The year was 1979.
Michele Himmelberg is writing for the Fort Myers News-Press covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On this specific day, she is traveling to Minnesota for an away game against the Vikings. However, she learns that the Vikings are not letting any press into their locker room because of the one female sports writer: Himmelberg.
Flash forward to April of 2011 and things aren’t that much different.
On April 10, Tara Sullivan of the Bergen Record was denied access to the locker room after the final round of the Masters. Sullivan told Yahoo! Sports, “I was told women were not allowed in the locker room.” The media committee of the Master later said the incident was simply a misunderstanding.
It has been over 30 years since the Himmelberg incident and yet, things have not gotten that much better for females covering male sports.
“I don’t think it’s grown,” said Karen Crouse of the New York Times. “It’s unbelievable to look around at sporting events and see how few women are in the press boxes or press rooms.”
By the mid-80s all four major sports leagues (National Football League, National Basketball League, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball) had adapted equal access policies for the media in the locker rooms.
Getting equal access policies was a great help for female journalists. However, equal access did not turn into equal treatment.
It wouldn’t surprise anyone to hear the many horror stories for female journalists in the 1980s. Paola Boivin had a sweaty jock strap thrown at her face in the St. Louis Cardinals locker room in 1985.
In 1990 Lisa Olson of the Boston Herald had an incident in the New England Patriots locker room where players were fondling themselves and making vulgar comments at her. When news broke of the event, Patriots fans blamed Olson and sent her hate mail. Eventually, Olson fled to Australia after fans went as far as to break into her house and slash her tires.
Right after this incident, Karen Crouse, then working for the Orange County Register, had a University of Arizona football player call out to her while pointing to his phallus, “Miss! Miss! Look at this!” in the locker room. When she ignored him he called out, “What? Are we in New England?”
It was never right for these events to happen, but seeing as equal access to the locker room was not granted until the mid-80s, it is not surprising that events like this took place in 1985 and 1990.
Now, over 25 years since women were granted access to men’s locker rooms, one would think these events would be a distant memory. However, female sports journalists are still having these issues. It has not gotten better.
In 2007, Dee Karl first entered the New York Islanders locker room after the team created a press box specifically for bloggers. Karl believes she had been “tested” by the team when she first started out when she, “walked into the locker room to find a bare butt staring at me in the corner.”
“After that, nothing fazed me,” she said. “I don’t necessarily enjoy talking to a player standing in nothing but a towel, but it doesn’t effect me other than trying to make sure my recorder doesn’t get wet.”
Sarah Baicker of CSNPhilly.com was first in a men’s locker room with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009.
Baicker, who is in her mid-twenties, was born around the time women were granted access into the locker room. However, she still has to face some of the issues female reporters went through before she was even born.
“There was an incident in the Phillies’ clubhouse where one player purposefully tried to make sure I saw another player’s [phallus], just because I was the girl,” she said.
When the Phillies clinched the National League Championship Series in 2009, players ran around the clubhouse with large cans of beer and poured them on the girls, only the girls.
In this day in age, there is no reason for events like these to be happening. Women have been entering the locker room as sports journalists for over 30 years now and the players should treat them with the same respect they would treat male sports journalists.
Players aren’t the only issue female sports journalists face; they also have to deal with their male colleagues giving them trouble.
Crouse recalls from when she had her locker room incident that a columnist for the Tucson newspaper wrote an article tearing her apart. “Basically the gist of his column was that this silly little girl brought down the fine reputation of an entire University,” said Crouse.
Karl remembers that when the Islanders first were letting bloggers into the locker room after games, they let all of the male bloggers in but had her stay behind.
“Whether it was due to the fact that I was female, an older female, a female many knew as a fan and season ticket holder, or if it was a request from the coach, I’ll never know,” said Karl.
During the Philadelphia Flyers playoff run Baicker was called aside by one of the men on the Flyers beat. The sat her down and told her, “Sarah, I was really upset when you first started writing but now I realize you’re just one of the guys and I want to let you know I’m happy that you you’re here.”
“As if it were an issue or he was displeased that there was a woman around until however long he realized that I’m just one of them,” she said.
Although Baicker does consider herself ‘one of the guys,’ she admits that sometimes it can be awkward being the only female around.
“This morning, a colleague walked into the media room and greeted everyone with a, ‘Hello gentleman,’ which he paused, then corrected with, ‘Hello gentlemen and Sarah.’”
Of course, because boys will be boys there are sometimes comments made about the ice girls amongst the men in the press box. Baicker says sometimes she doesn’t even notice and other times they will say something that irritate her.
For Crouse, the treatment she gets from her male colleagues is far worse than that of the players. She recalls that when she first started out her male counterparts were always very supportive of her, but as she rose in the field she noticed a change.
“When I covered the New York Jets, I have never seen in over 25 years in the business such meanness. It was almost like being back in junior high school and you had the popular boys who were almost bullies,” she said. “The locker room sort of became my safe place because the players were so terrific in comparison.”
Women also have to deal with their male colleagues judging them on their looks. Male journalists are objectifying their female colleagues. They even have a term for it, ‘Press Box Hot.’
The idea is that when a woman enters the male dominated press box, all of the men are checking her out to determine how attractive she is. There is also a theory that because there are few women in the press box, their ‘stock rises.’
“Oh wow, that’s pretty bad,” said Pam Ward of ESPN after reading the UrbanDictionary.com definition of the term. “I think it’s a terribly degrading term.”
