When men were barred from women’s locker rooms

Should women reporters be allowed access to men’s locker rooms? My opinion hasn’t changed since a personal brush with gender bias as a man in a woman’s locker room 30 years ago. Simply put, players have a right to privacy until they let even one reporter of either gender in the room.

When purposely sexy reporter Ines Sainz of Mexico’s TV Azteca got more attention than she (or we) wanted from the New York Jets in September, the righteous indignation over women in locker rooms felt dated and clichéd. For me, the position was clarified in the winter of 1979-80. Weeks after watching male reporters berate a female colleague outside the Minnesota Vikings’ locker room, I was the butt of gender bias myself while covering a woman’s basketball game.  I saw the issue from both sides first-hand, and it left an impression.

As assistant sports editor of the St. Cloud (Minn.) Times in 1979, part of my job was covering Vikings home games. During that season, I collaborated on stories for the Gannett News Service with Michele Himmelberg, a terrific journalist who was covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press. The paper threatened a lawsuit to gain her equal access to the team’s locker room that season. When she went on the road, other teams were forced to change long-standing policies. That included the Vikings.

The Bucs came to Minneapolis late in the season, and Michele’s presence rankled some long-time Viking beat writers. In a hallway after the game, words became heated, and one arrogant ex-jock radio reporter got in her face. She didn’t back down. Several of us stepped to her defense – then, and later in print.

After the excitement of Michele’s visit, I soon returned to the less glamorous chores of a mid-size paper. That included covering St. Cloud State University, which was hosting an exhibition with a team from the fledgling Women’s Professional Basketball League (WPBL). They were barnstorming the upper plains states, and I decided to attend.

To be honest, I was most interested in an appearance by the league’s poster-child, “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin, a Midwest legend from Iowa. First, Molly was drop-dead gorgeous and I was a young male reporter. Hello? Second, her stats were hard-to-believe gaudy:

  • Molly’s first game as a junior in high school in Iowa, she scored 63 points on her 16th birthday.
  • She averaged 50.4 points per game as a junior and 54.8 per game as a senior.
  • Molly scored over 70 points in a 32-minute game five times and set a single game scoring record of 83 points.
  • She was the first player signed to a contract in the WPBL, which was launched in 1978 but only survived for three seasons.
  • Molly was the WPBL’s co-most valuable player in 1980, averaged almost 25 ppg as a pro, and was a fierce competitor who had a knack of playing big in all-star and playoff games. (I couldn’t begin to do justice to all her achievements here.)

Most important, Molly was tireless in promoting women’s basketball, which brought her to St. Cloud and my world. I remember the game vividly. Though Molly was attractive, her skills quickly overshadowed everything and everyone else.

I’ve seen some great players live – Bird, Magic, Jordan, etc – but I’ve never seen a display of pure shooting like I saw that night. I don’t remember her stats, only that she absolutely dominated. She’d steal inbound passes, dribble through a crowd and then smoothly drain a shot from 20 feet. Actually, she hit from everywhere on the court and almost never missed. I came out a believer and was hugely looking forward to interviewing her.

After the game, I watched Molly chit-chat with fans and autograph programs. Then she moved toward the locker room with a group of reporters. As I hustled to catch up, I realized I was the only male in the group. They all went into the women’s locker room, the door closed, and Hilga The Locker Room Nazi assured me this was as far as I was going.

I decided to roll with it, figuring they’d come out soon. They didn’t. Almost an hour later they emerged in a group, laughing and hugging as they walked toward the bus. Not wanting to be completely shut out, I hustled my way up to Molly and got a couple of cookie-cutter quotes before she left. Obviously anything personal, unique, or in the emotion of the moment was said in the locker room. And I was the only one not allowed in.

Now I had seen it from both sides. I was indignant when a football team barred a competent and experienced female colleague. I also was indignant when I had to sit outside a Minnesota college gym on a winter night simply because of my gender. These days, I’m just indignant we’re still debating it.

I understand athletes sometimes need space after laying it all out in public competition. I hated talking with anybody right after a tough loss as a wrestler. And I get that the pressure increases with the stakes. In addition, common sense says privacy trumps access concerns in a bathing and dressing area every time.

However, once you allow a reporter of either gender in that area, you’ve now declared it a working interview room instead of a bathroom. Exclusion then becomes an access issue, not a privacy question.

It’s true whether you’re an insanely sexy Latina reporter covering a football team, or an incredibly handsome young newspaper reporter covering a basketball goddess.

New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

PS: I crossed paths with Michele again a few years later at The Sacramento Bee, which filed a lawsuit to win her equal access to the 49ers’ locker room. By then I had moved from sympathizer to advocate. Blame it on Machine Gun Molly.

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