There was fan mail at first, and Valentine's Day cards, too, from a few overenthusiastic followers. People would pass game programs up to the press box asking for my autograph. The attention was embarrassing. I was the only female sportswriter covering the National Hockey League beat and I was famous, at least in the rinks.
In the early 1970s, a female sports reporter was a rare and highly visible phenomenon. We were only a handful then, and our story of pressing for postgame locker room access and workplace equity is captured in "Let Them Wear Towels," a film that premieres Tuesday night (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) as part of ESPN Films and espnW's Nine for IX documentary series marking the 40th anniversary of Title IX.
After I "broke the locker room barrier" in 1975, the fan mail receded and the hate mail started. I was "a whore," a "prostitute," a "women's libber!" Perhaps readers had previously assumed I was male. But the tumult that greeted me when I strode into the locker room after the 1975 NHL All-Star Game in Montreal -- to get postgame quotes alongside all the male reporters -- resulted in national headlines. A woman had dared join a men's profession and had breached the male athletes' exclusive lair. My action, and those of my female colleagues who opened the clubhouse doors in major league baseball, basketball and football to gain the same access as their male counterparts, became a Rorschach test amid the social tumult of the times; traditional values and practices were being challenged by the civil rights movement, the women's liberation movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. Did it look right? A woman standing in there talking to male athletes?
I left sports writing many years and several careers ago. Now I am merely a sports viewer. The times have changed, and a female byline or broadcaster is no longer an anomaly. The Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM), a group that formed 25 years ago, has close to 600 members who cover all kinds of sports, from NASCAR to international soccer to NCAA basketball to the major pro leagues. Since the 1980s, Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL have had policies in place making postgame locker room access universal for accredited reporters, male and female. And when those policies are occasionally questioned, AWSM is there to file a complaint -- as it did in April when Don Cherry, the longtime color commentator for CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada," said that women don't belong in men's locker rooms. The NHL quickly reaffirmed its open-access policy.
But instead of being happy, I am irked. I am impatient. I am talking to the TV screen. The wind is blowing on the football field; the reporter is wrapped in a scarf and her words come out in frosted puffs above the mike she is holding in a gloved hand. She is on the sideline, and the men, only men, are up in the anchor booth analyzing the action below and joking among themselves.
"On the sidelines" is a common expression in the English language; it means out of the action, out of the decision-making. Someone on the sidelines is a bystander, an observer, a person who has no agency.
If kicking open the locker room door was heavy with social meaning in the 1970s, being on the sideline of the playing field is socially significant now. We see that the top male sports broadcasters can do their work above the fray, assessing the athletes' performance in an anchor booth or TV studio, while women are almost always dealt a supplicant's role, on the field, holding a mike out for players to comment. It is a stark image amid the pageantry and layered-on patriotism of America's premier sports contests. The visual tells us that women have their place, and it's not where the influence and prestige -- and the top pay that goes with it -- can best be had.
The professionalism of the journalists is not in question here. The women who do sideline reporting for major league games are an intrepid lot: extremely knowledgeable, quick-thinking and have deep career experience. They perform under the toughest conditions, and their work deserves immense respect.
Still, the old saws are offered: Guys don't want to hear sports analysis from a woman; female voices are too high; women have never played the game so they can't really know it. These same arguments were once used to justify keeping women off the network evening news anchor desk, the most prestigious job in journalism. It was Ted Turner and his upstart CNN Headline News that led the way as Bobbie Battista took the anchor helm in 1988 and three years later was giving us hour-by-hour updates on the first Gulf War -- in a female voice.
When the networks eventually summoned the courage -- almost two decades later -- to enter bidding wars for Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer as solo evening news anchors, they were so far behind the times it became ridiculous to celebrate.
Such is the case now for major league baseball, basketball, hockey and, with its high visibility, the NFL. In 1975, a former Miss America, Phyllis George, was given a showcase stint on an NFL pregame show. More than 20 years after that gambit, a longtime sports journalist, the multitalented Lesley Visser, established several real beachheads for women -- the first on a Super Bowl broadcast (ABC, 1995) and "Monday Night Football" (ABC, 1998) and the only to handle the Super Bowl trophy presentation (CBS, 1992). She did provide TV anchor booth color commentary during a 2001 NFL preseason game, then she resumed the assignments for which she is best known: pregame sports shows, NCAA basketball tournaments and her high-profile and acclaimed NFL sideline work.
It's been many long years since that blink-of-an-eye appearance, and still the guys in their shiny suits are looking down on the game and having a great time in the anchor booth, often showering the audience with inanities and jokes. As a viewer, I've had enough.
The NFL broadcast audience is now nearly half female. We see female analysts in other sports -- in tennis and basketball and college championships. We read sports news columns written by savvy women. And, most significantly, the latest generation of women has become hardcore sports enthusiasts, having played school sports through high school and college thanks to Title IX.
"We're pumping out more and more girls, millions of girls and young women -- because of Title IX -- for whom sports is and will be a big part of their lives," said Christine Brennan, USA Today columnist and a past president of AWSM. "The idea that you've got to cater to the old guy watching sports is as dated as black-and-white TV and the rotary phone. It's the march of time. The demographic shift is coming. For the NFL, it's good business to get more women involved in their television broadcasts and on their website."
There were times in history when the sports world paved the way for social progress. But when the NFL, other major leagues and their network partners get around to promoting their first regular female anchors and play-by-play specialists, the leagues will not be greeted with plaudits. Instead they'll hear, "What took you so long?"
Robin Herman is a writer and artist, recently retired as an assistant dean at Harvard University. She was the first female sports writer at The New York Times and also wrote for The Washington Post. You can read more from her blog at www.girlinthelockerroom.com or find her on Twitter (@girlinthelocker).