WALKING in on naked people didn't used to be so complicated. A person could just holler through the door, ``Are you decent?'' And if the answer was yes, there wasn't a problem. But decency doesn't count for as much as it used to. Sam Wyche can attest to that. Wyche is a decent man who last week tried to do what he considered to be the decent thing. Confronted by the issue of female reporters in the locker of the professional football team he coaches, the Cincinnati Bengals, Wyche asked his players if he ought to make some arrangements to accommodate the women outside the dressing area. They said yes, by all means.
And so when Denise Tom of USA Today attempted to enter the Bengals' clubhouse and interview Boomer Esiason after a Monday night game in Seattle, Wyche delivered his quarterback to her in a waiting area outside the locker-room door. The only problem was that this was in violation of the National Football League rule, which stipulates that locker rooms must be open to reporters.
Tom went public with her objection, and within days Wyche was vilified by feminist groups, flogged by the media, and fined more than $20,000 by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
That Tom and other female journalists have the right to pursue their craft on an equal playing field is not a matter of dispute. And yet, can we not cut through the steam and see another side of this? Fundamental human rights are not the sole province of those backed by the strongest pressure groups. According to mail he has received from 40 states, there is no shortage of Americans who believe in the right to be modest.
It was necessary, of course, that Wyche be fined for his disregard of the league rule. He was guilty also of bad timing, taking the players' side just a week after the ugly incident in the New England Patriots' locker room. He was not guilty, however, of being the offensive Neanderthal that his detractors would make him out to be. In fact, Wyche is an uncommonly sensitive coach.
He is also a Southern Baptist who grew up in a part of the country where, in some circles, boys and girls were forbidden to dance together. He was raised in South Carolina, not far from where a tiny female sportswriter named Mary Garber was plying her trade for the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Sentinel.
It was 1946 - when Wyche was a year old - that Garber was first assigned to cover a college football game at Duke University. ``When I tried to take my seat in the press box,'' Garber recalls, ``I was informed that women, children, and pets were not allowed in. I was turned away and put in the wives' box. ``But my managing editor wrote the athletic directors at the major colleges in North Carolina and informed them that if they turned me away, they were turning away the newspaper. We never had any trouble after that.''
It was a small but sufficient victory. Eventually, when the climate was right, she became known as the first woman sportswriter to enter a men's locker room. To Garber, the bottom line was that she was able to speak to the person she wanted to speak to. Standards have changed, however. Equal access is a cause for which society can shake its pompoms.
And so, Sam Wyche contemplated quitting a profession at which he has excelled. He was being crushed between colliding rights, with rules and modern pressures pushing from one side and his own sense of decency weighing in from the other.
In the end, the rules and pressures would prevail, and Wyche would have to compromise his sense of decency. It was an inevitable but somber passage, in a way, because the day used to be when things worked out if everybody just tried to be decent toward one another.