Back in 2003, after a couple of years covering Allen Iverson and the 76ers for the Philadelphia Inquirer, I switched to the Eagles beat. I was pregnant, and covering an 82-game NBA season, with late nights and early-morning flights, would have been too much of a grind.
It was August. The Eagles had broken training camp at Lehigh University and were back at their practice facility in South Philadelphia. I didn't know many of the players well yet, and many didn't know me.
My strategy for approaching the locker room access period was to stand near the equipment manager's window by the entrance to the locker room and wait until I saw a player I wanted to speak with. That generally kept me away from the players' lockers and out of the line of traffic to the door to the shower.
One of my first days in there, a rookie offensive lineman walked in with a few teammates, saw me and said: "Bet you like seeing all of these swinging d---s in here, don't you?"
The guys laughed. I didn't. I had a choice: Say something, or say nothing.
The lockers to the right nearest me belonged to the defensive backs, including Brian Dawkins, Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, all established players. The lockers to the left nearest me belonged to the quarterbacks, including Donovan McNabb and A.J. Feeley.
In a raised voice, I said to the lineman: "If I wanted to see swinging d---s, I'd still be covering the Sixers."
I wasn't trying to be crude. I was trying to stand my ground. The comment prompted laughter that was louder and no longer directed at me. Players were laughing at the lineman. Vincent stood up, walked over and told the rookie that he got what he deserved, that I was welcome in the locker room and that I was to be treated with respect and dignity. And that, mercifully, was that.
On Tuesday night, I thought of Vincent and that moment while watching ESPN's Nine for IX documentary "Let Them Wear Towels," which chronicled the plight of my female predecessors in the 1970s and '80s. I've benefited immensely from the hard roads traveled by women such as Melissa Ludtke, Jane Gross, Robin Herman, Claire Smith, Michele Himmelberg and Lesley Visser, who all had to fight for the locker room access that women like me basically take for granted today.
Never have I been denied access to an NFL locker room. Never have I been escorted out of one simply because of my gender. Never has a coach told me to get lost or put a sign on the door saying, "No women allowed." I've encountered my share of issues and have my own calluses, but none are from having to fight for equal access. The women before me did that.
But we still must fight the misperception of why we want to be in a locker room or clubhouse in the first place. It isn't to see naked men. Trust me, an NFL locker room after a game is not a pretty place. It smells. It is usually hot. It is crowded. Tape and sweaty jerseys and shoulder pads litter the floor. Depending on who won the game, the players are either elated or infuriated, which can make gleaning information challenging.
Visitors locker rooms are uncomfortably cramped, particularly ones in older stadiums. And the volume of media covering every game is exponentially larger than it was even 10 years ago, so it is often difficult to even move around.
Going into the locker room after a game is by far the least appealing part of my job. I dread it. But as Smith so eloquently said in the documentary, that is where the stories are. The heartbreak. The emotion. The anger. The elation. That's where it is, not outside in some back hallway.
Sure, there will always be men who don't want women in the locker room. I've known one veteran NFL player for more than 20 years -- since he was in college -- and he tolerates women in the locker room but honestly believes we, including me, are there to look at naked bodies.
But I think more and more, because athletes have now grown up with women covering them in high school, then college, and then the pros, it is expected more than anything. The documentary said there are now more than 1,000 women covering sports in some capacity, and the number is only going to continue to grow.
Will we one day live in a society where female reporters won't have to endure an athlete saying something inappropriate? Probably not. Things are always going to be said. Boys will always be boys. There will always be the player who walks naked through the locker room to make the female reporters -- and the male reporters -- uncomfortable. Women are always going to have to have selective hearing and thick skin. The locker room is, as one longtime NFL executive often reminds me, the last bastion of male dominance.
But from my experience, I do think it's getting easier. I do think it's getting better. Women have to be accountable. They have to be professional. They can't dress provocatively or flirt or lean in too closely. They have a role and a responsibility to making the fragile ecosystem of the locker room work.
Is it a perfect arrangement? No. But it is an important one, and, by and large, it works.