The Locker Room, Once More

HIGH principle was not the only reason why the press blew up the recent flap over female reporters in the locker room. The papers got to play the sex angle as an important social issues. Sportswriters got to show their sensitivity, to wax indignant over injustice, the way their more prestigious colleagues on the national desk get to do. But a few voices excepted, the controversy has almost entirely missed the point. No, there's no excuse for players who harass a female reporter, as members of the New England Patriots football team allegedly did to Lisa Olson of the Boston Herald. (Especially when their bloated salaries depend on the daily press agentry performed by the sports press.)

And yes, female sportswriters should get equal treatment across the board. If male reporters get to hover over naked athletes with their notebooks, then, distasteful as it may seem, women should get to do it too.

The real question, though, is whether anyone should be hovering, male or female. There's a tendency to think that just because the men are doing something, progress requires that women be able to do it too. Yet sometimes the men are jerks. Progress means cutting the jerkhood and moving on to something better.

Would it really be such a grievous loss, if sportwriters had to wait, say, 20 minutes, before herding into locker rooms after practices and games? Sportwriters argue that they need to be there when the sweat of battle is still fresh.

But what they usually come up with is drivel of the ``We did our best out there today'' variety. Or else reporters bait an athlete into saying something he'll regret for weeks.

There's no law against drivel, of course. But it does take some of the urgency out of the reporters' stance. And though one can feel for beat writers on deadline, the real reasons sportswriters are so enamored of the locker room are somewhat more complex.

Status is part of it. Sportswriters generally do not rank high in the journalistic pecking order. They get condescension in the newsroom, and the local basketball beat writer doesn't cut much swath in society at large. Entrance to the locker room can be a form of compensation.

The news writers may get to interview the governor. But the Boston Celtics locker room is among the most privileged sanctums in New England, and only the sports writers get in. Big shot columnists come begging for a chance to use the press pass for a night.

Once in, they can partake of the sweaty macho air, go 10-on-one with celebrities like Michael Jordan or Larry Bird. Not to make too much of this, but locker-room reporting is kind of easy: Most other reporters have to pound the pavement and work the phones. Getting quotes in the locker room, by contrast, is a little like trawling in a hatchery. Many sportswriters work very, very hard, of course. The best tend to be ones who don't pad their stories with locker room quotes.

Then too, there's the whole question of privacy for athletes. Unlike most of us, they do their professional work in full public view; millions witness their every mistake. A few minutes to shower and compose themselves afterward doesn't seem too much of an indulgence. Would sports reporters consent to face a horde of second-guessing readers (``Why that crummy lead?'' ``Isn't that a tired angle?'') immediately after they file their stories?

That's not even to mention the touchy matter of privacy in relation to the opposite sex. To many, that's reason enough to close the doors. But the quality of sportswriting is also at stake. Sports are contests, not quote-fests, and the art of describing these is rapidly declining. The keepers of this reportorial flame, writers like Roger Angell of the New Yorker, glean their insights through extended interviews between games.

Sure, magazine writers have the luxury of time. But more of that kind of thoughtfulness and perspective wouldn't hurt the daily sports pages at all.

If the Lisa Olson incident prompts a move to close the locker room for a while, women won't just be on equal footing with men. They will have improved the state of sports reporting as well.

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