When Lisa Olson, a sportswriter for a Boston paper, was harassed and insulted by an athlete in a locker room and then by a group of athletes, the republic was stunned, then outraged. Heads rolled. Players and owners were fined. The league dispatched a Harvard lawyer to go over the testimony and affix blame.
One group of citizens couldn't believe their good luck--or their eyes and ears. They were gratified--but not surprised.
You see, only the sex has been changed. Harassment of journalists in the locker room is as old as the bunt and the hanging curve. It just never got to the Supreme Court before. To my knowledge, the league never called in a Harvard professor to look into any one of the few hundred thousand instances where a muscular athlete shouted at a stoop-shouldered guy with a pencil: "Get outta here, ya four-eyed geek before I stuff you in a toilet!"
Any sportswriter worth his expense account has been shoved out of a locker room or cursed at by a professional ballplayer. It goes with the territory.
The relationship is adversary. Not always. There will always be a Stan Musial, a Magic Johnson or even a Steve Garvey or an Orel Hershiser to make your work easier, even enjoyable.
The incongruity is, the reporters are regarded often as intruders. It never seems to dawn on the athlete that there is a one-to-one relationship between the fact he is getting $2 million to $3 million a year and the fact there is a press corps on hand every night to do a major story on his comings and goings. There are a hundred basketball games played in a given area every night. But only one of them has Magic Johnson. You go to see Magic Johnson play for the same reason you go to see Meryl Streep act. You have been conditioned to it by reams of free publicity any other industry would kill for.
Baseball owes almost as much to Ring Lardner as it does to Babe Ruth. Football owes almost as much to Grantland Rice as it does to the Notre Dame backfield he immortalized. Boxing is as in debt to Damon Runyon as it is to Jack Dempsey.
This has never been clear to most athletes. And this was never more tellingly illustrated than by a new book in the stalls written by a colleague, Gene Wojciechowski. Gene, who has worked for several papers in his press box career and who has seen the problem from both the high- and low-circulation standpoint, calls his book, "Pond Scum and Vultures," in honor of some of the choicer epithets the representatives of the Fourth Estate have been called in the better locker rooms.
You can almost always tell beat writers--journalists assigned permanently to one team in one sport--in the locker room. They are the ones with the resigned, faintly martyred look of people who know they have been assigned to a lions' den. It's their job to walk the fine line between truth and amity, to tell the story of the cleanup hitter in such a way that the public will be informed and their own delicate relations with ye olde slugger won't be damaged--and neither will their delicate features.
It was a beat writer who listened sympathetically to the tale of the visiting writer, Steve Fainaru, who had just been royally chewed out by a Boston outfielder, Jim Rice, and Fainaru decided he was fed up and wasn't going to take it any more and would tell Rice as soon as he got out of the shower. The Boston writer admiringly fingered Fainaru's stylish, tapered shirt. "I really liked that shirt," he sighed. Fainaru shortly found out what he was talking about. When he confronted Rice, the Boston outfielder grabbed his shirt-front and tore it off his back, screaming curses. Fainaru threw the remnants of the shirt at Rice--and it took the entire infield and outfield of the Red Sox to prevent a homicide.
Unfortunately, as Wojciechowski points out in his book, this is more typical of the player-writer relationship than any of those congratulatory postgame interviews you see on television. For one thing, the regular reporter has to go down and find out why a game was lost. A guy who just took a called third strike with the game--or the Series--on the line is not apt to make your textbook Q-and-A subject. It has been likened to trying to take a pork chop away from a hungry lion.
They don't teach you in journalism schools what to do when, as happened to Cincinnati writer Jay Mariotti, a horde of husky ballplayers leg-wrestle you to the floor and begin dumping the postgame meal on you and one of them washes it down with a suspicious solution he had procured from the shower room. The league didn't hire any Harvard legal lights to look into that violation of civil rights. Nor did they take action when a band of Minnesota Vikings slapped writer Dan Barreiro to the floor and began to wrap him in bandages like a mummy.