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SUPER BOWL XXXI: GREEN BAY PACKERS vs. NEW ENGLAND
PATRIOTS | MIKE DOWNEY

This Really Happened in the Enlightened '90s

January 26, 1997|MIKE DOWNEY

I have no use for the New England Patriots. They did something terrible, to someone I know. Yet I suppose today, Super Bowl Sunday, is a good day to get on with life, as my friend, Lisa Olson, has.

She is in New Orleans, to report on today's game. She now works for newspapers in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, because after what happened to her in 1990, Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul, her Boston boss, offered to move Olson to any of his organizations around the world. Her reply was: "Which one's the farthest away?"

With no support from the Patriots to speak of, Olson experienced confrontation and ridicule. The FBI investigated her death threats. She was punched in the face. A phone caller threatened to "shove a screwdriver up your crotch." Larry Flynt, that lovable pornographer and First Amendment crusader now appearing at a theater near you, ran a cartoon of Olson being gang-raped by a football team.

All because she went into a locker room.

At a player's invitation.

That is what made this woman a target for lewd remarks in a banquet hall by Victor Kiam, the electric-razor peddler with stubble for brains who then owned the Patriots. It is what led to NBC-TV's "Saturday Night Live," in an Oct. 20, 1990, show hosted by New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, holding her up to more public scorn in a sketch.

She was no Tonya Harding or O.J. Simpson or Mike Tyson who had been accused of a brutal crime. This was a woman who had experienced verbal, physical and sexual abuse in the workplace, as could happen to anyone's mother, anyone's daughter, anyone's sister, in any line of work. But who had to expatriate to Australia, to get as far away as possible? Her.

"Patriots." There's a laugh.

I thought about this years ago, when the Boston Globe printed an article (that I saved) on Olson that delved into her 1987 Internal Revenue Service forms, her student loans, every detail of her lawsuit deposition, including a point at which she "seemed so tense that lawyers say she rubbed her forehead until it dripped blood."

Intensely private information was made public, all because some football players came at her in the Patriot locker room, while Olson was interviewing a player.

"Football is a brutal game," Olson wrote in a recent recollection of the 1990 turmoil, "but it also can be therapeutic, healing a city's wounds and bringing people together. Because of the New England Patriots, my life changed, hopefully for the better. Boston hasn't had a winner in a long time, and I'd be happy to see it get one. I think the Patriots have paid their dues. I know I have paid mine."

Her story, commissioned by the Chicago Sun-Times, marks the first time Olson has written about the incident since shortly after it happened, when she addressed it for the Boston Herald, her employer at the time.

I remember vividly how, in the beginning, Olson made attempts to explain what had happened, by agreeing to go on TV interview programs. For this effort, she gained a greater public profile, leading to more unwanted attention and humiliations, not the least of which was a woman sportswriter from another publication writing, "I wish she'd shut up." It is always a pleasure to have supportive colleagues.

Quick recounting:

At a weekday practice--not after a game, as many incorrectly believe to this day--Olson's assignment was to interview a Patriot defensive back who had played well on the previous Sunday. Olson asked the player to meet her elsewhere. He said no, let's go into the locker room; he needed to ice his knee.

It was no big deal, because, like anyone in her profession, Olson had been in there many times. Just as women doctors treat bleeding, undressed men. Just as women cops encounter bleeding, undressed men. And they tolerate crude remarks. And they go about their business. They are not 12 years old. They are over 21. They can have babies and they can handle men who act like babies.

Ordinarily.

But these players--five of whom the NFL fined for their behavior--approached, exposed themselves and aggressively confronted Olson, who left the room. Olson told her boss but asked him not to go public. He went to the Patriots, seeking an apology. Four days later, he and Olson were still waiting.

The next thing Olson knew, another paper wrote about it, the world picked up on it and she was the one explaining herself. Fans in the stands passed blow-up "Lisa dolls" like beach balls. Beer was poured on her at Boston Garden. Her car's tires were slashed. A guy at Chicago Stadium sucker-punched her. Someone broke into her home to spray-paint "LEAVE BOSTON OR DIE" on her walls.

She left.

"When Bob Kraft bought the team a few years ago, he wrote me a letter to say that what happened to me never would have happened if he had been the owner," Olson reports, as the Patriots set out to win a Super Bowl for the first time. "I believe him."

A new owner, general manager and coach run the Patriots now. Most of the players involved in 1990 are out of the NFL.

Olson has spent five years in Australia. She expected to go for four or five weeks, until things cooled off. She is looking to move back. Lisa Olson is a columnist in Sydney, and a damn good one. I would hire her in a minute. None of the men I know who hire people seem to be in any hurry. Funny, none of the women, either.

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