Women in the Locker Room
One benefit of researching a book is discovering the myriad of stories that occur in a given period of time. This is the first in a re-occurring series of stories that I thought were interesting but just could not make it into “McKay’s Men.”
In today’s National Football League we take female reporters as a given. Most broadcast crews employ a play-by-play man, a former player or coach as color analyst and generally a woman sideline reporter.
I am pretty neutral when it comes to sideline reporters in general. I honestly feel that they add absolutely nothing to the game. NFL coaches are secretive, almost to a pathological level, so there really is no point to the position but I have no problem with them. That is unless they are absolutely horrible at the job then it becomes a painful distraction from the action on the field.
But it wasn’t always common for a woman to cover a professional football game. Gayle Sierens, an anchor for Tampa NBC affiliate WFLA was the first woman to call the play-by-play action when she broadcast a 1987 Seattle-Kansas City match-up at Arrowhead Stadium. Little was made of Sierens’ appearance other than that she seemed rather bland.
The Lisa Olsen scandal
Sierens may have not set the world on fire, but at least all she had to deal with was criticism. Lisa Olson of the Boston Herald was verbally attacked by a group of naked New England Patriots in a locker room in September of 1990. In addition to verbal assault, New England tight end Zeke Mowatt fondled himself in front of Olson as other players joined in.
The Olson scandal shocked the country and led many to reconsider the role of women in the locker room. One person who didn’t change his mind, and in fact made his case in a bold way, was future Buccaneer coach Sam Wyche. Still with the Bengals, Wyche mocked the situation by conducting a post-game press conference wrapped in a towel emblazoned with a fig leaf.
Olson’s ordeal may have been the catalyst to paving the way for women reporters of both print and electronic persuasions to gain equal footing with their male counterparts, but what many may not remember is that the debate first started to rage deep inside Tampa Stadium a decade before.
In 1979 the Ft. Myers News Press assigned Michele Himmelberg to cover the Buccaneer beat. Following the pre-season opener against the Washington Redskins, a 9-7 defeat, Himmelberg was denied access to the locker room for post-game comments.
The Bucs media relations staff had sent players out to Himmelberg for one-on-one interviews instead. Himmelberg objected, stating that she was being denied equal access to the players. The Buccaneers responded that the players felt uncomfortable with a female reporter in the locker room after the game while they were in various states of undress. Said one anonymous Buc, “Our wives would be outraged.”
In an attempt to placate both sides, owner Hugh Culverhouse announced that no reporters would be admitted in the locker room after the game. Instead players and coaches would meet with the press in a designated interview zone, separated from the locker room by a drawn curtain. Needless to say the press was not pleased, especially Himmelberg who felt she was being set up as a target of disdain among her fellow reporters.
“I have a job to do,” the reporter told the Tampa Tribune. “I am sorry to keep everybody out because that is the one thing I have been protesting. I didn’t expect this big of a hassle.” Others in the local media also reacted with outrage, stating that the new set-up would make it much more difficult for them to get interviews because there was no rule stating the players had to come to the interview area. In addition to the possibility of lacking access, having to wait for any player to show up made it more difficult for reporters to make their deadlines.
The blue curtain
The next game of the pre-season, this time a loss to the Miami Dolphins, saw the introduction of a blue curtain separating the locker room from a designated interview room. This led to some awkward situations, such as players not coming out to be interviewed and one writer being chastised for standing too close to the dividing line. The bitterness continued on the next week when the Bucs defeated the Saints 14-7 and reporters were forced to perform quickie interviews in the cordoned off area to make deadline.
The blue curtain, dubbed “The Himmelberg Wall” remained in the bowels of Tampa Stadium. As the Buccaneers raced out to a 5-0 start, the maelstrom over the curtain died down but the fabric divider remained up through the first seven home games. Only when the Buccaneers clinched the NFC Central Division championship in the season finale did the franchise open up the locker room to reporters.
Himmelberg never stopped fighting for equal access and eventually a threatened lawsuit against the Buccaneers led to the establishment of equal treatment policies from all four professional sports leagues. Himmelberg eventually co-founded the Association for Women in Sports Media. As president of the AWSM Himmelberg advocated for none other than Lisa Olson following the New England locker room fiasco.
The 1979 season was a magical one for the Buccaneers as it established them as a legitimate NFL franchise. Interestingly, it was also one of the earliest battlegrounds for women’s rights in sports coverage. It is difficult to fathom that at one time not only did a female have a hard time covering sports, but that a NFL franchise would also have a hard time coming up with an equal access policy. But that is because we take women in sports for granted today and forget that sociological changes rarely go smoothly.
The late seventies were a time when professional sports went from being a simple past time to a national phenomenon beloved by both genders. Conversely, the job of covering the sport transformed from being the domain of middle-aged white men to a profession populated by people of all backgrounds. One could argue that the Tampa Bay area was fortunate that the players, coaches, owner and media were not subjected to the criminal nonsense that would occur in Boston many years later.
It might be ironic that the first championship in Buccaneer history was covered through a blue curtain, but it did help pave the way for how the National Football League is covered today.