Jarrod Chin from the Sports in Society Center at Northeastern University agrees that male sports personalities tend to objectify female counterparts.
“I was listening to the radio the other day and they were talking about Heidi Watney from the Red Sox. They weren’t talking about her knowledge of the game. They were talking about her looks,” he said.
Women also still have the feeling that they need to do more work than their male counter part to be respected.
“I know that I do,” said Baicker. “I really need to be on top of my stuff and more confident and work harder for the same amount of credit that male colleagues might get for less work.”
Ward agrees that she is judged harsher than her male counterparts, “There are definitely instances when I’m like ‘Wow, if I had said that’”
When female sports journalists make a mistake, readers and viewers are quick to accuse them of not knowing what they are talking about because of their gender. When men make a mistake, it’s just that: a mistake. They are human.
A lot of this has to do with the stereotypes that men inherently have sports knowledge and women do not.
“For men there is an assumed credibility for reporters and they need to prove themselves not capable,” said Chin. “In reverse women are dealing with the stereotype that women are not going to be as knowledgeable as men.”
Another area where women are being mistreated as sports journalists is by their readership or viewership.
“That’s why you don’t Google yourself,” said Ward.
The Lisa Olson incident in 1990 led to a lot of backlash from Patriots fans that sent her hate mail and voice mails.
Crouse has received harsh responses about her articles her entire career ranging from complete strangers calling her the ‘c-word’ to comments saying she should go back to writing about food.
Because online journalism is so prevalent now, it has made it even easier to comment on stories or send writers messages on Facebook making it easier to leave rude and disrespectful comments.
Baicker has received comments including, “Sarah needs to go back to writing about her kids’ soccer games” and “Sarah should go back to writing about fashion and celebrities. She has no business writing about sports.”
“If [viewers] believe I say something that is inaccurate, they just kill me for it. They say I’m stupid or women don’t belong in football,” said Ward.
The women’s rights movement has come and gone and women are working in varying professions. Jobs that have been traditionally thought to be male jobs have more and more women in them.
Not sports journalism.
In the 1970s there were an estimated 30 women in sports media jobs between both newspapers and broadcasting according to the Associated Press.
In 2001 it wasn’t much better. Thirteen percent of sports departments at 50 major newspapers were made up of women, according to Leah Etling in An Uphill Climb.
In an article entitled “Feeling Much Smaller Than You Know You Are”: The Fragmented Professional Identity of Female Sports Journalists by Marie Hardin and Stacie Shain in 2006, 68 percent of 144 female journalists agreed that they faced sexual discrimination in their job. Seventeen percent strongly agreed.
In the same article, 49 percent said they disagreed that they were taken as seriously as their male counterparts and 11 percent strongly disagreed.
Finally, 56 percent agreed and 31 percent strongly agreed that female sports journalists have a tougher job than male sports journalists.
Once again, this was in 2006. Twenty-seven years after the Michele Himmelberg incident. About 20 years after all four major sports leagues officially opened their locker room doors to women journalists. Sixteen years after the Lisa Olson incident and women are still having a hard time in the profession.
Baicker is used to being the only female in the press box, “I’m going to the Flyers-Devils game on Friday and I’m going to be the one women in a room full of 20-40 men, depending on if they’re my colleagues or the team and that’s a weird situation.”
The debate over whether female journalists should be allowed in the locker room was brought back into the public spotlight after the incident with the New York Jets and TV Azteca reporter Ines Sainz in the fall of 2010.
Jets players threw footballs in Sainz’s direction during practice and catcalled at her in the locker room.
This incident led to comments by Clinton Portis of the Washington Redskins and Lance Briggs of the Chicago Bears.
Portis said on 106.7 The Fan, “You know somebody got to spark her interest, or she’s going to want somebody. I don’t know what kind of woman won’t, if you get to go and look at 53 men’s [bodies]. I know you’re doing your job, but at the same time, the same was I’m going to cut my eye if I see somebody worth talking to, I’m sure they do the same thing.”
Briggs believes women do not belong in the locker room. “The locker room is the place where us guys, us football players, we dress, we shower, we’re naked, we’re walking around and we’re bombarded by media,” he said.
This is 30 years after women were granted access to the locker room and it is still being debated.
Before locker rooms were opened to women, Lesley Visser was covering the New England Patriots for The Boston Globe. She remembers having to wait outside the parking lot for her postgame interviews.
She recalls that in 1974 the credentials for the press box had written on them “No Women or Children in the Press Box.”
A poll conducted by Seton Hall University came back with the results that 59 percent of 556 women and 47 percent of 470 men asked believe women do not belong in the locker room.
Mike McLaughlin, forward for the Northeastern University men’s hockey team, does not see a problem with women in the locker room.
“I do believe (women should be allowed in the locker room) during designated times when the team remains dressed. If it could be conducted under a professional manner there would not be a problem,” he said.
Although conditions for women in sports journalism have changed over the years, it is clear that there are still problems in the field. Players and colleagues are still disrespectful to female writers, fans still voice sexist opinions and there is still a looming debate over women in the locker room.
Much of this can be blamed on the lack of female sports journalists in the field, which is still very much male dominated. The only way the stigma of women writing about sports is for more women to pursue and be successful in the field.
“You’re going to have issues with the athletes that you cover at some point and issues with your readers,” said Baicker.
“Prove people wrong. That’s what fires me up. When I’ve been told ‘women don’t do this’ or ‘women don’t do that’ it makes me want to do it more.”