A barrier-breaking generation gives context to contemporary female life.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Breaking the Locker Room Barrier

(reposting this from a 2004 blog entry)
I didn’t set out to be a sportswriter. I didn’t set out to “break the locker room barrier.” I was pre-med in college. I was supposed to be a doctor. In my college application essay I said I wanted to alleviate the world population problem.

Here’s what happened instead:

“Dear Miss Herman – It’s hard to address a harlot disguised as a reporter, but I just want to warn you that you cannot do such a thing with impunity. It’s wrong, no matter how many women libbers might dumbly applaud.

“If there had been any real, real men in that locker room you would have been kicked out on your prostitutional ass. May that happen, if there is anything to wake you up to your horrendously bad example. Surely you shall regret this, and regret it bitterly.”

It was an anonymous letter with a Georgia postmark that arrived in the tide of letters to my desk at The New York Times following “the Montreal locker room incident” of Jan. 21, 1975. That night, following the National Hockey League’s All-Star game, I had joined the other sports reporters at the door to the winning team’s locker room, and, like everyone else, I had walked in.

At first, I thought no one would notice me (really) in the crush of reporters eager for a quick post-game quote to round out their stories. I was wearing dark slacks and a dark sweater; I didn’t stand out, I thought…..but there was a rumble and then a kind of shriek and shout. What they saw apparently astonished them: a girl in the locker room!

There were TV lights and photographers and reporters with microphones crushing in on me – and on Marcel St. Cyr, a female reporter for CKLM radio in Montreal who had walked in right behind me — but I quickly lost sight of her. I tried to continue my interview with one of the hockey players…he was wearing a towel around his waist, and he held another towel to his curly hair, still wet from the showers, but I could hardly hear his words for the din and for the rush of my own blood in my head. “Why are you here?” the male reporters asked. “What are you doing?”

I tried to push them away. I’m not the news; “I’M JUST DOING MY JOB,” I kept saying, to no avail, for I was, that night, big news indeed.

Why was I there? A much longer story (see “Rugby and Equity” under category Sports) Why was I there that night…a shorter story.

I was but 23 years old. As the regular beat reporter covering professional hockey for The New York Times, it was my job to write up games about the New York Rangers and New York Islanders. And get the stories done in time to make the morning newspaper’s severe deadline of 11 p.m. The games were typically finished at 10:25 p.m.

Robin and Bruins' Terry O'Reilly
It was a literal sprint down to the locker room level to get a post-game quote from the players, something every game story would have the next day, and then back up to the press room to churn out the article. I DIDN’T HAVE TIME TO WASTE. Being barred from the players’ locker room, forced to wait at the door for a player to come out, was wasting time I simply didn’t have—and I personally found it mortifying. I had been lobbying the NHL to allow me into its clubs’ locker rooms as a matter of equity and professionalism— at the time I was the only female member of the National Hockey Writers Association.

But the answer, in cool patrician language from Clarence Campbell, the president of the league, had always been ‘no’. And from certain club presidents and general managers it had been less polite and more like ‘hell no’.

Then came the All-Star game. Change was in the air in all parts of society, and the locker room issue, as absurd a privilege as it seems, was assuming symbolic proportions.

I didn’t ask for the big event to happen that night. The invitation came entirely unsolicited. At a press conference the day before the game, a waggish reporter from Boston, without my prompting or foreknowledge, asked the two All-Star team coaches if they would admit accredited female reporters into the locker room after the game as they routinely did the male reporters.

The two coaches looked briefly at one another, one of them raised an eyebrow, and then they both firmly said yes. And so the other reporters prepared for a great story, and Marcel, and I were left to decide whether we would take up the offer.

The reason the coaches were able to say yes so easily, I realized in retrospect, was because the teams they would be coaching that next night were not really theirs. These were All-Star teams, an artificial construct for whom no one in particular was responsible. The coaches could go home to their own pro teams after the game, and no custom would change. The locker room entry could be viewed as a one-night stand.

When I saw the locker room invitation printed unequivocally and under provocative headlines in the French papers the next day—turning a longtime request to the league into a dare--I knew a time to act had presented itself.

The All-Star game, though contested by hockey’s icons, was a boring, half-heartedly played 7-1 match. As Marcel and I walked down to the locker rooms, along the boards and toward the ramp, a photographer jumped in front of us and begged us to stop for a quick photo. I began then to get a queasy feeling that something more than just a set of ordinary player interviews was going to occur.

As I walked into the damp locker room jammed with reporters, and the perspiring, semi-clothed players on benches along the periphery, I still really thought no one would notice me in the milling crowd.

The next day’s papers argued otherwise. There were big headlines “Girl Reporters Get the Bare Facts” “Locker Room Barrier Broken” in newspapers across Canada and the United States. It didn’t matter if the city even had a hockey team.

For weeks afterward, wherever I traveled on the road with the Rangers or Islanders, male sports reporters from newspapers and TV followed me around, asked questions about my job, argued in sports columns whether women had the right to be in the locker room. And I found myself forced to muster Supreme Court-worthy arguments for an inane, essentially logistical problem that could easily have been solved by a few big towels.

Eventually, over the course of a year, through sheer force of my persuasion and gathering momentum kicked off by the All-Star game, the other NHL teams, one by one, allowed me into their locker rooms. It turned out not to be the young players (all the same age as me) so much who’d been objecting to the times a changin’. It was usually an owner or general manager or coach from an older generation who simply couldn’t accept the idea of a woman in this historically, culturally and very literally and nakedly all-male territory. The reaction was instinctive and visceral. I remember one silver-haired coach apologizing over and over, insisting that he liked me, that he liked women. He couldn’t help but say no. I don’t think he even understood why himself.

It had much to do with sex roles and sexuality and power and all that— a big cliché, but one with undeniable force--- the closed locker room as a metaphor we were all living---but that barrier crumbled away, along with a lot else, in the face of the Woodstock generation’s free-thinking and righteous ways.

I was a sportswriter for a quick five years; I moved on when it became boring. How many times could I listen to players and coaches after the game say “Our guys gave a hundred and ten percent”  “We let them play their game, we didn’t play ours.”  “The ball didn’t bounce our way” “We play it one game at a time”….it got so I could write the quotes myself.

Those quotes…the ones that I pressed so hard to get into the locker room to write down. They weren’t the point after all, were they?

No comments: