When people find out I’m a sports journalist, the first question they ask is, “What’s it like in the locker room? Have you ever seen any famous athletes naked?”
Well, yes, I have. It’s awkward, and no big deal.
It’s no big deal, but “there’s no getting around how weird it is,” says Robin Herman, the first female sports reporter for The New York Times. “I look back at pictures of myself interviewing some guy who’s not fully clothed, the towel hanging around his waist and I kind of have to laugh.”
Ms. Herman has a lot to do with how I got this far in my career. She was just 23 and covering the National Hockey League when she broke the locker-room gender barrier in 1975.
I called her this week to find out how she felt about CBC hockey commentator Don Cherry’s latest boast. That he was the first NHL coach to allow a female sportswriter in his dressing room. That he was wrong and had changed his mind and that women who cover sports should not be in the locker rooms of professional teams, where they have gone after games and practices to interview players and coaches, with some troubling exceptions, for nearly 40 years.
“I have seen things and I have heard of things that go on in the dressing room, when the women are in there, [that] are disgusting,” he said Wednesday on Hockey Night in Canada. “If [players] are going to act the way they act, … you would not want your daughter or sister in there. Believe me.”
This, on the heels of comments he made a few days earlier after Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith was criticized for putting down a female radio reporter who questioned him about a penalty that went uncalled. He apologized, yet Mr. Cherry said female sportswriters should not be in the locker room, feelings he reiterated during a high-profile playoff broadcast. Now he needs to put a sock in it.
Ms. Herman first got into the dressing room at the 1975 NHL All-Star Game. A male reporter asked coaches Bep Guidolin and Fred Shero as a joke if they would let women in the room.
“They looked at each other, shrugged and said, ‘Sure,’ ” recalls Ms. Herman, now a writer and artist living in Boston. “They didn’t have responsibility for the team or league policy, but it was exceptional in every way.”
She quickly became the story.
“The winning team’s room was jammed with reporters. I was wearing a navy cardigan and navy pants – I thought, ‘Who would notice me?’ I made it a few steps in and heard a commotion. Someone yelled: ‘There’s a girl in the locker room!’ All the cameras turned to me. The radio guys rushed over and stuck their microphones in my face. They asked what I was doing here, what was I trying to say by being here. I don’t blame them. A girl in the locker room was a much better story than a boring all-star game.”
On her next trip to Boston, Ms. Herman asked Bruins public relations official Nate Greenberg for access. He persuaded Mr. Cherry, then the team’s coach, and general manager Harry Sinden that it was the right thing to do.
“If you think about the circumstances, we all knew one another,” she says. “There weren’t many teams , not that many reporters. So, when Don Cherry allowed accredited female hockey writers into the dressing room, he was essentially saying, ‘Robin can go in.’ I was the only woman.”
She challenges Mr. Cherry’s most recent comments.
“He’s got it backwards. If he’s seen and heard disgusting things, did he stop those things, did he report those players to the team or the league? The answer to oafish behaviour by young men is not to keep woman away from them. He is saying the very fact we are female provokes disgusting behaviour from men. What does that say about the players? They should be angry about that.”
Ms. Herman doesn’t recall Mr. Cherry’s team behaving badly. “If there were things, they didn’t rise to the level I remember them. Getting in there, to get my interviews quickly, was just a relief.