A woman’s eye view of the men’s locker room

The Globe and Mail

Journalist Erika Weitzner interviews New York Yankees infielder Willie Randolph after a 1978 game against the Toronto Blue Jays. A court order had forced the team to open it clubhouse to women. (Ray Stubblebine/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

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.”

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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 [18], 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.

“But I don’t have to tell you, wanting to get in there, it’s not for fun.”

I covered sports for The Globe and Mail for nearly a decade, and am now its first female sports editor. The paper has been a pioneer in this regard, having given Christie Blatchford, at 23, a sports column in 1975. I can say from experience that Mr. Cherry is correct: There has been a macho culture in some dressing rooms, and it ranges from harmless to harassing.

In San Francisco for playoff football in 1998, I drove to San Jose on an off-day to talk to an executive with the National Hockey League Players’ Association. Later, I went to the dressing room of the Buffalo Sabres, in town for a game that night, to look for a feature story.

Visitors’ dressing rooms, especially in older venues, were often purposely cramped and poorly laid out, creating awkward angles and little comfort or privacy.

When the room opened, I headed in, met moments later by Sabres winger Rob Ray coming toward me from the shower room, towelling off as he walked.

When he saw me, he grabbed his genitals and began flapping them in my direction. Then he shouted, “Everyone! Bird in the room! Bird in the room! Watch out! There’s a BIRD in the room!”

He strutted around the corner to the stalls, a few teammates snickered. I froze in humiliation, and stepped back into the hall.

The Sabres media-relations official came running. Embarrassed and apologetic, deeply, deeply apologetic. Could he bring a player out to the hallway for me? Was I okay? I decided not to write on the Sabres that day and left.

When I told my sports editor, he asked if I wanted to file a complaint with the NHL.

I was horrified by Mr. Ray’s moronic, sexually aggressive behaviour. I felt singled out and humiliated. Recalling it still surfaces a slightly ill feeling. However, the thought of becoming the story was far more unsettling than the incident itself. It had been less than a decade earlier, in 1990, that Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson had been sexually harassed by players in the New England Patriots locker room who exposed themselves and made lewd comments. Her life became hellish.

The National Football League investigated and found that she had been degraded and humiliated, and she successfully sued the Patriots. But she was tormented by fans with death threats and obscene phone calls. Her tires were slashed and her apartment was burglarized. She tried to cover the Celtics and Bruins, but their fans also abused her, according to Tales from the Patriots Sideline, by fellow journalist Michael Felger. Finally, to help her get past it, the Herald sent her to Australia.

In five seasons of covering the NHL, Ms. Herman says, she had mostly good experiences, many that were “just stupid” – and one that still stings. An NHL team captain yelled at her in front of his teammates because of something she had written about him.

“He called me a nasty name, and no one stood up for me. Emotionally it was the worst. I told him that I could see he was angry and we should talk about it later when he’d calmed down. At the end of the season, this player apologized to me. I didn’t accept it. His comments revealed what he really thought of women. And I never went over to quote him again.”

Don Cherry thinks that women should not be in locker rooms for this reason – but we all choose what we can live with and how we want to handle it. This is our opportunity to talk with players and coaches. It’s where we build relationships with athletes we hope to interview away from the playing field, where we hope conversation leads to good stories.

Yes, athletes can be partly dressed and, rarely and briefly, not at all. They are fit people who are comfortable with their bodies. It’s their office, but a shared one when journalists are present.

No one just strolls about naked. Only the oldest stadiums and arenas lack plush players-only rooms where the changing of clothes occurs. No one interviews athletes in the shower. And since TV cameras began to far outnumber reporters with notepads, most everyone is generally covered by the time the room is opened.

Even so, the locker-room experience is awkward – but it is for male reporters too, especially those who aren’t jocks by nature.

I always felt like a wallflower. You spend a lot of time staring at your notepad because there’s not a lot else to look at. You’re waiting on people who aren’t particularly excited to talk with you. It’s a lot like being at a party where you don’t know anyone. Except in the locker room, a lot of the partygoers are pretty famous.

It’s probably no coincidence that the big stars – such as Wayne Gretzky, Tom Brady, Derek Jeter and Sidney Crosby, whose rookie season I covered for a series and subsequent book – are the most respectful and professional.

One afternoon, taking a shortcut to catch a visiting team’s practice, I accidentally walked in on a small group of athletes, long after practice and the dressing room had closed to reporters. They were in, er, full bloom, comparing the size of their equipment.

We were all embarrassed for a moment, and I quickly carried on. The next day, we shrugged it off and everything was normal. You know, for the dressing room.

I’ve been in scrums so large and crushing that, to hear the player, you have to get as close as possible. Then the television cameras shove you into a crouch. I had my shoulder wedged into Martin Brodeur’s knee and my other arm pinned by a cameraman, causing an inescapable and awkward view under the New Jersey Devils goaltender’s towel. We kind of chuckled at each other. I scribbled as best I could with no mobility. Everyone’s just doing their job.

Not everyone is as classy as the smart, thoughtful Mr. Brodeur. Some act like frat boys.

Waiting after practice in the Saskatchewan Roughriders locker room, two defensive players sitting in a corner thought it would be hilarious to fire a football at me from 20 feet away. It rocketed past, coming within a hair’s breadth of my head. They laughed manically and hit the showers.

It has not occurred to me for a long time that people – athletes or the likes of Don Cherry – still may feel that women sportswriters shouldn’t be allowed to do their job the same as men do.

I didn’t set out to be a sports journalist and definitely didn’t want to be in the spotlight, like Ms. Olson, or Melissa Ludtke, the former Sports Illustrated writer who sued Major League Baseball for locker-room access in 1978 after the Yankees shut her out during the World Series.

But I’m indebted to the fact they broke the gender barrier. Despite a few unpleasant incidents, I’ve always felt being a woman was an advantage in the locker room. I feel comfortable talking to athletes about things men don’t. I find it easier to get away from the game and closer to the person.

With so many serious issues facing sports – brain health, depression, doping – it’s unfortunate to be dragged back to debate something hard won long ago.

“When we were trying to get into the locker room, I had to make supreme court-worthy arguments about why I should be in there to do my job,” Ms. Herman says. “It was a huge challenge to the establishment.”

She recalls Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider barring her after a playoff game. “He was in the door, his arms crossed and his feet planted. He said, ‘Over my dead body are you going into my locker room.’ It was stunning and so stupid. He really looked ridiculous. I was being blocked from doing my job strictly on gender.

“But this is not an issue any more.”

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