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Vol. 48, No. 4 May 2011 .pdf version
Fortunately, Tara Sullivan's Masters problems are today a rarity
By DANA O'NEIL / Third Vice-President
After more than 20 years in this business, I thought I was a wily veteran. Turns out, I'm a na๏ve greenhorn.
I thought the whole notion of women in the locker room, of women covering men's sports, was pass้. Then I read that a good friend, Tara Sullivan of the Bergen Record, was denied access at the Masters.
That it happened at Augusta National didn't stun me. If the old boys' network had a clubhouse, it would sit alongside those manicured lawns, with brandy snifters at the ready and 1957 on speed dial.
No, what stunned me was the reaction. Of ordinary people who questioned why Sullivan was trying to get into a locker room; who tried to twist her appropriate request for equal access into some sort of unequal rights issue by (wrongly) arguing that men aren't allowed in the women's locker room; and who proved that Neanderthals are neither gender specific (the person who blocked Sullivan was a woman) nor extinct.
They walk among us.
I sent out a Twitter shout out to Sullivan, offering both my support of her as a colleague and my amazement at her class in handling the situation. Within minutes, a few folks crawled out of their caves long enough to let me know neither Sullivan nor I belonged in locker rooms and for that matter, we really had no business covering sports. No, they weren't that polite.
Naturally amid the debate surrounding Sullivan's situation, the whole brouhaha between Ines Sainz and the Jets resurfaced. To me the two incidents couldn't be any more different and are emblematic of the real problem facing women reporters today.
I'd argue that most athletes, coaches and reporters don't even notice a woman in the locker room anymore.
The worst I seem to endure is that every now and again, an SID will scream, "Woman in the locker room" to the athletes inside.
For 10 seconds, I feel like an incoming hand grenade, but I move on.
That, frankly, is the good news. What happened at the Masters is news because it happens so rarely any more. The sports world is ahead of the curve here.
The bad news is the general population still is mystified about what we do for a living, how we do it and why we need to be in the locker room. (And need, not want, is the right word. I vividly remember standing in a locker room as big as my closet waiting for Jevon Kearse to turn around and talk. I was directly behind him as he put on his deodorant aerosol deodorant and thought there had to be a more dignified way to make a living.)
The reason? For every Sullivan, there's an Ines Sainz.
Did Sainz deserve to be in the Jets' locker room? Absolutely. Were the Jets wrong to mistreat her? Of course.
Should a reporter be photographed atop the shoulders of the athletes he or she covers or wearing skin tight jeans and a low-cut top while at work?
I'm gonna go with no on that one.
I am as wary as the next person of attacking the victim, of saying that somehow a person "asked" to be mistreated based on her behavior.
She didn't deserve what happened to her, but Sainz blurs the lines for a John Q. Public that isn't sure what we're doing in a locker room in the first place.
We expect lawyers to dress and behave in a dignified manner. We expect corporate execs to look and act appropriately, so why not sports reporters?
So ours is more playground than frontlines, but we're still professionals. It's important that we act like it; that we all act like it.
Heaven knows the media rooms of this country are filled with the sartorially challenged. For all the stained golf shirts, rumpled khakis and bad blazers I've witnessed among my male colleagues, I've never seen any of them prancing around in a wifebeater tank top and cutoffs.
And the fact is, if they did, it still wouldn't get as much notice as a woman. Some guys might snicker behind their notebooks, but that's about it.
We stick out in a locker room. We stick out in our profession. We have to work harder to fit in and we can't afford as many mistakes. We have Augusta-sanctioned Neanderthals blocking our way, so we have to prove even more that we belong.
Yes, that stinks, but guess what? That's reality and it's up to us to handle it with decorum and dignity, to silence the naysayers and critics by doing our jobs and doing them well.
Access to the locker room is a right, and Tara Sullivan had every right to follow her peers and do her job.
But it's also a privilege, a privilege reserved for professionals who are there to work.
So my advice is simple: When you walk into a locker room, remember your coaching clich้s and act like you've been there before.
Dana O'Neil is a national college basketball writer for espn.com.
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