I was a sports reporter for a good chunk of my life. Whenever I share that part of my past, the same question pops up.
“What about the locker room?” people ask breathlessly. “Did you ever go in?”
Well, of course I did. It’s not like I had a choice in the matter. I was a reporter on deadline. If I didn’t head into that messy inner sanctum, I would have returned to the newsroom empty handed. With no interviews, I have no story. With no story, I have no job.
Still, when I wormed my way into the sports world, way back in the early 1980s, the thought of a woman entering the locker room had barely registered on the general consciousness, even though Robin Herman, a 23-year-old reporter for the New York Times, and radio reporter Marcel St. Cyr both gained access following the NHL All-Star game in Montreal in 1975, a moment widely believed to be the first time women reporters shared the same rights as their male counterparts.
When I arrived in Phoenix, Arizona in 1988, a newly minted weekday sports reporter and weekend anchor at what was then KTSP-TV, the question of my entering the locker room became a story in and of itself.
Gene Stallings, the head coach of the NFL’s Cardinals, appeared stunned the first time he saw me in the locker room. Another reporter asked his thoughts on the occasion and Stallings was quoted as saying, “Well, I have four daughters.” His discomfiture was obvious.
I, however, tried to hide mine. I tended toward the back of the horde of reporters who would press up against those locker-room doors, intent on asking insightful questions before the players dashed away, most wanting nothing to do with scribes who might pillory them for their performances.
Once inside, I discovered reactions to my presence varied considerably. The Cardinals locker room had some players who seemed rather appalled that I might see them undressed.
“Just a minute, Anne!” quarterback Neil Lomax would call out. “Let us put our pants on.”
So, I would stand in the middle of that post-game chaos, and do my best not to stare, while waiting for the men who cared to cover up.
There were others who found no discomfort in being exposed. I remember needing an interview with a player who already had a gaggle of reporters surrounding him. I instructed my videographer, a tall man, to shoot up over the group. Then, microphone in hand, I edged my way through the mob and kneeled. When I looked up, I faced a naked man perched on the edge of a metal folding chair who quite comfortably conversed, despite his state of undress.
Suffice it to say, he was rather spectacular, by all accounts. Later, I would succumb to bouts of laughter, recalling the awed expressions displayed by my peers, no doubt brought on by a substantial amount of envy.
I faced a new challenge when the NBA season got underway. While NFL players are often exceedingly large people, basketball players are, almost uniformly, very tall. When interviewing them outside the locker room, I would often arrange myself on stairs, so as not to disappear from the video frame. But inside the locker room, I had no such option. Positioning oneself to interview naked basketball players took some delicacy.
One evening, when the Phoenix Suns were hosting the LA Lakers, I stood outside the locker room, this time at the front of the pack. I felt a rush of insecurity I would never have admitted to at the time. I had no wish to enter that noisy, sweaty realm filled with giant men, some not so happy with their on-court performances. Behind me, reporters on deadline fidgeted like cattle ready to explode from a corral. Then, the door burst open. Lakers star Magic Johnson grinned at us, that beatific smile that would become his trademark. Music blared from the locker room and Magic locked his eyes on mine. Suddenly, I was whirling in his arms, dancing before that throng of male reporters.
Our dance ended quickly. Magic nodded, the grin never ebbing, and walked through the crowd. For a moment, I was afraid to look, conscious that such behavior would be deemed unprofessional. I expected derision, since some of my peers were unaccepting of my presence in their club.
Someone laughed. I turned and was shocked to see a number of those hardened reporters grinning, genial expressions that dispelled an awkward moment. For the first time, I considered that they too might be uncomfortable entering the locker room.
We surged toward the doors, a bit more relaxed. And all it took was a short dance and big smile from a big man. And for that, Magic, I will always be grateful.
Anne Montgomery’s latest novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other? The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.