through many more hoops just to get a story. The film made me think of my own experiences as something of a bystander to the story.

Let's state the obvious first. Interviewing someone who isn't wearing any clothes is an odd experience under any circumstances. When the President of the United States is done with the State of the Union, does he go to a locker room and tell reporters while he's undressing how he thought the speech went? Thankfully, no. But, traditionally it was part of the job and everyone learned to accept it.

That could lead to the odd bizarre moment. I remember covering a Canisius basketball game at the Koessler Center with a male newspaper reporter who was on a tight deadline. He needed quotes in a hurry, and I didn't want to make the Canisius player repeat his answers. So we talked to him at the entry to the shower as he was toweling off. I'm surprised I didn't have "Could you pass the talcum powder?" in the middle of a radio sound bite about the Griffins' zone defense.

My former radio news director once told a story about how he had to fill in on Bills coverage one time at then-Rich Stadium. The game was over, and he was in the Bills locker room collecting audio tape. He told me how he had looked over in the room, and saw me talking to Fred Smerlas, the Bills' defensive tackle. We were carrying on a normal conversation, except for the fact that Smerlas was naked. To his outsider's viewpoint, this was bizarre journalism. To me, it was another day at the office.

Women were rather scarce during the time I covered Bills' games. Most of them were put lower on the totem pole when it came to assignments as they were new and had to work their way up the ladder. That meant hockey led the way. I don't recall that there were major fights over press box access by the time I was a regular at Sabre games.

That battle was an easy one; credentials were merely written. But certain teams were tougher than others when it came to locker room access back then. I remember some issues coming up in that area, and about all I could do is be supportive to the journalists involved. At some point, the Sabres used to have a public relations person come into the locker room to announce that a woman was in the night's press corps, so that they would have the option to dress appropriately or go into another room entirely to avoid potential embarrassment. Of course, the women didn't have that option.

By the time I was in public relations with the Sabres from 1986 to 1992, I don't recall any major problems since it was league policy to accept female reporters. I remember Lisa Olson, involved in a celebrated incident involving the Patriots, coming to Buffalo to cover a hockey game while her status was being sorted out. I made sure to try to make her feel welcome, figuring she'd gone through enough stuff on that job.

One local women's reporter in the Nineties, when I asked if others wanted to know if she saw the Sabres naked in her job, quickly answered, "All the time." But even the cramped Aud locker room added a small changing room along the way which helped the situation; the visiting room didn't have that luxury.

When the Sabres moved to their new arena a block away, it was a little easier for the players to gain privacy. The First Niagara Center, as it is now called, is filled with off-limits spots and hiding places. Come to think of it, after a tough loss sometimes the media members of both sexes would file into the locker room and see ... no one. I haven't covered a Bills or Sabres game for years, but I would guess players have the opportunity to dress without prying eyes of all types staring at them.

There's one other issue involved here. It's a lot easier than it used to be to get "candid" photos in a lockeer room. About fifteen years ago, we just had to make sure television and still camera were only turned on and used in interview situations. Now, everyone has a cell phone with a camera, and the potential for mischief on the Internet is ever present.

I now have been covering the Bandits for five years, and there finally is true parity there. No one, male or female, is admitted into the locker room. It's a small area, and it's fair to say that it would be difficult for anyone to move around if six people were trying to talk to the same person at one time. Therefore, players are brought to a separate room, one at a time, and interviewed by the whole group collectively.

The thought has struck me that the policy does hurt the quality of my stories a little. Every interview is put up on the Internet shortly after it is recorded. It's a little tough to get quotes that no one else has under those circumstances. I do miss the chance to bounce from interview to interview in search of the best quotes, and maybe catch someone alone who can provide original insight.

But, to be fair, the system does provide equal opportunity, something that the women journalists of the past often didn't have. Men don't go into the locker rooms in women's tennis or golf, and stories still get written or produced. It seems as if all of the major sports are headed toward that approach. We may need time to get used to it, but the end result - equal access - strikes me as being worth the effort.

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