My passion for sports reporting had nothing to do with swinging dicks.
Still, that was the popular assumption when a handful of women — including this one — broke into men’s locker rooms in the mid-’70s. We didn’t care about sports, they said. In their febrile minds, we were there to ogle jocks and cocks.
Having ended my career on the sports beat in 1982, at The Inquirer, I thought I was over my anger. But it all came flooding back last week as I watched Let Them Wear Towels, a new ESPN documentary about our country’s first generation of female sports journalists.
One by one, prominent sportswriters, most of them now retired from the game, recounted their horror stories. The majority of them had worked out of New York for big-name publications like the Times or Sports Illustrated. They all had covered pro teams.
Believe me, I felt their pain. During my years at The Buffalo Evening News, New Orleans States-Item (now Times-Picayune) and Inquirer, I endured open hostility from players, coaches and — most surprising — from my own colleagues.
In New Orleans, where I worked from 1975 to ’78, my editor, a good ’ol boy from Mississippi, maintained that women should not be allowed in men’s locker rooms. Then again, he wasn’t wild about Jews or lesbians, either. Not to mention Jewish lesbian sportswriters.
Once I made it to Philadelphia, a sophisticated Eastern metropolis, I assumed it would get easier. I assumed wrong.
When I walked into the Inky’s then-decrepit sports department, the first thing I noticed was the female pinups on the walls. A few days later, after everyone had left, I trashed the girlie pics. I thought about replacing them with Playgirl foldouts, but decided to take the high road. The boys got the message.
I was totally alone. Virtually none of the sports guys spoke to me, except columnists Bill Lyon and the late Frank Dolson, both gentleman of the old school. Because the sports department was a dank man cave that was physically isolated from the newsroom, I didn’t meet another female reporter or editor for a full six months.
Between the isolation and the anxiety, I was going mad.
College basketball was my favorite sport, but Big 5 locker rooms were a nightmare. As games wound down, I dreaded the confrontation I knew was coming. Inevitably, I would have to stand alone in the hallway, my deadline fast approaching, while my male competitors got all the juicy quotes in the locker room.
A sympathetic publicist would bring out a player or two, but only after the men had gotten their fill. Sometimes I was made to wait until after a player had showered and dressed to grab a feeble quote, then literally run to my typewriter and frantically file my story.
It was the worst part of the job, bar none. One season, legendary Villanova coach Rollie Massimino defiantly stood in front of the locker-room door, his arms folded across his squat body. That same season, I was informed that the parents of Temple’s team didn’t want me in the locker room.
It wasn’t until the Inky lawyer intervened that accommodations were made. The schools had two options — let me in, along with everyone else, and have the players wear a towel, if necessary; or keep everybody out and set up a neutral site for interviews. As I recall, most chose the latter.
My biggest test of will occurred during the 1982 Army-Navy game at the old Veterans Stadium. With Navy about to crush the Cadets, 24-7, the Navy publicist made his way through the 100-plus reporters in the press box — 99 of them men — to me.
Which players did I want to be brought out from the locker room?, he asked. I did not hesitate. “Either I go in,” I said, “or nobody goes in.”
Next thing I knew, there was an announcement over the p.a. system in the press box. Since it was against Navy rules to have women in the locker room, he said, and since there was a woman covering the game who insisted on doing so, no reporters would be allowed in.
Suddenly, 99 hateful stares lasered onto me. For many of these men, Army-Navy was the highlight of their year, and I was about to ruin it. Still, I had to stand my ground. If not for me, then for all the women who would follow. I swallowed hard and kept my head down as I boarded the press elevator for the bowels of the Vet.
Outside Navy’s locker room, it was pandemonium. Angry reporters packed the hallway, fighting to get within earshot of star players like running back Napoleon McCallum. I tried to avoid eye contact. It was a painful blur. I don’t remember how I wrote my game story, but I did.
It was a victory, but not one I would ever want to repeat. Soon afterwards, I transferred to features.