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Female reporters in male sports world

By Jenni Carlson, Special to CNN
  • Pioneering women broke the gender barrier in sports coverage, says Jenni Carlson
  • She says interviewing athletes in locker rooms is vital to the job
  • Much progress has been made but some reporters still face harassment, she says

Editor's note: Jenni Carlson is the chair of the board of the Association for Women in Sports Media and a sports columnist at The Oklahoman. In 1999, she became the first woman to write a general-interest sports column in the newspaper's history.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (CNN) -- Anytime anyone learns that I'm a sports columnist, one of two questions is sure to follow.

It's either "What's it like to be a female sports writer?" or "Do you go in the locker room?"

The first one is tricky to answer.

The second one is not: "Yes, and it stinks."

Locker rooms are smelly places. They are dank. They are damp. They are really not fun places to be inside.

But you know what? That's where the athletes and coaches who I need to interview are, and so, that's where I am going to be. The locker room has been the designated spot for postpractice and postgame interviews for at least a century. Going into one is never glamorous or fun, but it has to be done.

My job has taken me inside pro sports locker rooms off and on for the past dozen years or so. While the arrival of the NBA in Oklahoma City several years has increased the frequency with which I'm inside locker rooms, I still remember the first time that I went into a pro sports locker room.

Video: Reporter: I did nothing to provoke

My employer, The Oklahoman, sent me to Arlington, Texas, to cover a Rangers game. With Oklahoma City being only three hours away from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, we have lots of readers who are Rangers fans. They were in playoff contention, and they were hosting a weekend series with the Red Sox.

I had lots of stories to write and interviews to do, so I had to get there early for the open locker-room period before the game. As I took the elevator down from the press box to the field level, my mind was racing about all the players I needed to interview. But it was also spinning because I wasn't sure what to expect in the locker room.

It wasn't the first time I'd been in a locker room to do interviews, but it was the first time I'd been inside a pro locker room. Would it be any different? Would it be hostile? Would it be weird?

Would it be like "Animal House" except with millionaire athletes?

When the clubhouse attendant opened the doors signaling the start of the media availability, empty bottles of Cristal did not spill into the hallway. There were no signs of diamond-encrusted togas either. Instead, there were just a bunch of baseball players getting ready to play a game.

Some ended up being knuckleheads. They refused to talk, or they hung out in the training room so they didn't have to talk.

Others were great. I remember going to the Red Sox locker room to try to get a minute with Pedro Martinez. This was during the height of his popularity, so I figured there was no way I'd get any one-on-one time.

I was wrong. Martinez actually offered me the chair at his locker. I told him that it wasn't necessary, that I didn't mind standing or kneeling, but he wouldn't hear it. He sat on the ledge of his locker, I sat on the chair, and he talked to me for a good five minutes.

Whether a player was good to interview had nothing to do with my gender. I believe they treated me the same way they would've treated a male reporter who was in my shoes.

That's continued to be my experience in pro locker rooms. I've never felt threatened. I've never been harassed. Frankly, I suspect that's the experience of most female reporters who've been in pro locker rooms. Most of us have never found ourselves in a situation like the recent one involving members of the New York Jets. [The owner of the Jets apologized to a TV Azteca reporter following allegations that Jets personnel harassed her at practice this weekend, and she accepted.]

For that, we are grateful.

For that, I am grateful.

We have our foremothers to thank for much of the progress that has been made in the past three decades, women such as Lesley Visser, Lisa Olson, Melissa Ludtke, Christine Brennan and Michele Himmelberg. When the Association for Women in Sports Media was founded in 1987, the treatment of female reporters in locker rooms was a huge problem -- if they were even granted locker-room access.

Ludtke, then a Sports Illustrated reporter, was prohibited from entering the locker room at the 1977 World Series by Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, which prompted a lawsuit that led a U.S. federal judge to rule that reporters deserve equal locker-room access regardless of gender.

Himmelberg battled for equal access from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1979, then was harassed later that season by male reporters when the Minnesota Vikings banned all reporters from the locker room because of her.

And while doing interviews in the New England Patriots' locker room in 1980, Olson was surrounded by several players, who made aggressive, vulgar comments. The players were fined, the team's general manager was fired for trying to cover up the incident, and the resulting firestorm led to death threats.

Those women were simply trying to do their jobs. They fought for that right to a fair and equal work environment, and it's a fight that we must continue to fight.

We have come so far, yet we still have so far to go.

Women in sports media today may not face such extreme circumstances, but the harassment continues. There are demeaning comments. There are misogynistic jokes. Sometimes those words or actions may not even be directed to a specific female reporter, but they still create a hostile work environment.

One day, I hope all female sports reporters will no longer have to face that environment when they enter the locker room. I hope they can focus on the job that they're there to do. I hope the worse thing that they have to worry about is how much the place smells.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jenni Carlson.