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What Women Want: Equal Access for Interviews, Not Bad Jokes : Locker rooms: Professional parity, not gender, not nudity, is the issue for female sportswriters at work in the clubhouse of the 1990s.

October 14, 1990|Melissa Ludtke | Melissa Ludtke is a Time Magazine correspondent in Boston

"The vote wasn't unanimous," Tommy John told me on the day the 1977 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers began, "but on the Dodgers we do what a majority of the players decides to do."

In this case, a majority of Dodgers voted to grant me access to their locker room so I could interview them alongside my male sportswriting colleagues. But I never went into their locker room during the World Series. Midway through the opening game, then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn overruled the Dodgers. Baseball, Kuhn's men said, was not ready to allow women reporters into locker rooms even if the sport's more enlightened citizenry, in this case the players, approved.

My yellow press pass for the World Series said in bold letters that I could be admitted. Those words were meaningless as long as any woman reporter wore them. The fact that professional basketball and hockey leagues had voluntarily opened their teams' locker-room doors several years earlier didn't matter to Kuhn. Nor did pleas that this case was one of equal rights. Baseball was ready and willing to take a constitutional stand against equality for women reporters at the locker-room door.

After several months of unproductive discussions with Kuhn and his representatives, my employer, Sports Illustrated, determined that it would have to go to court. The magazine's own staff was bursting with young, competent female reporters who trusted they would have an equal chance to excel in their chosen profession. Similarly at newspapers and television stations, women were hired to cover sports.

Without equal access to players, women clearly could not match their male colleagues in day-to-day coverage. Nor could I, a magazine reporter, contribute the background information essential to making our weekly coverage comprehensive. Ability wasn't the issue. Without a chance to talk with sources, even the most able reporter can't do a good job. For gender to be a primary factor in determining success in securing sources was discriminatory and illegal. And unnecessary. Players in other sports were proving that. Those who wanted to undress wore bathrobes or draped themselves in towels to protect their privacy during the short time that reporters--men and women--were in the locker room.

In December, 1977, Sports Illustrated filed a lawsuit in federal court; I was a named plaintiff. The suit asked for equal access for women to interview players. Neither our argument nor the judge's ruling specified that interviews must take place in locker rooms. There was only one stipulation: If baseball deemed that alternative arrangements were necessary to protect the players' privacy, then access had to be the same for men and women reporters. Since then, nearly all professional teams have eschewed alternative strategies and decided to grant unlimited locker-room access. The system generally has worked quite well.

What has never worked as well is the public debate surrounding this issue. During the 1970s, stories--and headlines--veered toward the supposedly titillating aspects of the case. Legal principles and talk of equal rights all but vanished beneath a barrage of snide commentaries and giggly remarks about ladies intruding on this last male bastion. Often portrayed as women (or called in headlines "girls," as in "No Girls Allowed?") who only wanted to gaze at naked men, the issue departed starkly from the central question of fairness.

Red Smith, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, accused me of striking a "note of low comedy" by filing this lawsuit, labeling me Sports Illustrated's Joan of Arc. Papers carried Smith's syndicated column under the banner "A Laughing Matter." Another headline proclaimed: "Woman reporter sues to see Reggie in the buff." "She Pitches for Covering Where Everything's Bare" and "Babes in Boyland" headlined other stories.

Today, some of the public still doesn't understand. But there is a big difference: Equal access for women is no longer viewed as a debatable point. Not gender, but professional access, is the issue.

Why? Twelve years ago the legal battle about equal access was resolved by a judge. Now there are more than 500 women covering sports (in my day there were fewer than 30), and they have formed their own professional association. Hundreds of women have done thousands of interviews in locker rooms, as have male writers in female locker rooms, such as at the NCAA basketball tournament. The public hasn't been hearing about this once-so-inflammatory issue because the system usually works well.

Only when a part of the system breaks down does the topic of women in locker rooms surface, as recently occurred. One breakdown involved a few New England Patriots' players who humiliated and harassed a woman reporter by displaying their genitals and mouthing lewd remarks. A few days later Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche denied equal access to players to a woman reporter in defiance of league rules.

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